Sunday, 19 October 2014

Grüner Veltliner

Austrian wine is now synonymous with quality, but has for some time existed in its own niche. It's a rich country, with a wealthy domestic market able to buy the best wines meaning that the rest of the world only has limited access to what Austria has to offer. The country was also beset by a huge scandal in the mid-1980, when it was discovered that a significant number of producers were adding an illegal additive to wines to make them fuller bodied and, where (in)appropriate, sweeter. The discovery caused a huge commercial setback for the wine industry, but also led to a concerted and successful determination to raise the standards, and therefore the quality, of Austrian wine.

Although Austria produces fine red wine from grapes such as Blaufrankisch, its international reputation has been raised by its white wine, in particular from the Grüner Veltliner grape. It's become quite fashionable, seen often on good wine lists and in good wine shops, though plantings outside Austria are still very small. New Zealand has perhaps experimented most successfully with the grape, but there are still only small plantings in Gisbourne on the North Island and Central Otago on the South. In Austria itself, it accounts for around a third of all plantings, at its best in the Wachau, Kamptal, and Kremstal regions just north of Vienna.

the grape

The consistency of quality of wines made from Grüner Veltliner is remarkably high, but as the tasting below demonstrated there is quite a variety of styles. The grape is late ripening, so needs a relatively warm climate - which is why the grape is grown in Austria, but not cooler Germany. It is marked by a peppery character and can be quite full-bodied with some ageing potential, although it is very rarely aged in oak.


Back Room Wines in Napa holds a weekly evening sampling wines from a single grape variety. This week was Grüner Veltliner; here are the wines which were on offer, all of them available at the shop.

Tatomer Meeresboden 2013, Santa Barbara, California ($25)

A young winery from a Californian winemaker who has spent time learning his trade with the awesome Weingut Knoll in Wachau. Production at the small winery (1,100 cases a year) focuses on Riesling, but there are also two Grüner Veltliner vineyards. The Meeresboden, meaning "ocean soil," vineyard is sandy and there is a saline quality to the wine which marks it from its Austrian counterparts. The aromas are citrus, with some mineral spice on the finish: a good, though not overly complex, wine.

Tegernseerhof Frauenweingarten Federspiel 2013, Wachau ($25)

One of those confusingly Germanic wine labels: Tegernseerhof is the winery, Frauenweingarten is the vineyard made up of sand and gravel soils, while Federspiel is a term for white wines from Wachau that have an alcohol content of between 11 and 12.5%. On flatter land than many vineyards in Wachau, leading to a warmer microclimate, this is a fuller-bodied wine than the last one despite the lower alcohol. Stone fruits, almonds, with an oily, resinous finish: balanced and complex.

Glatzer Dornenvogel 2011, Carnuntum ($20)

A very interesting nose that feels immediately like a Sauvignon Blanc with green, capsicum flavours but develops into more like a Sémillon with a waxy, nutty, rich creaminess. The palate lets the nose down somewhat, its acidity not quite high enough leaving the wine a bit flabby. Now three years old, I would have liked to have tried this wine a year ago. 

Schloss Gobelsburg Steinsetz 2012, Kamptal ($34)

The pick of the bunch, this is a light, subtle, yet surprisingly intense wine, especially on the palate. Its nose has a delicate lime zest, biscuity profile, but it's on the palate that the wine comes alive with spicy biscuit flavours, and apples and cinnamon. It's a zippy, balanced, deep and complex wine that may benefit from some further ageing but drinks wonderfully now.

F.X. Pichler Urgestein Terrassen Smaragd 2012, Wachau ($49)

Smaragd is a term which refers to the finest white wines of Wachau, made from the ripest grapes from the best vineyards, and with great ageing potential. This wine, from steep terraced vineyards, was disappointing, however, with a resinous, citrus nose and an odd, sticky palate with lingering sour flavours almost like fermenting grapefruit juice. These odd flavours may work well with an oily fish dish, but on its own the wine just tasted plain weird.

This was my first intensive tasting of Grüner Veltliner, demonstrating a grape capable of producing quite different wines but of a consistently high quality: fine, balanced, textured, with long finishes.

Friday, 17 October 2014

All Aboard the Napa Valley Wine Train

The Napa Valley Wine Train passes through Napa twice a day, blowing its horn at every junction, its carriages slowly trundling back to the station near the Oxbow market. Tourists peer out of the shaded windows, wine glass poised in front of them. The wine train is something tourists only do, and, finally, after three months in Napa, I get to experince it, with my mum and new wife.

