California’s Zinfandels are returning to a less alcoholic and more balanced style, prompted by a run of cooler vintages, believes the region’s most prominent producer of the grape.
Joel Peterson is senior vice president at Constellation Wines US and former president of Zinfandel Advocates and Producers (ZAP)
Following a Zinfandel tasting as part of last October’s California Wine Summit, Joel Peterson, known as “the godfather of Zin”, spoke to db about the stylistic evolution of the variety during his career in the wine industry, which spans more than 30 years.
In particular, he recorded a “return to a balanced, vineyard appropriate approach” after a period during the last decade when producers were making wines that were only “good for getting drunk”.
Charting the grape’s history over his life, Peterson said that the Zinfandel he experienced in the 70s was primarily “a jug style wine”, which was usually aged in large Redwood containers giving a soft, slightly brown result.
This was followed by a more “European” type of Zin with 12.5% to 14% abv, more oak, particularly French oak, and “balance”.
However, in the late 70s, Amador County spearheaded a different approach, picking Zinfandels late and making wines which had as much as 16% abv, some residual sugar, and lots of colour and tannin, according to Peterson.
Such wines were collected, but after cellaring, Peterson noted that consumers found that the Zins “fell apart and became hollow tannic shells”.
This prompted a focus on producers such as Ravenswood or Ridge, who “had carried the middle ground with moderate oak and an abv around 14%”.
Nevertheless, the era of high alcohol Zins came back in 1996 – the year when wine critic Robert Parker awarded 100 points to the 1994 Turley Zin from the Hayne Vineyard.
Joel Peterson is founding winemaker at Ravenswood
Unlike the wines from that producer today, Turley’s Zin from 1994 had lots of oak, alcohol and some residual sugar according to Peterson, and, because Parker rewarded such a wine with a perfect score, other producers believed they could achieve a similar accolade if they made “fruit bombs”.
“This led to Zins with a boring sameness that were no good for food,” he recorded.
But, since the 2009 vintage, Peterson has noticed a “shift” from such a style for two main reasons.
One of these has been the weather: “2010 and 2011 were god’s message to Zin winemakers that he wanted lower alcohol in the wines, and 2009 wasn’t a hugely warm year either,” he said.
The other reason has been a “new generation” of winemakers who “realised that zin does not have to be sweet, oaky and alcoholic to be good.”
Having said that, Peterson still recorded the existence of extremely ripe and high alcohol Zins, listing brands such as The Prisoner or examples from Michael David Winery, in particular 7 Deadly Zins.
These wines “are thriving”, he said, stressing the high level of demand for such a style.
During the tasting earlier that day, Peterson also corrected a couple of misconceptions about Zinfandel.
The Prisoner is a Zinfandel blend with Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Petite Sirah, Charbono, and Grenache
Firstly, in contrast to a widespread sense that Zin must be drunk young, he stated that the grape can produce age-worthy wines. “Zin can age very well… but it has to be made with ageing in mind.”
Continuing he said, “Zin with the right balance of colour, acid and tannin will age and evolve into something more interesting,” before commenting that, for example, he would find no difficulty finding Bordeaux which had fallen apart because it was not designed for cellaring.
Secondly, despite the poor reputation of US oak barrels, he stressed that American oak can be used in the production of extremely high quality Zinfandel.
“The first American oak barrels were raw, and sawn – not split like French oak – and this gave the wine a lot of oak, destroying the subtleties, but the American oak made today by a cooper like Canton is much more subtle,” he commented.
And while Peterson said he uses French oak, he reminded attendees of the seminar that Ridge use American, and you can read more about head winemaker Paul Draper’s reasons for that here.
As a consequence, he stated, “Some of the best Zins are made with French oak, but there are also superstars made with American oak… it’s about how you let the oak character influence the wine.”
Zin “Superstars” such Ridge Geyserville are aged in American oak
Indeed, he added, “One of the problems with American oak is that it has created a lot of wines in California that taste like they come from a forest, not a vineyard.”
Finally, Peterson also encouraged tasters to consider Zinfandel as a uniquely Californian wine.
“If you drink Cabernet, Chardonnay or Pinot from California, you are drinking wines with a reference to Europe and the standard set by Bordeaux or Burgundy, but if you drink Zin you are drinking a wine that is really the essence of California; there is no reference point,” he said, pointing out that Italy’s Primitivo grape* is in fact “very different and grown in a very different climate”.
Furthermore, Zinfandel’s “flavour profile is regionally based: it is the most expressive of terroir of any grape grown in California. And, because it has a much wider [climatic] range than Cabernet or Pinot, Zin will be the last vine left standing when climate change takes effect.”
* According to Wine Grapes, Croatia’s Tribidrag grape is the oldest known name for Zinfandel in California, which is also called Primitivo in Italy’s Puglia.
You can more about the challenges and opportunities for Californian Zinfandel here.