High-strutting zins show regional variation Wine: In general, Napa's product is elegant, and Sonoma's is powerful.

November 09, 1997|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN WINE CRITIC

There was a time, not long ago, when red zinfandel -- the only kind that matters -- had few pretensions. It was just a hearty California red wine that cost less and was ready to drink earlier than cabernet sauvignon.

But zinfandel has gone uptown in a big way. Once it was commonplace to find excellent zins for under $10. Now it could require the services of a Sam Spade to find such a wine. Many producers whose wines sold for $10-$12 a few years ago are now flirting with $20.

At these prices, you have every reason to be picky. Not only are you entitled to a high-quality wine, but you also should be able to find a wine that succeeds in the style you prefer. Where it's grown makes a big difference.

If you go down the zinfandel aisle of a good wine store today, you will notice that many of the wines carry a geographic name -- Napa Valley, Sonoma Valley, Amador, Contra Costa County, to name a few.

The geographical differences among zinfandels can be at least as striking as those found among the classic wines of France.

An example of the powerful influence of geography came in a recent comparative tasting of zinfandels made from Napa County and Sonoma County grapes by some of the state's top producers. In six flights, a zinfandel from Sonoma or one of its sub-regions (Dry Creek Valley or Russian River Valley, for instance) was tasted side by side with with a Napa wine.

The results clearly indicated there is such as thing as a Sonoma style and a Napa style. They also suggest that Sonoma offers more consistent quality.

In general, if you prefer a powerful zinfandel with ripe, round, blackberry fruit, not-so-subtle hints of black pepper and herbs, and heady levels of alcohol, Sonoma is the place for you.

If you prefer a red that depends somewhat less on power and more on elegance, with more of a high-toned purity of fruit than a gamy earthiness, a Napa zin is likely your cup of tea,

Caveats are in order. Zinfandel, whether from Napa or Sonoma, is still zinfandel. It won't mimic a Margaux or a Barolo. And it is entirely possible to find a big, gamy Napa zinfandel and a graceful, elegant zin from Sonoma.

Flight 1

1995 Rosenblum Napa Valley Zinfandel ($20) and Ridge Sonoma Station Zinfandel ($19). The ripe, elegant Rosenblum displays intensely pure blackberry and blueberry fruit, with nuances of chocolate and coffee. The Ridge is a super-concentrated wine with flavors reminiscent of vintage port without the sweetness. The oversized fruit and meaty, herbal notes aren't likely to appeal to delicate Euro-palates, but if you like a real muscle wine (and I do), the Ridge is a knockout. (Tie)

Flight 2

1994 Robert Mondavi Napa Valley Zinfandel ($17) and 1994 Peterson Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel ($10.49). Robert Mondavi, which had dropped out of the zinfandel business for more than a decade, is clearly struggling to find its way back. This short, one-dimensional wine seems to have had more than its share of exposure to oak. The result is rather sharp and not characteristic of zin. The attractively priced Peterson, by contrast, displays penetrating black cherry and black pepper flavors, with Rhone-like blackberry notes and a racy acidity. (Advantage Sonoma)

Flight 3

1994 Chateau Montelena Napa Valley Zinfandel ($15) and 1995 Ravenswood Sonoma County Old Vine Zinfandel ($18.49). The Montelena is a terrific expression of the elegant Napa Valley style of zinfandel. It's a medium- to full-bodied wine with hints of blackberry, chocolate and herbs. The Ravenswood is a blockbuster, loaded with intense flavors of cassis, blueberry, black pepper, herbs and smoked meat. (Advantage Sonoma)

Flight 4

1995 Murphy-Goode Sonoma County Zinfandel ($19) and 1994 Storybook Mountain Napa Estate Zinfandel, Mayacamas Range ($16). The Murphy-Goode is a heady wine with lush wild-berry fruit, a strong note of black pepper and a rounded, supple feel. The Storybook is harsh and astringent, as if someone had tried to stuff a rounded zinfandel into a square cabernet box. (Advantage Sonoma)

Flight 5

1995 Ravenswood Wood Road Belloni Russian River Valley ($29) Zinfandel and 1995 Ravenswood Dickerson Napa Valley Zinfandel ($27). Both wines, which normally rank among California's best, were bitterly disappointing in 1995. The Wood Road was curiously ungenerous and hard-edged; the Dickerson rough and tannic. Of the two, the Dickerson offers more fruit, but neither is impressive. (Advantage Napa)

Flight 6

1994 Villa Mount Eden Sonoma Valley Zinfandel, Monte Rosso Vineyard ($20) and 1995 Frog's Leap Napa Valley Zinfandel ($20). The rough and ready Villa Mount Eden, with its black pepper flavors and mix of rusticity and com- plexity, leapfrogs its rival in quality. The Frog's Leap is an elegant, polite zinfandel, but lacks a certain intensity. (Advantage Sonoma)

Pub Date: 11/09/97

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