Wine of the Week – a fine, affordable Zinfandel

Old Zinfandel vines in Lodi.

One of my very early jobs was working for the late Geoffrey Roberts who was an early champion of the wines of California and Australia in the UK. As a consequence I had opportunities to taste some amazing California wine while at a young and impressionable age. As a consequence I have loved California wines pretty much all my working life.

Therefore it pains me that it is so hard to enjoy California wines here in the UK. Yes, there are huge amounts of very everyday stuff that is barely worth drinking – you know the brands, while the fabulous wines that gave California its fame tend to be ludicrously expensive once they arrive in the UK – actually in the US too come to think of it.

So while it is always a struggle to feed my love of California wine, there are some high quality bargains out there. I was fortunate enough to taste one the other day and I enjoyed it so much and it is so delicious – and perfect for the icy weather we are having right now – that I have made it my Wine of the Week.

The wine is a Zinfandel and it is worth me giving you a little background on the grape variety from a piece that I wrote a couple of years ago:

As far as we can tell, the grape that became Zinfandel was taken to the eastern United States from Europe in the 1820’s – long before the annexation of California. Records show that it was taken from the Austrian Imperial nursery in Vienna to Boston and was originally sold as a table grape in New England, but destiny called when cuttings were shipped to California to take advantage of the boom caused by the Gold Rush in 1849. That was all we knew until the 1990s when DNA testing discovered that Zinfandel was identical to the Primitivo that is widely used in Puglia, the heel of Italy.

Further investigation and DNA work then discovered that Primitivo/Zinfandel were one of the parents of the Plavac Mali grape which is used on Croatia’s Dalmation coast. The other parent was Dobričić, an incredibly obscure Croatian grape that only grows on the Dalmatian island of Šolta. This find narrowed the search down and in 2001 a vine that matched Zinfandel’s DNA was discovered in a single vineyard in Kaštel Novi north west of Split on the Croatian coast. The vine was known as Crljenak Kaštelanski, or ‘the red grape of Kaštela’. In 2011 the researchers discovered another match, this time with a grape called Tribidrag which is also used on the Dalmatian coast. Crljenak Kaštelanski and Tribidrag are as alike as different clones of Pinot Noir, or Tempranillo and Tinto Fino, but  Tribidrag is the more common name, although not much of it is left, so it too is obscure. However, records show the name has been used since at least 1518 and what’s more, Primitivo derives from the Latin for early, while Tribidrag derives from the Croatian for early – they are both early ripening grapes.

Wine map of California – Lodi is near Sacramento and due east of San Francisco.

2014 Brazin (B)Old Vine Zinfandel
AVA Lodi
California
USA
I have long been an admirer of what Delicato do. They seem to produce a wide range of really well made, classic California wines with plump, ripe fruit and lots of character – not to mention charm.
 
They have been in California for well over 100 years, since Gaspare Indelicato arrive from Sicily looking for a better life. It seems the family had grown grapes and made wine in the old country, so he and and his three sons established a vineyard and winery in Lodi in California’s Central Valley. Today the third generation of the family run the business and they now have vineyards in Napa Valley and Monterey as well as Clay Station, their 526 hectare estate in Lodi.

100 year old Zinfandel in Soucie Vineyard, Lodi. Credit: Randy Caparoso.

 
Many Italian families, including the Indelicatos, settled in this area which has a Mediterranean climate and sandy soils not unlike those found in many parts of southern Italy. Zinfandel was already grown here and as it has many Italianate characters would have made them feel right at home. Brazin is all about harnessing the rich fruit character of this hot region and producing a rich, plush and powerful wine. Much of the fruit is bought in from small growers with whom the family have had contracts for generations. The vines are all 40 years old at least – often well over 100 – and old vines really suit Zinfandel. Old vines produce smaller crops with smaller berries and more intense flavours. They also reach full ripeness with lower sugar levels than younger vine – a virtuous circle. The vines are un-grafted and dry-farmed, which again ensures a small and concentrated cop, and head trained in the traditional Californian manner, rather than trellis grown. The soils are sandy and silty.

Old head-trained vines in Lodi.