The waiting room, full of sofas to lounge on, is packed with middle-aged groups chattering excitedly on glasses of wine bought from the bar. The gift shop sells clothes emblazoned with Napa that only the middle-aged would consider buying. On the wall, Burgundy producer, Jean-Claude Boisset, and owner of Buena Vista winery in Sonoma and Raymond Vineyards here in Napa, acts through a mock James Bond video where, lying back on a rug, he strokes a fake leopard (Raymond, an old but these days adequate winery, has a bizarre, flamboyantly kitsch cat theme on site).

Travellers are invited on board in groups. The reason for the staggering becomes clear when our turn arrives: before we get on the train, a photo of us is taken to buy when we get back.

We sit at the table and our server breathlessly runs through the details for the evening ahead, none of which I quite catch. The tattoo on her neck quivers as she speaks. She departs as soon as she has finished speaking, returning just a few seconds later with our first plate of food, the ingredients of which - an uneven combination of cheese, bread, lettuce, and salmon - she speedily lists.

We are offered a free glass of Merlot or Chardonnay, both from Raymond. It is not long before I am tempted to order (and pay) for a bottle of Chardonnay from Grgich. I am warned that it may take a few minutes for the bottle to arrive as it's from the Reserve list (it's not Raymond); it comes within two minutes.

The first plate is whisked away within moments of finishing to be replaced immediately by a salad. As we eat, we are told to order our main course. Our server fans herself with her notepad as she waits for us to decide.

We eat the second plate as slowly as we can to delay the arrival of the main course; our server hovers and snatches our plates when we lay down the cutlery, quickly replaced by the main dish.

The Grgich is superb. A group of couples chat across tables as they knock back the house red. The couple opposite us each drink a bottle of Bud Light. The train moves slowly alongside Highway 29 past some of the Valley's iconic wineries, which disappear into the darkness of the early evening.

On finishing the main dish, we are told to move on to another carriage for our desserts. Expecting a leisurely three-hour meal, we are done, except for dessert, within an hour.

We realise the reason for the speed of the meal on the way to our new carriage; there is a second sitting from St. Helena to Napa, and we squeeze past travellers moving up the train to the dining car. We may have been told that at the beginning, but our server spoke too quickly for us to understand what she was saying.

The train has come to a stop and a woman asks our new server if we are halfway through the journey. "We're at St. Helena and we don't go any further." "So we're halfway?" "We have to wait for the engine to change and take us back but, yes, we're halfway. But the view's the same on the way back, so you won't see anything different. And it's dark anyway."

In the darkness, we do have a view of the other side of the highway as we eat our desserts. Rather than around a table, we sit in a row of unmoveable chairs facing the window.

red wine flight

I order a "Red Wine" tasting flight, Katie a "Napa" flight of two whites and two reds. Our server pours me my four wines almost to the rim, patiently describing the tastes I am likely to find in them. On the second glass, she remembers to tell me that, "Under your glass you'll find a description, you won't get all of them when you taste the wine because everyone's different but you might get one of them." I raise the glass of Merlot to read the description written on the card underneath: 'Soft and supple, Black cherry, Smooth oak.' It's an accurate description. "Just in case you haven't noticed, I'm pouring the wines from light to dark. That's how they're arranged."

The server moves on to Katie and pours the second white, a Chardonnay. It looks like a rosé that's had some sherry poured into it. I stare at the wine wondering when someone is going to say something. Katie and my mum talk, not noticing. The server readies herself to pour the next wine and stops herself as she spots the cloud Chardonnay. "That doesn't look good. I'm not going to even taste that. I'll get a new bottle and open it in front of you."

"She's not supposed to pour that much," a voice whispers in my ear as she looks for a new bottle. The voice belongs to a bearded waiter in his early thirties who does not seem too enamoured with his current occupation. He walks back to his post, where he repeats the advice to the returning server.

As we taste through our flights, our bearded friend returns. "Which is your favourite?" he asks. "Is it the Jericho Canyon Cabernet Sauvignon?" he adds eagerly. Not having had the chance to taste all the wines, we allow him to wander back off. He is right, we find.

We have been promised a present, because it's our 'honeymoon' - we were married six days previously, although Katie has had to work on five of those days. Our bearded friend comes with the present, and carefully describes how proud the Wine Train is to have had us on board for our honeymoon. He holds the present behind his back, and reveals it dramatically: a set of four cork coasters embossed with pictures of the Napa Wine Train.

honeymoon present

Everyone staggers off the train in a state of giddy intoxication. My mum insists on buying the photo of us taken at the beginning of the evening and politely waits at the back of a scrum of competing travellers until it's her turn to hand over money for the glossy photo.

