Californians are justly proud of their winemaking prowess with the grapes cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay. Yet, for decades before California even had its name, winemakers in Bordeaux and Burgundy had made notable wines from these same grapes.
The wine grape that California might be prouder of is zinfandel, which it has coddled since the 1850s and brought into prominence on its own turf. Though not native to our continent, it truly has become "America's grape."
In 2002, through DNA research, vine scientists determined that zinfandel is the ancient Croatian grape, crljenak kastelanski, imported to the U.S. in the early 1800s by a nurseryman on Long Island, N.Y.
Like so many other residents of the East Coast, crljenak kastelanski relocated to California at the time of the Gold Rush, where it became known as zinfandel, the origin of this name shrouded by time. It took to its new home because it enjoyed the heat and yielded rivers of juicy, fruity red wine that was popular with miners and other early California settlers.
But in modern times, two bad raps plague appreciation of zinfandel, and both are about sugar. First, the grape ripens to very high levels of sweetness; therefore, many zinfandels sported elevated alcohol or unfermented residual sugar (or both). Second, a zinfandel rosé popularized in the 1970s and nicknamed "white zinfandel," is often mawkishly sweet; hence, the oenoscenti disparage it.
Of late, however, more targeted harvesting has gotten a good handle on the first issue. As for the second, how can anyone who truly appreciates wine belittle the significance of one that has introduced so many soda pop drinkers to the word "former"?
For my part, I had to disabuse myself of my own prejudices when this summer I took a fresh look at zinfandel. The zins of my youth were high-octane, overextracted, jam-in-a-jar bruisers that devolved, with as little as a decade's aging in cellar, to something like acrid tea spiked with Everclear.
After recent tastings of 30 California zinfandels from recent vintages, what an awakening awaited! All in all, it was a seducing mix of heady perfumes, persistence of flavors, well-structured, nicely performing red wines.
You are in for the same treats if you snag any of these terrific wines, all from California, listed by price. A central theme to greatness is old-vine zinfandel, some of these wines coming from vines well over a century in age.
2011 Ravenswood "Old Vine" Napa Valley: The winery's twice-the-price single vineyard zins are well favored, but this offering is a great buy for deeply flavored, headily perfumed, moderately tannic zin that shouts "California." $16
2010 Mettler Family "Epicenter" Lodi: A monster zin, but a Shrek, big and brooding with deeply extracted aromas and flavors, but nonetheless lively and lifted by moderate tannin and tame alcohol. $20
2010 Tierra Davina ZaZin Old Vine Zinfandel Lodi: From an area to watch for old-vine zinfandel, this one sports power but sophistication, too, with dark red fruit underlaid by puffy, mouth-sweeping tannin. $22
2011 Dashe Cellars Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley: In its zins, Dashe dials back oak, alcohol and tannin, all to fine effect; this fits a range of foods, not merely the aggressively hearty. $22
2009 Scherrer Vineyard Zinfandel "Old & Mature" Alexander Valley Sonoma: "Goldilocks" zin: not too aggressive, not too shy; just enough tannin, perfume and persistence of flavor to take you back to it repeatedly. $30
2007 Joseph Swan Vineyards Zinfandel "Mancini Ranch" Russian River Valley Sonoma: The nicest thing about this old-vine zin from an old-time producer is its bright acidity, something not often found in wines of this "size"; superlengthy finish, delightful fruit. $30
2009 Dashe Louvau Old Vines Dry Creek Sonoma: From 85-year-old vines discovered hidden and long-neglected; heady and elegant, in the manner of classic old-style Bordeaux claret. $32
2010 Quivira "Flight" Dry Creek Sonoma: Bright, juicy, smooth, buoyant of red fruits, energizing and true to its moniker; Proustian scents of a rainy day cabin in the woods. $35
2011 Ridge Vineyards "Geyserville" Sonoma: The current release of a famed California zin-based red; long in flavor and chalky tannin but also graced by notes of menthol, wood and bright fruit. $37
2010 Amapola Creek Monte Rosso Vineyards Sonoma Valley: Off 118-year-old vines that yield grapes in meager amounts; Christmas cake flavors with pops of licorice and cola; superseductive for the way it's different at each sniff or sip. $42
2009 Scott Harvey Wine "Vineyard 1869" Amador County: From vines planted in 1869, California's oldest registered zinfandel vineyard; a beautiful wine for its whispering aromas, elegantly delivered fruit, ever-unfolding complexity; delicacy and power. $50
Bill St John has been writing and teaching about wine for more than 40 years.