They want the wine to have rich, bold fruit and so cold ferment in stainless steel, but they also want it to be layered and complex, so age it in a mixture of French – for dry spice – and American – for sweet vanilla – barrels for 8 months.

Everything about this wine screams rich and powerful – bold even, hence the joke on the label. It is opaque, like squished blackberries. The nose gives dense black fruit, spice, mocha, a little prune and raisin, pepper, sweet vanilla, red earth and bitter chocolate. The palate is sumptuous, bright, glossy, mouth-filling, mouth-coating and very tasty. There is a sweetness of rich dark plums, blackberries, blueberries, cassis all lightened by a hint of rich raspberry too. There is a little cooked fruit and dried fruit characters too and the whole thing is just a little bit jammy – in a really good way. Along for the ride there are coffee, cinnamon, vanilla, clove, dark chocolate, liquorice and black pepper flavours while there are supple tannins and enough acidity to balance the whole shebang. It is tasty, balanced – it carries its 14.5% alcohol very well, really enjoyable and sinfully easy to drink – 88/100 points.

A lovely big red wine that will partner all manner of foods, burgers, steaks and barbecues for instance, but in the snowy winter conditions that we have right now in the UK I think it would bee great with a steak and kidney pudding, meat pie, beef stew or other hearty, warming dishes. Zinfandel is also really good with crispy aromatic duck!

Available in the UK for £12.50 – £14  per bottle from Waitrose, Waitrose Cellar and The Wine Society.

Wine of the Week 46 – it’s Zinfandel, but not as most people imagine it

Zinfandel is a wonderful grape variety, that is pretty hard to pin down – in many different ways. What it actually is and where it comes from has taken a very long time to get straight. The grape is often regarded as America’s own grape, but if any vine can make that claim it is actually the wayward Norton. Of course Zinfandel made its reputation in California, but it was a long time coming. For much of its time there Zinfandel has been regarded as a very inferior grape indeed and it has only been in the last 20 years or so that it has received the attention that it deserves.

Zinfandel vines in the Napa Valley.

Zinfandel vines in the Napa Valley.

As far as we can tell, the grape that became Zinfandel was taken to the eastern United States from Europe in the 1820’s – long before the annexation of California. Records show that it was taken from the Austrian Imperial nursery in Vienna to Boston and was originally sold as a table grape in New England, but destiny called when cuttings were shipped to California to take advantage of the boom caused by the Gold Rush in 1849. That was all we knew until the 1990s when DNA testing discovered that Zinfandel was identical to the Primitivo that is widely used in Puglia, the heel of Italy.

Plavac Mali vines in the amazing Dingac vineyards on the Pelješac Peninsula.

Plavac Mali vines in the amazing Dingac vineyards on the Pelješac Peninsula near Dubrovnik in Croatia.

Further investigation and DNA work then discovered that Primitivo/Zinfandel were one of the parents of the Plavac Mali grape which is used on Croatia’s Dalmation coast. The other parent was Dobričić, an incredibly obscure Croatian grape that only grows on the Dalmatian island of Šolta. This find narrowed the search down and in 2001 a vine that matched Zinfandel’s DNA was discovered in a single vineyard in Kaštel Novi north west of Split on the Croatian coast. The vine was known as Crljenak Kaštelanski, or ‘the red grape of Kaštela’. In 2011 the researchers discovered another match, this time with a grape called Tribidrag which is also used on the Dalmatian coast. Crljenak Kaštelanski and Tribidrag are as alike as different clones of Pinot Noir, or Tempranillo and Tinto Fino, but  Tribidrag is the more common name, although not much of it is left, so it too is obscure. However, records show the name has been used since at least 1518 and what’s more, Primitivo derives from the Latin for early, while Tribidrag derives from the Croatian for early – they are both early ripening grapes.

Ok, so the roots of Zinfandel are sorted, but then we have the the worry as to exactly what sort of wine Zinfandel makes. Many UK consumers assume that Zinfandel primarily makes sweetish rosé, white Zinfandel, but most of the books and wine courses tell us that it makes high alcohol (15% and more), rich, dry, spicy red wines with rich dried fruit – prune and raisin – characters. That can certainly be true of the old vine Zinfandels that are produced in the hot Central Valley areas of Amador and Lodi, but there is another, totally different style of Zinfandel in California too.