There's no doubt the Wine Train makes plenty of money - Boisset wouldn't be involved otherwise. It's over $100 a ticket, and there are more expensive tickets for a viewing lounge and first class. Customers get a complimentary glass of wine, but have to pay for anything extra even if it's a bottle of Bud Light. Add the photos at the end of the journey, and it can easily come to $200 a person.

Despite the rushed service and the clear commercial aspect, the food on the train is very good, the wines come from a nice if limited range of famous Napa wineries, and the journey up and down Highway 29 is fun, offering a different view of the Napa Valley. It's a highly touristic experience, something Napa, despite being the gateway to the winemaking area, has only just realised it should be providing. Like Napa, the train still has a lot to learn about providing a polished experience - but the foundations are there.


Friday, 10 October 2014

Cigars and Alcohol

"A cigar numbs sorrow and fills the solitary hours with a million gracious images" - George Sand

Back in the days when one could smoke in a British pub, I lit up a cigar in a student's attempt to be mature, gentemanly, and debonair. The cigar was Hamlet, Britain's universal pub cigar made popular over the course of three decades by a series of ads with the catchphrase, "Happiness is a cigar called Hamlet," to the backdrop of Bach's Air on a G String. I felt like I should look a lot cooler than I actually did; instead, I stood by the bar with the thin cigar that wasn't much bigger than a cigarette, wondering how I was supposed to smoke a cigar properly.

As someone who doesn't smoke, I haven't since been much tempted to relive my student's Hamlet moment. In that time, smoking has become pariah - outlawed in offices, restaurants, and then pubs; even my smoker friends light up each cigarette with a detailed expression of guilt, followed by an equally detailed explanation of how they are going to quit as they politely blow smoke away from me.

Cigars, expensive and difficult, may seem an inevitable victim of the decline in smoking: if you can't have a quick fag over a pint, then what chance a cigar over a Cognac? It's certainly rare to see anyone smoke a cigar, but maybe this cultured, complex expression of tobacco is due a new appreciation.

In July, @kt_canfield translated for a group of Cuban sommeliers, who visited Napa and Sonoma equipped with suitcases of cigars and rum. They only just got through customs with them; Cuban products are permitted into the US but only as gifts - which is all those sommeliers were intending to do, as they distributed them liberally to all they met in wine country. Since then, we've smoked a couple of Cuban cigars, and I bought another from Sidestreet, a Napa store, from the Dominican Republic. We've experimented smoking the cigars with Pinot Noir, sherry, and rum, all of which have brought out the complexities of cigars and underlined the potential of cigar and alcohol pairings.

history and production

the smoking of cigars dates back to the European discovery in the sixteenth century of tobacco, and the practice of wrapping tobacco in dried leaves and smoking it; cigarettes originate from as late as the nineteenth century. Cuban cigars perhaps have the greatest renown, not least because they are unavailable in the United States, a country which has a long history of producing and smoking cigars. Tobacco is grown throughout Central America and the Carribbean, though many cigar maunfacturers are based in Europe - Germany and the Netherlands are the two biggest exporters.

Cigars come in various styles, shapes, sizes, and strengths. Perhaps the most important measurement is the width, which is called the ring gauge. The wider the cigar, the more flavour it imparts, although it can also burn out quicker. Measured by 64ths of an inch, gauge sizes range from 33-60. For instance, a toro cigar is 6in (15cm) long with a gauge of 50 - meaning 50 64ths of an inch (20mm) wide. The wrapping of the cigar comes from the widest part of the tobacco plant, the colour ranging from light (claro) to dark (oscuro). The cigar's complex flavours, though, come from fermenting, or slowly drying, the leaves which form the filler; the cigar should not be too dry, however, as a sweet complexity comes from the oils in the leaves.

the cigars

Habanos Trinidad

A cigar which rose to fame by its association with Fidel Castro - an association which turned out to be false. Its classic vitola (a cigar's shape and size) is a fundador, 7½ inches long with a gauge of 40. The cigar's aromas are subtle, delicate, but nevertheless quite pronounced, with a woody, earthy, spicy, herbal character.

