Years ago I began exploring the belief that zinfandel might be the varietal to become one of the great red wines of the world, in step with pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon.
For years I collected zinfandels from Ridge Vineyards after becoming acquainted with Paul Draper, the winemaker, who told me, "your idea is noble but you must strive for claret-style zins of elegance and proportion and not the high powered and late-harvest types."
Now, in all fairness, I've tried all types, seeing if they would age to greatness ... But zinfandel needs to overcome its reputation for unrefinement.
A new friend has the drinking philosophy that higher alcohol levels make a wine better or will "live forever." There was also a time about 30 years ago when I thought that chardonnays had to have 14 to 16 percent alcohol and enough oak to hold a buttery vanilla taste.
Fortunately, as the years passed, my judgment became the opposite, from high alcohol with residual sugar to "smaller" wines with lower alcohol and dry fermentation. My conversation with the winemaker of Ridge Vineyards at last made sense, due to zinfandel's split personality of "claret" type, dry and tannic; young pleasing rose; late-harvest sweet styles, invariably heady ... And then there's white zinfandel.
Thankfully, that period is over. The question for zinfandel is - will higher alcohol make a great wine? I'm a claret-style zinfandel lover all the way. Supposedly it has to do with a lifestyle with wine and how it should taste. My French father-in-law told me that the first duty of a wine is to be red - he meant, I think, that all white wines would be red if they could - and to be moderate in alcohol like the wines of Burgundy and Bordeaux.
Zinfandel by its very nature will always have higher alcohol in order to develop fruity flavors, and this is why there is a following that enjoys 14, 15, 16 percent alcoholic zins. This is why it is called Big! Huge! Blockbuster! A Monster! These words refer to how your head will feel the next morning; that is, the "wine packs a punch." For me, this is not an attraction for the family table.
I shy away from wine with high alcohol ratings ... besides, a wine that potent can be a food quagmire, even for heavy rich foods. In all fairness, there are a few high-power zinfandels that wear their size well and can be wonderful with Thai and Tex-Mex dishes. But, one must be well aware of the Department of Motor Vehicles laws and why there should always be a designated driver. Another serious consideration to think about - 16 percent alcohol wine has nearly 20 percent more alcohol than one with 14 percent.
As for my family table, the logic is clear - a wine must have the right structure to pair with a meal. When it comes to zinfandel, it must be a claret-style of 12 to 121Ú2 percent alcohols, be exquisitely dry, and outrageously drinkable with wonderful tannins and balance. Somewhere I read, "a well-balanced meal must have wine, but the wine has to be well-balanced to accompany a meal."
There are wonderful zinfandel wines in Nevada County of all types, but some lack the elegant factor and are therefore repel many. As yet, there is no standard of what a great zinfandel should be. All the components are there for a great wine. Let's see what the future brings and from which California county will this greatness come. It's your table. Choose wisely!
Norm Gates can be reached at winegate@ earthlink.net