This style comes from cooler production areas nearer the coast and is more elegant – by which I mean less powerful, less of a blunt instrument, instead it has delicate fruit characters, normally red – raspberry in fact – together with some freshness too. I recently tasted a delicious example, that is very good value for money, so I made it my Wine of the Week.

California map QS 2015 watermarked

The wine regions of Sonoma - click map for a larger view.

The wine regions of Sonoma – click map for a larger view.

 

Zin2013 De Loach Heritage Reserve Zinfandel
De Loach Vineyards,
Russian River Valley, Sonoma
California
100% Zinfandel aged for a few months in American and Hungarian oak barrels. The grapes mainly come from De Loach’s own organic and biodynamically farmed vineyards, with some fruit from other, warmer areas of California. Sonoma’s Russian River Valley has a long slow even growing season that seems to coax real elegance out of Zinfandel, making the wines quite different from the usual take on the grape. The alcohol is a modest 13.5%.

The colour is a lovely deep, but bright ruby red, while the nose is scented and lifted, offering rich, intense raspberry together with black pepper, smoke and vanilla. The palate is medium-bodied, but is richly textured with rounded ripe fruit filling the mouth with flavour. Those flavours are raspberry and cracked pepper spice together with some cherry and blackberry too. While this is not the most complex Zinfandel in the world, the tannins are soft and velvety and while the fruit dominates from start to finish, making the wine juicy and soft, there is a lovely seam of freshness in the wine, that makes it deliciously drinkable too – 87/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £11 a bottle from Eclectic Tastes and Exel Wines, further stockist information is available from the UK distributor, Liberty Wines.
US stockist information is available here.

If your experience of Zinfandel makes you think they are all huge monsters with high alcohol, this gives a totally different take on the grape and is superb value for money too. A very food friendly wine, this is perfect with almost anything, from burgers, pastas and pizzas, to Sunday roasts and finer fare.

Wine of the Week 22 – Croatian specialities

Dubrovnil from the south.

Dubrovnil from the south.

Earlier in the year I was judging in a wine competition in Dubrovnik. I have been meaning to write about it ever since as the whole experience was quite wonderful. The place itself completely lives up to expectations and fully deserves its reputation as one of the great destinations. I can see why it is a World Heritage site, it really is right up there with Venice in terms of wonder. It isn’t only the city that is worth seeing though, the whole coastline takes your breath away.

The wines in southern Croatia are a great experience too though. We tasted lots of excellent wines of character and interest that were quite unlike most  wines from elsewhere, so all in all it was a pretty exciting trip.

The whole Dalmatian coast produces a wide array of red wines in all sorts of styles, some of them quite sweet, from the Plavac Mali grape – the name means ‘small blue’ by the way, which pretty well describes the look of the grapes. The berries are small and they are deeply coloured.  The most famous examples of Plavac Mali  are Dingač and Postup, which are both grown on the astonishingly wild and beautiful Pelješac Peninsula to the north of Dubrovnik. I visited vineyards there and was very taken with the place. I didn’t get to visit it, but the nearby island of Korčula, also grows Plavac Mali as well as making excellent white wines from the indigenous Pošip grape.

The vineyards of Dingač sweeping down to the sea on the Pelješac Peninsula.

The amazing vineyards of Dingač sweeping down to the sea on the Pelješac Peninsula.

I have not yet drawn a map of Croatia, so you can see one by clicking here.

Plavac Mali is closely related to Italy’s Primitivo, which is the same grape as Zinfandel. In fact Zin is one of its parents, the other being the obscure Dobričić from the island of Šolta. True Zinfandel originates here in Croatia too, where it grows in tiny amounts on the Dalmatian coast and is known as Crljenak Kaštelanski. The even rarer and older Tribidrag has exactly the same DNA and is thought to be the same grape.

I had been to Croatia before, not on a wine trip as it happens, but wine gets consumed even on a holiday – you know how it it! On that occasion I visited Istria in the north west of the country where the local specialities are the earthy and herbal tasting Teran reds and the refreshing, although sometimes fleshy, Malvasia white wines. While I was there I visited a winery in Slovenia.

