The true lineage of the Zinfandel grape remains a controversial mystery in wine snob circles. The reigning argument says it originally sprang from an ancient Italian grape called Primitivo, brought over to California by Italian immigrants questing for gold. Another theory points to a similar path but with Yugoslavian heritage. Then there are wishful optimists who insist Zinfandel is a native American grape, and gold seekers discovered it while panning for pay dirt. Whatever the genealogy, it's a blessing we have it at all. From the late 19th century, the grape endured years of neglect and scorn before it was reincarnated as a blush wine in the late 20th century. It now appears in dry reds as well as dessert wines and ports.
The Zin rebirth began in the 1980s, when the humble red grape finally got noticed. Bob Trinchero of Sutter Home made the grape famous by creating a sweet rose wine, and called it White Zinfandel. Thus the Zinfandel name was introduced into American culture, but unfortunately came to be unpleasantly equated with sweetness in most wine drinkers minds. The 1990s saw a resurgence in the popularity of Zinfandel, this time as a dry red wine. Pioneer wineries such as Ravenswood and Ridge began releasing complex, full-bodied reds -- a far cry from their sweet blushing cousins.
Like Americans, Zins vary in personality from light and flirty to robust and full-bodied. By definition, Zinfandels are heavier than Merlots but not as tannic as Cabernet Sauvignon. Many "bigger" (deep tannins and flavor) Zins are amenable to aging, capable of improving with a few years of lying on their side. But most of them are fine for guzzling as soon as you hit the door. Here are seven examples of the best Zinfandels I uncovered, judged for both their quality and value. Deadly and downright fabulous, these wines can turn the stodgiest of snobs into a gluttonous fool.
Renwood 1999 Zinfandel California Sierra Series ($12) 1/2 : Mmm, mmm, good. Juicy raspberry, with full-bodied charm. You'll fall in love (or lust) immediately, especially at this dirt-cheap price.
Alexander Valley 1999 Sin Zin ($20) 1/2: This wine needs some time to open up in the glass, but when it does, you'll be wanting more. Peppery, with hints of blackberry juices flowing.
Rosenblum Cellars Vintner's Cuvee ($14) : The lack of vintage doesn't hurt this wine one bit. Award winning, and rightfully so, this wine is full of cherry, but also has some tannins for the full-bodied wine fan.
Ridge Lytton Station 1999 Zinfandel ($24) 1/2: Ridge blends a host of different Zinfully decadent wine personalities. Their Lytton Station, not to be confused with Lytton Springs, is a great food wine with smooth tannins, featuring raspberry that lingers the whole sip. Kinda expensive but worth every cent.
Cline 1999 California Zinfandel ($15) : I practically worship at Cline's doors, and would commit a host of sins in deference to their wines. Initially, this Zin has a serious raisin thing going on, but opens up into berries and smooth acidity.
Ballentine 1999 Zinfandel ($15) : Smooth and easy. You'll covet this bottle. Chock full of cherry preserves and a bit of balanced oak, grab this one and hold tight.
Bogle 1999 Old Vines Zinfandel ($13) 1/2: Bogle is one of those enviously consistent wineries for both quality and value. Their Zin is a perfect example. A wash of flavors such as plum, dried cranberry and black pepper overtake your mouth, leaving you amazed you paid so little.
Taylor Eason is a regionally based wino who studied the juice in France and Italy. Comments? E-mail corkscrew@ creativeloafing.com or call 1-800-341-LOAF.
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