Zinfandel turned out to be identical to Croatian grape
Scratch an American, Find an Immigrant
By FRANK J. PRIAL
THANKSGIVING is the quintessential American holiday and deserves to be celebrated, at least occasionally, with the bounty of our fields, our farms, our seas and rivers and, by all means, our vineyards. Hardly anyone is going to argue with that premise. It's when you get down to particulars, especially where the vineyards are concerned, that the trouble starts.
For example, just what do we mean by an American wine? The obvious answer is a wine from California or Oregon or Long Island, instead of a wine from, well, any other country. But cabernet and chardonnay, just to take two, are really European grapes transplanted to our shores. There are so-called native American wines like Concord, Delaware and Niagara but they all appear to have some foreign antecedents and, face it, they're not all that great to drink.
There is scuppernong, from the muscadine vine, which has some fans in the Deep South, and is about as American as a wine can get. But patriotism goes only so far.
That leaves zinfandel, which has been known for a long time as, yes, the American wine. There is only one problem: it is not American. Over the last half century, everyone who has known anything about wine, has known, deep down, that zinfandel was not native to this land. It was a vinifera vine, just like cabernet sauvignon and riesling and all the other big names, but there was always hope.
First it was thought to have come from Italy. An Italian grape called the primitivo was said to be identical. Then we were told it wasn't. Next came something called plavac mali, a grape fromCroatia. That wasn't it, either, but the geneticists and others who worry about such things were getting warm. Two years ago, in December, 2001, they finally nailed it down. Zinfandel turned out to be identical to another Croatian grape, the crljenak kastelanski, which, as you must already know, is pronounced tsurl-YEN-ak kas-tel-AHN-ski. With that announcement, primitivo got a reprieve; turns out it really was the same as zinfandel all along. Plavac mali is a relative; a brother-in-law, perhaps.
The first known documentation of zinfandel in this country was in the 1820's, when it was offered as a table grape in the catalog of a Flushing, N.Y., nursery. Planted in California in the 1850's, it became the state's most popular grape by the 1880's. Now it is second only to cabernet sauvignon among California red wine grapes.
For my money, and in spite of all evidence to the contrary, it is still the American grape. It's been here longer than most of us who think of ourselves as Americans, the Croatians don't seem to want it back and it makes a very American-style wine: intense and excessive in all things if it isn't tightly controlled. What's more, it happens to be the perfect wine for a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. Turkey is not the most delicate of birds; in fact, even a farm-raised turkey can be stronger tasting than many game birds. It calls for a big, aggressive red wine.
Zinfandel specialists have backed away from the hubris of the late 1990's, when vintners like Cecil De Loach were pumping out zins with the alcoholic content of port. Dr. Johnson and Boswell may have downed two bottles of 18 percent alcohol in an evening, but just one bottle of zinfandel of that strength is rather risky these days. Most of the current crop of zinfandels are in the range of 14.5 to 15.5 percent alcohol, high enough when one considers that good Bordeaux rarely pass 13 percent. It's well to bear in mind that the laws allow a 1.5 percent margin in determining the alcohol content of a wine. Thus, a wine listed at l5.5 may well approach 17 percent alcohol.
Among the top zinfandel producers, like Ravenswood, Rosenblum Cellars, Turley Cellars, Storybook Mountain and Ridge Vineyards, alcohol levels range from around 13 percent to 16 percent. Some carry this power better than others. Ridge, for me, has always been the benchmark zinfandel producer, and tasting through a group of Paul Draper's 2001's showed that his wines remain at the top of any zinfandel list, or close to it. Some of this vintage's wines drop below the 75 percent varietal content necessary to use the grape name. Thus the 2001 Three Valleys is listed as simply a red wine although it contains 50 percent zinfandel. The rest is carignane, petit sirah and other red grapes including mataro (mourvedre) and grenache. The Geyserville and Lytton Springs 2001's are also proprietary reds.
Rosenblum Cellars offers almost a dozen different zinfandels, from vineyards ranging from Paso Robles on the Central Coast to Mendocino in the north. The Richard Sauret Vineyard and the Planchon Vineyard bottlings are worth seeking out.
The winemaker Joel Gott is producing fine zinfandels from various parts of California. A generation ago, his father, Cary Gott, made a name for himself producing striking zinfandels from the Amador County region. Joel Gott's 2002 California Zinfandel, utilizing grapes from Napa, Lodi and Amador, is a delightful wine. He adds to its complexity by blending petit sirah, carignane and barbera into the wine.
Many of the smaller producers' wines never leave California. One not-too-small producer's wines can be found almost everywhere. I'm talking about E&J Gallo, which has become a serious fine-wine producer in recent years. Under the Gallo of Sonoma label, the Frei Ranch zinfandel is a good buy.
Under the Rancho Zabaco label there are always several zinfandel bottlings worthy of note, beginning with Dancing Bull and moving up to the Chiotti Vineyard bottling from Dry Creek Valley. At around $12, the Dancing Bull zin is a great introduction to this varietal. Not a subtle wine, it will hold its own with any hearty Thanksgiving dinner.