Anyway all this came flooding back to me while I was working at The Three Wine Men the other week. I was pouring and talking about Croatian wines to a very receptive and interested crowd. The wines were very good indeed and I decided that one of them would be my Wine of the Week:

Plavac_0752009 Plavac Blato
Korčula
Blato 1902
Croatia
Blato 1902 is a cooperative on the island of Korčula and yes, you guessed it, they were founded in 1902. Blato is a town towards the western end of the island, some 20 km away from Korčula town. They don’t only make wine either, but all manner of drinks and agricultural products including olive oils and vinegars. 
This is a delightfully elegant Plavac with the alcohol, fruit, tannins and acidity in very good balance. There is nothing rustic or overworked about this, the merest hint of raisins shows we are tasting a wine from somewhere with lots of sunshine and there is plenty of seductive spice as well as dark cherry fruit and touches of chocolate. At just 12.5% alcohol the wine is very easy to drink, but has good depth of flavour and a very Mediterranean feel. It would be brilliant with cheese and charcuterie as well as casseroles, lamb cooked with garlic and all manner of pasta dishes as there is something Italianate about it – 87/100 points.

Available in the UK at £10 a bottle from Croatian Fine Wines.

Croatian Fine Wines carry an excellent, and exciting range of Croatian wines, including some excellent and really lovely whites from the north east of the country.

Rotgipfler – Austria’s Mystery Grape

Austria's beautiful Thermenrgion.

Austria’s beautiful Thermenregion.

Whilst enjoying my tour of the beautiful Austrian wine lands the other week I was thrilled to discover a grape variety that was entirely new to me.

I relish discovering new wines and grape varieties as they provide me with the new experiences that expand my knowledge and keep my delight in wine alive. It saddens me that so many wine consumers seem to be happy with drinking a very narrow range of grape varieties and wine styles, so I see it as my duty to highlight wonderful more obscure wines.

Well with only 0.2% of Austria’s plantings, Rotgipfler is pretty obscure. It seems that once upon a time the grape was grown further afield with historical mentions of it in Würrtemberg, Baden and Alsace, but now is only known in Thermenregion to the south of Vienna. As far as I can make out it is indigenous to Thermenregion too, but some evidence suggests that it might have originated in Styria further south.

Austria's wine regions - click for a larger view.

Austria’s wine regions – click for a larger view.

What we can be certain of though is that it was created by a spontaneous crossing between Traminer and Roter Veltliner. This might well lead you to imagine that it is related to Austria’s great Grüner Veltliner, especially as Gru-Vee used to be called Weißgipfler / Weissgipfler.

Actually it would appear that there there is no link at all between Grüner Veltliner and Roter Veltliner and just the one parent in common for Grüner Veltliner and Rotgipfler.

Rotgipfler, again despite its name, is a white grape. The rot – red in German – part of its name comes from the red shoots, or the red leaf tips or even leaf veins the plant has at harvest time. Reports vary as to which of these is the actual reason for the red name.

Reading about Rotgipfler sine I got back I am somewhat surprised by the lack of respect it seems to have. Jancis Robinson is pretty damning when she calls it ‘ponderous’ in my ancient copy of Vines, Grapes and Vines, whilst she describes it as ‘the marginally less noble of the two white wine grapes’ (associated with Thermenregion).

Personally that is not how I found it, perhaps things have moved on? I also have no time for the concept of ‘noble’ grapes anymore – after all I was taught that Sauvignon Blanc and Tempranillo were not noble!

Historically Rotgipfler is most famously used as one half of the blend in the local Thermenregion speciality wine of Gumpoldskirchen. The other half is the equally obscure Zierfandler and the wine originates in the beautiful village of GumpoldskirchenI have yet to taste one, but am looking at a bottle of it on my desk as I write this and will let you know what it’s like soon. 

The beautiful Church in Gumpoldskirchen with Johanneshof Reinisch vineyards all around.

The beautiful Church in Gumpoldskirchen with Johanneshof Reinisch vineyards all around.

