Zinfandel's charm is gaining respect


September 13, 1992|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Staff Writer

California cabernet sauvignon commands respect the wide world over. Zinfandel is merely loved.

For sheer complexity and aging potential, even the mosdevoted zinfandel devotee must admit that cabernet, the noble grape of Bordeaux, is California's pre-eminent red wine.

But in caring hands, the humble zinfandel produces magnificent red wine. Unlike cabernet, the fruit is generally upfront and there is little mouth-drying tannin. A well-made zinfandel might not age as gracefully over the decades as cabernet, but from its release until about the age of 6, it generally displays more flavor and charm and just as much complexity.

Another part of zinfandel's charm is the type of person who idrawn to making it. Winemakers who love zinfandel are not those who crave celebrity status or approval from the French. They tend to be mavericks, independent thinkers, ornery cusses who happen to have a passion for flavor.

And thanks to a nasty little bug that's chewing its way througthe vineyards of California, the 1990s could be their decade.

Phylloxera, the pest that almost destroyed the world winindustry in the 19th century, is in the news again. The voracious louse, which preys on the roots of vulnerable vines and eventually kills the plant, will force the large-scale replanting of 11 most of the best vineyards in California.

That is happening because of a gargantuan mistake -- the wine industry's equivalent of savings and loan deregulation.

Simply put, the way to stop phylloxera is to graft Vitis vinifera, the grape species that produces the best wines, onto the roots of hardy native American species. Late last century, the idea saved the vineyards of California as well as Europe.

The problem is, starting about 1958, virtually the entire Californiindustry fell under the delusion that a certain rootstock, AxR #1, was resistant to phylloxera. It gave big yields, so growers loved it, and it became the most popular rootstock in the state.

The problem was, it wasn't resistant enough. A new strain ophylloxera came along that thought AxR was just yummy. Now the California wine industry is trying to tally up how many hundreds of millions it's going to have to spend on tearing out vineyards.

It's a disaster, but it's less calamitous for zinfandel than othevarieties.

That's because much of the best zinfandel acreage was planteon St. George rootstock long before AxR became the rage. At the time of the California wine boom of the 1960s and 1970s, everybody was planting cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay. That's what they're ripping out today.

Happy winegrowers

Thus, some of the happiest winegrowers in California today arthe folks who are sitting there with 50-year-old or even 100-year-old vineyards of gnarled zinfandel vines.

Cabernet and chardonnay production is not going to halt in ittracks. Winegrowers will replant gradually and never go entirely out of production. Still, by the end of the decade a lot of acclaimed 25-year-old cabernet vines will be gone, replaced by 4-year-old vines on resistant rootstock.

California winemakers will deny it, but the overall quality of thwine from these vineyards will likely experience several years of decline until the average age of the vineyard increases.

"A vine doesn't reach maturity and some kind of balance until it'7 or 8 years old," said Doug Nalle, the owner-winemaker at Nalle Winery and a zinfandel specialist whose vines are grafted onto St. George rootstock.

More recent plantings of zinfandel will have to be replaced toobut these will largely be vines that were planted to take advantage of the white zinfandel boom. The best zinfandel vineyards, which never produced a wine that wasn't deep purple, will take hardly any notice of the plague.

Thus, by the end of the 1990s, cabernet might be at a low ebb aa time when zinfandel is better than ever. Don't be surprised if the best California zinfandels begin to command the astronomical, $50-plus prices the best cabernets fetch today. For instance, Dickerson Vineyard zinfandel might well be more acclaimed than Opus 1.

PD The price escalation will be a shame, but the recognition is longoverdue.

Zinfandel is grown in almost every growing area of Californiafrom the Central Valley to Mendocino County, and it expresses its region of origin much more than many other red grapes.

Zinfandels from the Napa Valley floor tend to be elegant and tbear a close resemblance to cabernet sauvignon. The mountains of Napa County, especially Howell Mountain, produce more burly wines with plenty of tannin and hints of coffee.

Amador County, in the Sierra Foothills, tends to produce big, alcoholic wines with a lot of tannin and a big dollop of chocolate. Central Valley zinfandels tend to be washed-out and tinny.

Easily the greatest location for zinfandel is Sonoma Countyparticularly in the Dry Creek and Russian River valleys. Here the zinfandel grapes develop magnificent, chewy fruit, with an almost exotic black cherry-blackberry quality and lots of spice.

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