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Zinfandel: star player

Sommeliers in the UK tend to overlook it, but there are some fine examples of Zinfandel, especially at mid-range price points.

Some grape varieties just seem to have a PR problem. While larger-than-life Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, blandly unobjectionable Pinot Grigio and hallowed Pinot Noir can apparently do no wrong, it’s open season on jokes about Pinotage and Zinfandel. Admittedly, the worst examples of both these strong characters can be particularly unpalatable, but in Zinfandel’s Californian homeland, producers are understandably fed up with their USP being written off so glibly.

Describing this reputation as “completely unfair”, Bill Smart, director of communications at Dry Creek Vineyard in Sonoma, nevetheless feels producers have only themselves to blame. “We have allowed the media to tell us that Zin is high in alcohol and overripe,” he remarks. A failure to correct this image has raised commercial hurdles within the trade, as Smart reports: “The unfair bias against Zinfandel has soured many sommeliers from putting Zinfandel on their wine lists.”

Turn to the UK market and the problem is if anything exacerbated by the more limited range of Zinfandel styles available on the shelves and California’s much documented difficulty in matching other parts of the world on price. John McLaren, UK director of the Wine Institute of California, outlines a key challenge for the variety, pointing out: “If you look at the supermarket shelves, you’ll see seven or eight New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs and one token Zinfandel. Ravenswood is a very good example, but people think that’s it covered, they don’t show all the other styles of Zinfandel.”

In a bid to challenge the UK trade’s perceptions about what is, after all, California’s third most planted grape variety after Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, the Wine Institute’s annual tasting next February will feature a seminar by the Zinfandel Advocates and Producers (ZAP).

If Ravenswood is used as the one-stop shop for Zinfandel in the UK mid-market, at the top end the variety tends to fall back on another single producer, but again, an excellent standard bearer: Ridge. Described by Alex Hunt MW, purchasing director at Berkmann Wine Cellars, as “one of the most iconic wines of California”, the company’s Geyserville Zinfandel shows off what the variety can achieve as part of a blend.

Ridge president, Mark Vernon, divides blended Zinfandel into two broad camps: the Geyserville-style old field blends with varieties such as Petite Sirah and Carignane (as it is known in the US), and the more recent creations which have emerged in the last decade, where Zinfandel is combined with the higher-profile Syrah or Cabernet Sauvignon. Despite acknowledging the “commercial success” of these modern blends, Vernon maintains: “Old vineyards that contain these ‘heritage’ varieties mixed with Zinfandel have some of the longest track records of success in California.”

This view is shared by Joel Peterson, founder and chief winemaker at Ravenswood. Calling the field blend “the traditional wine of California”, he believes that it “makes wines of greater complexity, greater staying power, a consistency of quality from vintage to vintage, and true site typicity that Zinfandel alone rarely achieves”. The theory seems to be catching on: according to Dave Pramuk, cofounder of Robert Biale vineyards, “The old California field blends, i.e. Petite Sirah, Carignane, Alicante Bouschet and Mataro, are gaining more interest and appreciation among Zinfandel devotees.”

Over in the UK, Hunt is also a fan of this approach for Zinfandel, saying: “I prefer that field blend to the varietally labelled wines.” Certainly Zinfandel’s strong personality can lend great character to a blend, while the presence of other varieties can help balance these traits with complementary qualities. “Its trump card is that it can produce a very big, fruity style without losing freshness,” remarks Hunt of the variety, adding: “It does that better than Cabernet.”

On the other hand, he warns: “I do think there’s a tendency to overwork it. Zinfandel can easily stray into a caricature style.” Calling on some producers to “back off on the winemaking”, Hunt notes: “Our mission is very much to promote wines with an elegant streak. If more wineries followed that path, we’d have an easier time of it.”

Another, very different Zinfandel blend has also made a big impact on the UK this year. In February, Gallo launched its Summer Red, a 10.5% abv blend of Zinfandel and Pinot Noir, which was designed to be served chilled. “It’s really exceeding our expectations,” reports Bill Roberts, Gallo’s EMEA general manager. “We felt there was an opportunity for a red wine that acted more like a rosé.” In particular, Roberts highlighted the new customers being brought into the wine category by this product development, observing: “There’s a big consumer group looking for a sweeter-style red wine.” More generally, he described Zinfandel as “very strategic” to the brand’s portfolio, praising its ability to make “a little bolder, slightly more intense red wine with hints of berry and spice.”