I was able to taste some wonderful examples of Zierfandler though and would highly recommend trying one of those- the one from Johanneshof Reinisch was delicious as was Biegler’s and the wonderfully exotic and mandarin-like 1969 Zierfandler from the local co-operative.

Interestingly Zierfandler may be the inadvertent origin of the Zinfandel name as both grapes originate in Croatia and a linguistic mix up may have occurred over the grape’s name.

Hannes Reinisch, winemaker at Johanneshof Reinisch.

Hannes Reinisch, winemaker
at Johanneshof Reinisch.

Weingut Johanneshof Reinisch, Tattendorf, Thermenregion, Niederösterreich2012 Johanneshof Reinisch Rotgipfler
Thermenregion
Austria
This impressive estate has been organic since 2004, but will only be certified so from the 2013 harvest onwards.
The wine has an enticing pale peach skin colour and is wonderfully aromatic and scented without being over the top in any way. There are delicate peach skin and honey notes together with pear and the merest hint of red fruits and spice.
The palate is quite textured and creamy, it is fermented using wild yeasts in stainless steel tank and in large neutral wooden vats, which do not give wood flavour, but can enrich the mouthfeel. This will be further enhanced by the 4 months on the lees. It is medium bodied with a nice feeling of weight, but not heavy. The succulence dominates while a clean cut of apricot and citrus acidity cleans it off and makes it refreshing. There is also a lovely taut seam of something mineral flowing right through it to the long finish. This is delicious, beautifully made and very drinkable and is very user friendly being delicious with almost any food – even spicy – or on its own – 90/100 points.

Available in the UK from Eclectic Tastes and through Astrum Wine Cellars.
Available in the US through Circo Vino.

Foudres at Johanneshof Reinisch.

Foudres at Johanneshof Reinisch.

The beautiful cellar at Johanneshof Reinisch.

The beautiful cellar at Johanneshof Reinisch.

Heinrich Hartl 111

Heinrich Hartl 111

10-great-wines-0012012 Heinrich Hartl Rotgipfler
Thermenregion
Austria
Heinrich comes from a long line of vignerons and is a terrific winemaker and although I did not taste this in Austria I have had it since – I did try his superb Saint Laurent though and can highly recommend that richly fruity and Burgundy-like wine.

Again the nose is scented and exotic with pear, some light asian spice and honey. The palate is quite creamy – 5 months on the lees here – and peppery with a dash of ginger and cleansing acidity giving a citrus twist and yes it still has that minerality that makes the wine more complex, taut and fine. Another delicious food friendly wine with a delicate touch of the exotic about it – 90/100 points.

Available in the UK from Merry Widows  and through Waitrose Direct.
Check here for availability in other countries.

I really have come to like Rotgipfler very much indeed. It seems to be delicious and very drinkable and to go perfectly with all manner of foods – or none. I really think it is a grape variety that many of you would enjoy very much if you get the chance to try it, so keep a look out and do give Rotgipfler a go if you can.

Return to Sonoma – the Russian River Valley

I have been hugely impressed and very excited recently by an array of wines from California’s Sonoma Valley.

The wines that I tasted were all very good and the people who made them interesting and dedicated, but what also made them fascinating to me was the chance it gives to really get to grips with understanding wine, winemaking and growing conditions.

This is because as a European I can look at the variety from Sonoma with a much more open mind than I can Burgundy, for instance. I can taste the wines and really get a grip on what makes them different and why – with no preconceptions as to what they should be like. Continue reading

Christmas Cheer – QED

When meeting me people often assume that I live a relentlessly hedonistic lifestyle – drinking nothing but the rarest and finest wines.

This is especially true around Christmas, my students often ask me what I am going to drink over the holidays and seem to expect a list of famous wines by way of reply.

It is true that with Christmas approaching my thoughts often turn to the great wines in my collection and I usually start to plan which bottles to dig out. I did it this year, I brought the reds into relative warmth ready to be drunk and planned which wine partnered each dish. Continue reading

Robert Biale – great wine on a human scale

I really enjoyed visiting the Napa Valley recently, I saw much and learnt a lot. I saw many wonderful wineries, but one of the absolute highlights was visiting a small family owned winery called Robert Biale Vineyards.

Continue reading