Zinfandel makes jump from joke to gem

VINTAGE POINT

June 06, 1993|By Michael DresserMICHAEL DRESSER

The battle is over and zinfandel has won.

Ten years ago it was a grape variety on the road to banality, if not outright extinction. California grape growers couldn't dig up their old zinfandel vines fast enough. Vineyard land planted in anything other than chardonnay or cabernet sauvignon was "underutilized."

Like Bonny Prince Charlie escaping the English wrath, honest red zinfandel was forced to adopt a disguise in order to survive. Torn from its colorful dark skin, it produced something erroneously called "white zinfandel." It became a joke in the tasting rooms of California that tourists would reject a proferred glass of wine if it wasn't pink, asserting that they knew what zinfandel looked like and that red stuff wasn't it.

As many wineries ceased making red zinfandel, it became the specialty of a few fanatics -- Paul Draper of Ridge Vineyards, Joel Peterson of Ravenswood, Jerry Seps of Storybook Mountain.

These individuals knew what so many of their colleagues did not -- that despite their lack of French pedigree, those gnarled old zinfandel vines could produce wines that were as rich, complex and exciting as any in the world.

Their faith was religious, and the religion has spread. Wine drinkers increasingly are turning to zinfandel as an alternative to cabernet, rather than a step down. Zinfandel specialists such as Rosenblum, Nalle and Peachy Canyon now make wines that collectors seek as avidly as they once chased after rare cabernets.

So respectable has zinfandel become that Georg Riedel, the Austrian glassmaker who fashions glasses specifically tailored for the world's greatest wine varieties, has just added a zinfandel glass to his lineup of excellent products.

Regrettably, there are still many who believe red zinfandel is merely a poor man's cabernet. Admittedly, the greatest cabernets can reach levels of complexity and durability zinfandel never touches, but there are precious few of these prodigies -- and they'll cost you several semesters of tuition. For under $20, your chances of buying a truly delightful wine are much better in the zinfandel aisle than the cabernet corner.

Zinfandel's advantages aren't limited to price. They need less agingthan cabernet, and they go better with grilled foods. Seldom are their fruit flavors masked by oak. The point isn't that wine drinkers should avoid cabernet, but that they ought not choose it reflexively when such an attractive alternative exists.

Perhaps no vintage in California's history has done so much to burnish the reputation of zinfandel as 1990, which produced an abundance of classic wines. Some of these are still on the market, though most of the best have disappeared.

Little reason for complaint

The 1991 vintage, now coming on the market, is not the equal of its illustrious predecessor, but there's little reason for complaint. Judging by a dozen early arrivals, 1991 was a better-than-average vintage that will keep the good times rolling.

One winery that is clearly a zinfandel superstar is Rosenblum Cellars. So far it hasn't won the fanatic following of Ridge or Ravenswood, but word is spreading fast.

If you prefer your zinfandel structured and stylish, with rippling lean muscle and athletic grace, try Rosenblum's Contra Costa ++ County bottling. If you prefer a warm, rich, comforting wine with a silky texture, go for the Sonoma County version. If you fancy the burly bearhug of a truly massive zinfandel, the Brandlin Ranch bottling from Napa Valley's Mount Veeder district might be just the ticket. Any of these 1991 Rosenblums are excellent.

(If you want to try a truly exceptional zinfandel that synthesizes the best of all three, look for the celestial 1990 Rosenblum Vintner's Reserve from the George Hendry Vineyard. Move quickly, though. It's going fast.)

From its 90 acres of old zinfandel vines in Sonoma County, De Loach Vineyards is making an increasingly impressive array of concentrated, flavorful red wines. The most impressive of its 1991s is from the Papera Ranch ($15.69), but the Sonoma County-Russian River Valley bottling is only a step behind. Unfortunately, a third De Loach zinfandel, from the Barbieri Ranch ($15.69), lacks the lashing of acidity that gives the other two wines their intensity.

No shy bunny of a wine is the 1991 Rabbit Ridge Zinfandel ($10.99) from the Cry Creek Valley. This is a sinewy, intense wine with an appealing spiciness.

A great mouthful

Perhaps the most unusual of the dozen 1991s tasted was the Coturri ($14), an unfiltered, organically grown Sonoma Valley bruiser that weighed in at a whopping 15.2 percent alcohol. How it manages to stay in balance is perplexing, but it does. The wine is like a concentrated blackberry essence -- vintage port without the sweetness. It could be a puzzle to pair with food, but it's a great mouthful.

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