As for the idea that the variety needs to work on its reputation, Roberts seems unconcerned, commenting: “I don’t know whether it’s an image problem or just a lack of awareness, but within Europe it’s one of our better sellers.”

So in terms of price, where’s the sweet spot for this variety? According to wine consultant Chuck Cramer, who represents a number of Californian wineries in the UK, Zinfandel is an ideal candidate to fill California’s mid-price gap in this market. “£10-£20 is the ideal range to pick up on the regional difference and subtle nuances of this grape variety,” he argues. Indeed, Cramer points to promising signs of progress at this level, flagging up Berry Bros & Rudd’s launch this month of the Kenwood Sonoma Series Zinfandel, as well as Waitrose’s Brazin listing, a wine he describes as “a solid representation of what can be achieved in the Sierra Foothills”.

Further highlighting the stylistic variety offered by Zinfandel in different regions, Cramer observes: “Dry Creek in Sonoma, for example, produces powerful wines that show wonderful complexity and are well structured. Lodi, on the other hand, makes some fabulous Zins that are more fruit forward with easy drinking tannins.”

Meanwhile Paso Robles is also showing off some strong examples, from Peachy Canyon’s good value “Incredible Red” Zinfandel to Cypher Winery’s “Anarchy”, which shows how well Zinfandel can perform as part of one of the Rhône blends that are rapidly emerging as a hallmark of this region. Josh Beckett, winemaker at Peachy Canyon, claims that the sheer variety of Zinfandel expressions coming out of Paso, from “hot and spicy to ripe and acidic and pink to black” sets this AVA apart from the rest of California. As for Zinfandel’s results as part of a Rhône blend, he forecasts: “I think you are going to see more of it in the near future.”

Nevertheless, for all the variety’s value and variety up to the £30 UK retail mark, Cramer finds that for “anything above that price point, one would opt for a Cab which has better ageing potential”. This view is shared by Matt Harris, co-owner of London-based wine bar chain Planet of the Grapes, who finds: “The more serious end of it is the hardest sell, but we’re finding there are cheaper, good value styles which are selling really well.” In particular, he points to a potential opening, not just for Zinfandel, but California as a whole, saying: “There’s an opportunity to sell more with the Australian dollar like it is right now. An AU$10-a-bottle wine is creeping up to AU$15, so there’s an opportunity for Californian producers to get in there and show there’s more than just Ravenswood.”

For those looking to expand their high quality Californian offering, the good news is that while £30 might not buy you superstar Napa Cabernets or Sonoma Pinot Noir, it is a ceiling which comfortably contains a number of the state’s most prestigious Zinfandels, including Seghesio and, yes, Ridge. It also encompasses the Zinfandel produced by Napa’s Chateau Montelena, which was taken by Bancroft Wine earlier this year. Rob Allen, responsible for the company’s London trade sales remarks: “Montelena Zinfandel is not your typical Zin and is not what people expect from the grape. It is very elegant, lighter in style and refined. This has worked well in high-end restaurants, especially steak restaurants.” Nevertheless, he accepts: “The perception of the grape is still that it is less serious than Cab or Pinot and people are not willing to pay as much for it.”

It is also the restaurants, particularly “the fantastic phenomenon of the US steakhouses here”, that McLaren is particularly keen to win over. “We need to do more with Zinfandel as a food accompaniment,” he accepts, adding: “There are lighter styles that are perfect with other dishes, not just steak.”

Rather fittingly for a variety whose identity is so closely tied to California, Zinfandel manages to encapsulate much of what makes the state both so attractive and so off-putting for the UK market. On the one hand there is its ripe, generous and immediately accessible style; on the other is a susceptibility to taking this naturally hedonistic character to an unpalatable, caricatured extreme. However, for a diligent buyer this stereotype is increasingly easy to avoid. Add to this quality the fact that the variety has largely escaped the inflationary cult status of some of the state’s other grapes and it becomes clear that, far from being a joke, Zinfandel is one of the most important players on California’s bench.

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