First published in The Irish Times, Saturday 2nd September, 2017
‘Here lies the last wimpy wine, RIP.’ is emblazoned on the stone as you enter Ravenswood winery in Sonoma, California. The motto “No Wimpy Wines” has become part of the folklore surrounding founder Joel Peterson and his winery.
Ravenswood made its name producing big, no-nonsense, full-flavoured wines. At a time when Zinfandel was shunned by many producers in favour of trendy Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, Peterson and a few others began sourcing fruit from some of the oldest dry-farmed, pre-Prohibition vineyards in California. The results were spectacular.
I met Peterson at a tasting in the winery, along with David Gates of Ridge Winery and other leading lights of Californian Zinfandel, where we tasted a range going back to the early 1990s from Ravenswood, Ridge and others. There were some brilliant mature wines.
Range of strengths
Zinfandel is something of a chameleon, producing anything from watery sweet rosé wines to full-bodied powerful reds. It all depends where it is grown, and how you treat it. I tasted wines going from 13.5 per cent all the way up to a whopping 17 per cent alcohol. No wimpy wines indeed!
Treated with distain for many years, it was used primarily to produce massive quantities of grapes destined for cheap “White Zinfandel”. Producer Ted Seghesio began by supplying Gallo with no fewer than three harvests of Zinfandel annually (from the same vines) before switching to much lower yields – and much better wine. Peterson and Gates had just returned from a Zinfandel Conference in its original home of Croatia. It is one of the oldest varieties in the world, and probably came to California via Italy. In Europe it goes under the names Tribidrag, Pribidrag, Crljenak kaštelanski, Kratošija and Primitivo.
Lodi, to the east of San Francisco, has some of the oldest Zinfandel vines, and has been making a reputation for big powerful smooth wines often with a touch of smoked bacon. Sonoma Zins tend to be lighter and fresher, while those from Amador County are among the most powerful of all.
Zinfandel is generally matched with red meats, and it does go really well with steak and barbecued meats of all description, particularly those with a bit of spice. However, I have enjoyed it with pasta and tomato bakes, including lasagna, and braised meats. After our tasting, we enjoyed spicy Zinfandel with a range of outstanding Mexican foods, a brilliant match.
If you fancy trying out some Zinfandels, and many other Californian wines, then the California Wine Institute will be holding a massive wine fair (with over 500 wines as well as a host of Irish importers and Californian Vintners) in the Shelbourne Hotel from 6.30pm-8.00pm on September 28th. Tickets are €10, available from Thetaste.ie
Intrigo Primitivo 2015, Puglia, Italy, 13%, €11.99
Italian Zinfandel – a warm, easy-drinking version with supple sweet damson fruits. Stockists: SuperValu
Cline Zinfandel 2013, Lodi, California, €18.50
Ripe smooth rounded cherry fruits with a twist of vanilla spice. Blackrock Cellars, Whelehans Wines, Corskscrew and jnwine.com
Ravenswood Old Vine Zinfandel 2011, Lodi, California, 14.5%, €20
Medium to full-bodied with soft lush dark fruits. Perfect with barbequed steak. Stockists: McHughs, Whelehan wines, Donnybrook Fair, La Touche
Ridge Zinfandel 2014, Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma County, California, 14.5%, €34
Delicious powerful savoury sweet dark fruits, some spice, and well-integrated tannins. Nice wine. Stockists: Blackrock Cellars, Donnybrook Fair, Thomas Woodberry’s Galway, Baggot Street Wines, Whelehans Wines and jnwine.com