Zinfandels that are fit for a feast


Wines: You can rely on Ridge, Ravenswood and Rosenblum to provide classic red wines for Thanksgiving turkey dinner.

November 03, 1999|By Michael Dresser | By Michael Dresser,Sun Wine Critic

Zinfandel and the traditional Thanksgiving turkey dinner are one of those matches that are hard to understand but that work anyway.

You think turkey, white meat, maybe a chardonnay. But it's wrong. There's a lot more to turkey than the breast, and a lot more to the feast than the turkey.

It takes a big wine to hold its own with the gravy and the green beans and the stuffing and the yams, which seem to come around to you three times even though you can't stand yams.

The zinfandel does nothing better than produce big red wines fit for a feast. Forget you ever heard about white zinfandel. Forget the slight, mildly fruity red zinfandels that sometimes sell at cut-rate prices. A well-made red zinfandel is a classic red wine fit for a feast.

But who among the multitude of California producers can you trust to deliver a first-rate red zinfandel? If you'd like to keep things elementary, just remember the three Rs.

Ridge, Ravenswood and Rosenblum. They're not a law firm. They are three of the most reliable producers of world-class zinfandel on the planet.

Each draws on exceptional vineyards from all around the state to make flavorful red wines that combine power and gracefulness. Each practices a traditional, hands-off style of winemaking that lets the wine express its character without excessive manipulation.

Ridge, founded in 1959, is California's great Temple of Zin. Long before other California winemakers realized that zinfandel was capable of making exceptional red wines, winemaker Paul Draper was treating it with respect.

Draper developed both fine regional blended zinfandels and specific vineyards that yielded wines of amazing concentration. He made the names Lytton Springs and Geyserville as respected among zinfandel lovers as Margaux and Lafitte are among Bordeaux connoisseurs.

Ridge zinfandels usually incorporate small percentages of other red grape varietals because Draper believes in enhancing the structure and aging potential of the wines -- and also because the vineyards happen to have some petite sirah, carignane, mourvedre and other vines mixed in with the zinfandel.

If Draper could be called the Mozart of zinfandel, Joel Peterson would be the Beethoven.

Peterson's Ravenswood winery, founded in 1976, produces some of the biggest, boldest and most expensive zinfandels on the market. His two most famous zinfandels, from the Dickerson and Old Hill vineyards, can fetch $40 a bottle. It seems a lot to pay for zinfandel, but the world-class quality is there.

For those of us who are not tycoons, Ravenswood produces a reliable and widely distributed Vintner's Blend zinfandel that retails for about $12. Year after year, it's a terrific bargain, and the 1997 is no exception.

Rosenblum Cellars, founded in 1978, is a quieter operation but has emerged as a steady, reliable zinfandel specialist. It draws on vineyards from Mendocino in the north to Paso Robles in the south to produce wines of exceptional purity and character.

While its single-vineyard wines can be pricey, Rosenblum also produces a nonvintage Vintner's Cuvee whose different lots are designated by Roman numerals. The current release, XVIII, is a solid value at $13.

A recent sampling of the three wineries' zinfandels showed that each is playing at the top of its game. The following are all blockbusters worth considering for your Thanksgiving feast:

* 1997 Ridge Pagani Ranch Zinfandel, Sonoma Valley ($30). This is simply a monumental wine, an explosion of concentrated blackberry fruit with a velvety texture that masks the generous alcohol level (14.6 percent). Its deep color and mix of flavors -- chocolate, herbs, dark roasted coffee -- suggest a vintage port without the sweetness. It uses 88 percent zinfandel.

* 1997 Ravenswood Monte Rosso Zinfandel, Sonoma Valley ($33). The alcohol level is a rip-snorting 15.5 percent, but the flavors of blackberry and black raspberry are so intense you can barely detect it. Hints of smoked meat, herbs and chocolate give it considerable complexity.

* 1997 Rosenblum Annette's Reserve Zinfandel, Rhodes Vineyard, Redwood Valley ($28). The relatively light, bright color can be deceptive. This is a very intensely flavored zin with penetrating raspberry flavor and hints of black pepper, smoked meat and chocolate.

* 1997 Ridge Lytton Springs, Dry Creek Valley ($29). The characteristic black pepper flavor of Lytton Springs grapes is seasoned with rich blackberry and black raspberry fruit. This complex, structured wine, 80 percent zinfandel, requires a few hours' breathing, if not another year or two in the bottle.

* 1997 Ravenswood Teldeschi Zinfandel, Dry Creek Valley ($33). This rich, concentrated, smooth wine delivers powerful blackberry, herb, chocolate and coffee flavors. While wonderful now, it could use additional aging.

The following don't qualify as blockbuster zinfandels, but are very good nevertheless.

* 1997 Ridge Sonoma Station Zinfandel, Sonoma County ($19). The Sonoma Station blend comes close to the quality of the winery's single-vineyard bottlings at a more affordable price. It's a structured, stylish zinfandel with plenty of blackberry fruit with flavors of cedar and sweet American oak.

* 1996 Rosenblum Vineyards Zinfandel, Richard Sauret Vineyard, Paso Robles ($24). This elegant, racy, peppery zinfandel offers intense raspberry flavors in a medium- to full-bodied style. It's not quite in the class of the other, but the competition at this level is tough.

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