To most people who have a serious interest in California wine, the names of the Napa Valley and Sonoma County are more than just familiar. They are almost synonymous with Wine Country.
But if you have a little more space in your wine memory banks, you might just want to save a little of it for Contra Costa County, Amador County and Paso Robles.
Like Sonoma and Napa, these three far-flung regions are important growing regions for zinfandel -- that most American of the world's great red wines.
And like the more famous wine regions, each leaves its own imprint on zinfandel -- a grape that is every bit as sensitive to geographical differences as chardonnay, riesling or pinot noir.
Tasting zinfandels from the various growing regions of California is an excellent way to appreciate the vastness of the Golden State. And one could choose no better time to appreciate zinfandel than now, with the winter's chill about to set in and holiday feasts at hand.
In fact, past tasting experience has shown that red zinfandel -- strange though it might seem -- is an excellent companion to a Thanksgiving turkey dinner.
In past vintages, I might have reflexively stocked in some fine Sonoma County zinfandels for the feast, but this year there's going to be another strong contender -- Contra Costa County.
One of California's smallest and oldest wine-growing regions, Contra Costa County lies east of the San Francisco Bay on the fringes of the metropolitan area.
Grape for grape, it's probably the finest zinfandel region outside Sonoma and Napa -- and I'm not at all sure it doesn't eclipse Napa.
As much as any zinfandels in California, the better ones from Contra Costa synthesize concentration and elegance. Sonoma produces muscular wines; the Napa Valley yields a more genteel style of red wine. Contra Costa falls right about in the middle.
Amador, on the other hand, is the place to go if you're a devotee of big, meaty, rustic zinfandels. There are exceptions, but these wines from the Sierra foothills tend to be more tannic than their flatlander cousins. Intense flavors of chocolate and coffee are common.
The Paso Robles growing region, in San Luis Obispo County, tends to produce a rather fruity, very aromatic zinfandel with more acidity than those produced in the North Coast growing regions. These are relatively cool-climate Central Coast wines that might not appeal to the devotees of "monster zins" from Amador or Sonoma.
In rough order of preference, these were the best of our recent zinfandel tastings:
* 1995 Cline Big Break Zinfandel, Contra Costa County ($22). A nearly perfect balance of richness and elegance makes this an exceptional candidate for the centerpiece wine in your holiday feast. It offers deep flavors of smoked meat, coffee, chocolate, herbes de Provence and concentrated blackberry. And while it has much in common with a big Sonoma zin, there seems to be a bit more structure and acidity in this complex, intensely flavorful wine.
Unfortunately another single-vineyard Cline, the 1995 Bridgehead, had a damaged cork that let the wine dry out.
* 1995 Rosenblum Vineyards Contra Costa County Zinfandel ($18). While overshadowed by the Big Break's sheer mass, this delightful zinfandel displayed an admirable gracefulness for a full-bodied red wine. The black cherry and black currant flavors, with nuances of Swiss chocolate and red meat, reminded me of a fine Napa zinfandel.
* 1994 Renwood "Grandmere" Vineyard Zinfandel, Amador County ($26). This powerhouse zin boasts a mind-numbing 15.2 percent alcohol level, but there's no trace of heat on the palate. There's just a wallop of fruit -- concentrated blackberry, smoked meat and herbs. In most respects it resembles a classic Sonoma blockbuster, but the extra touch of tannin is pure Amador.
* 1995 Cline Ancient Vines Zinfandel, Contra Costa County ($15). It's not the most full-bodied zinfandel you will ever taste, but there's a distinct purity to the fruit that reports directly to the pleasure-sensing centers of the brain. The black cherry and black raspberry flavors are seasoned with white pepper and sweet oak. This is a zinfandel that is especially well-suited for grilled foods.
* 1995 Rosenblum Paso Robles Zinfandel, Richard Sauzet Vineyard ($22.49). If you prefer elegance to oomph, this medium-bodied wine might be your style of zinfandel. It resembles a cross between the styles of merlot and sangiovese (the great Tuscan grape) and shows bright flavors of black cherry herbs and black raspberry. The acidity, pronounced for a zinfandel but not obnoxious, labels it a cool-climate wine.
* 1995 Ridge Zinfandel, Paso Robles ($22.49). Ridge's Paul Draper, who usually blends zinfandel with other red grapes, chose to keep this wine 100 percent zinfandel. It's an especially aromatic zinfandel, with medium- to full-bodied fruit and a distinct spiciness. It doesn't quite match the sheer grip and drama of Ridge's Napa and Sonoma zins, but it would be quite versatile with grilled food.
Pub Date: 11/23/97