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America is a melting pot of cultures and Zinfandel, like the European immigrants to the U.S., is part of our American history. Zinfandel is the epitome of California vinifera. Donn Reisen, Ridge Vineyards

The theme of our May tasting meeting was Zinfandel. We had six different wines, four from California, one from Oregon and one from Italy that we tasted blind. At the end of the evening, we had two clear winners and three at the lower end of the spectrum.

History and characteristics of the grape

This truly American grape is deeply associated with the Gold Rush and the pioneers of early California. Some historical research has shown that it was introduced in the United States in the early 1820s by a Long Island nursery importing grapevines from Vienna. At the time, the grape was named Zinfindal and quickly became a popular table grape in the Northeast. During the Gold Rush, Zinfindal wine enjoyed great favor with miners. When, later on, many of them turned to agriculture, they began planting the grape in the Sierra Foothills and the name changed to Zinfandel. In the 1970s, researchers at UC Davis identified Zinfandel to be the same as Primitivo, a grape from Southern Italy. More recently, it was established that the Croatian grape Plavac Mali was an offspring of Zinfandel and that Zinfandel was the same as Crljenak Kastelanski, a now rare varietal from Croatia's Dalmatian coast.

Today, Zinfandel holds a significant place in California. It is the state's #2 red varietal after Cabernet Sauvignon. Some vines are now more than 100 years old , having survived phylloxera because there were planted on resistant rootstock.

Zinfandel can vary from dry to sweet and from a light to a heavier full-bodied red. The wine tends to exhibit a dark purple hue with hints of strawberry, plumb, raisin, spice, leather, and tar.

Growing Zinfandel is difficult because bunches can ripen unevenly. This results into having on the same bunch, harsh green berries mixed with fully mature berries that could turn into raisins if not picked rapidly. Zinfandel can be consumed young but heavier Zinfandel is ageworthy.

The wines

We started with a wine from Apulia, the heel of the Italian boot, where a new wave of producers is working on premium quality Primitivo wines. Interestingly, and maybe because the winery's co-owner and winemaker is from California, nobody detected any major difference between this wine and the others. The 2002 A Mano Primitivo had a deep color, with a nose that combined fruits with some chemical and acidic aromas. On the palate, it was medium to full-bodied with earthy flavors and a slightly dry aftertaste. Overall, the group thought that the wine tasted better than it smelled. The finish was first long and persistent but became flat by the end of the evening. The wine was ranked #5.

With the second wine, we moved to the Howell Montain district of Napa Valley. This small AVA is situated high in the hills east of St. Helena. The weather is significantly different from that of the valley floor and is characterized by westerly Pacific breezes on most days, cooler daytime temperatures and warmer nights. Consequently, grapes have less heat stress and longer growing days. The area is renowned for its Cabernets but it also produces notable Zinfandel, intense but rarely overripe. The 2001 Elyse Zinfandel Howell Mountain had a dark color and notes of cherry, vanilla, herbs and earth on the nose. The palate displayed some stewed fruit flavors and an oaky character with vanilla and burnt sugar aromas, followed by a stemmy aftertaste. I personally liked the wine but the group ranked it in fourth position, just a few points ahead of the A Mano.

The next wine was the 2001 Seghesio Old Vine Zinfandel Sonoma County. The wine comes from 90 years old grapes on average, planted in the late 1890s in the Alexander and Dry Creek valleys. The wine exhibited a dark color, a peppery nose with plum, cherry and berry aromas and notes of citrus and anise. On the palate, it was sweet and fruity with slightly dry tannins and a balanced finish. This well-crafted wine was ranked #3 in the tasting.

Old Zinfandel vines are also found in the Russian River Valley where a long, cool growing season allows the grape to achieve excellent levels of ripeness. The 2001 Gamba Old Vine Zinfandel Russian River Valley comes from an organically dry farmed vineyard over 100 years old. Showing a deep inky color, it had a very aromatic nose of cherries, figs and berries. The palate was chewy and full-bodied with cocoa powder and currant flavors followed by a well-balanced finish. This was my favorite wine and one of the two big winners of the evening.

The following wine was the second big winner. It came from West Paso Robles mountain grown fruits, planted on a non-irrigated shale and limestone soil. The 2003 Dover Canyon Cujo Zinfandel Paso Robles had a deep bright color. The nose was pleasant with berry, orange and raisin aromas. On the palate, it was full-flavored and jammy with a persistent finish. I personally found it too sweet for my taste but most of the people enjoyed it a lot and it was ranked second, Just a couple of points below the Gamba.

The last wine of the tasting came from the Pines Vineyard in Columbia Valley, Oregon. Showing a dark color, the 2002 Sineann Zinfandel The Pines Vineyard Columbia Valley offered a light spicy nose with some stewed apple and raisin aromas. On the palate, it was slightly unbalanced, with some medicinal herb flavors and a weak finish. This was the least favorite wine of the group.

See our other tasting reports.