Davidoff No.2
From a Ukranian producer based in Geneva, this cigar is a panatela, slightly shorter at 6 inches and narrower with a gauge of 38. Its flavours were smokier and less subtle, and the experience was more about the tobacco. A less complex cigar which benefitted from the pairings, especially the rum.

the pairings

with Senses Pinot Noir

The Cubans had insisted to @kt_canfield that cigars and Pinot Noir were a perfect match. I have to admit to a certain scepticism: light, delicate Pinot would surely be overwhelmed by the intense tobacco flavours of a cigar. The Cubans were right, though. This was a perfect match for the Cuban cigar in particular, the smoky nature of the wine soaking up the leafy, earthy cigar's intense complexity while being given a rich, spicy mouthfeel.

with sherry - El Maestro de Sierra Oloroso and PX

Back in February, I attended a run through of the range of Gonzalez Byass's sherries. Their rep, Paul Shepherd, introduced the Noë Pedro Ximénez sherry, a 30-year-old blend of Oloroso and Pedro Ximénez, as being, to his surprise, perfect with cigars. This was my first introduction to the possibilities of pairing cigars with wine, and I've been intrigued since. On this occasion, we paired the two cigars with a fifteen-year-old Oloroso and PX. The subtler, more nuanced cigar went well with the Oloroso, while the smokier cigar matched the sweet dried fruits of the PX. Both sherries were too young, however: I would love to repeat this experiment with a maturer, more leathery sherry.

with rum - Zacapa 23 años

This is one of the world's great drinks; as it's from Central America (Guatemala), it's also no surprise that it complemented the cigars perfectly. The sweet toffee spices filled the mouth at the same time the tobacco smoke softened the alcohol. This rum is deliciously drinkable, but the cigar slowed appreciation of it on a lingering warm evening. Two intense sets of flavours filling the mouth, yet settling together in easy balance.

Smoking a cigar takes time and proper consideration; it also requires the correct drink to go with it. It's an intense experience, full of long, rich flavours, leaving one a little light-headed. I'm not sure it's something I'd do often, as the drink has to be as complex as the cigar. But as a warm evening sets to a cool, starry darkness, I'm happy to linger on the smoke of a cigar and the spicy sweetness of a rum.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Organic, Biodynamic, and Natural Wines

Little in the world of wine causes as much consternation, confusion, and controversy as organic, biodynamic, and natural wines. These are terms that are meant to point to a supposedly purer method of making - and sometimes drinking - wine, removed from industrial scale production. Yet the terms are often misleading, wrapped up in obscure language and arcane rules, causing opinions on both sides to be based on prejudice rather than information.

There is a clear, if perhaps unquantifiable, demand for wines which have been made with as little interference or environmental impact as possible - and there are plenty of wines that meet that demand. Yet few advertise their credentials, because the terms organic, biodynamic, or natural are either so precise that producers refuse to be constrained by the rules or because the terms are too imprecise to mean anything. 

Over the last few months, I've visited a number of Californian wineries who are understandably proud of their sustainable farming practices, yet refuse to label their wines in ways which would promote those practices. This is partly because each winery wants to do their own thing without having to follow exact rules, because there is too much bureaucracy to bother getting certified, and because many consumers are put off by terms such as organic and, especially, biodynamic as there is too little understanding about what they mean.


The aim of organic winemaking is to be environmentally conscious, by integrating winemaking practices with the surrounding ecosphere and avoiding the use of pesticides. Many of the principles should come naturally to any small or traditional producer - unfortunately those who often can't afford to wade through all the paperwork to label their wines organic. 

For a wine to be classed as organic, the winery must be certified by the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements, whose rules are enshrined in EU law. Rules are strict, and wineries have to annually apply for accreditation. Being next to a non-organic winery can be enough to prevent being accepted as organic and if a winery lapses from its organic status, it has to wait another seven years before it can apply again. 

Farming the same way as previous generations, many traditional European wineries are organic even if they are not certified as such, and over a quarter of Oregon's wineries follow sustainable farming practices. But it's almost impossible to tell if a wine is organic, or which organic principles a winery follows, because it makes so little financial sense for a winery to become officially organic. Despite so many wineries practising organic winemaking, there are less than 2,000 accredited around the world, many of them in France.  



This is perhaps the most specific element of a wine that customers most ask about, and it's the one easiest accounted for. It surprises me that wineries don't label their wines as such because it comes down to one simple thing: whether the fining used to clarify a wine is from egg whites (used in red wines) or fish bladder (for whites). The wine does not have to be organic to be vegetarian or vegan, though it probably helps. 


I had to drink beer while writing this blog
Based on a system by the maverick thinker Rudolf Steiner, biodynamics is a combination of hocus-pocus and common sense. Notoriously, biodynamic practices include burying a cow's horn full of manure in a field; other strict rules include undertaking certain elements of farming only at specific times of the day or month "by considering all aspects of lunar cycles, solar cycles, star constellations and the movement of other planets," according to When Wine Tastes Best, a biodynamic, and beautifully presented, app which advises when you should or should not drink wine. 

This spiritual, holistic approach may be easy to mock, but the general principle of adhering to nature's cycles is a sensible one. Vines are plants which rely on the surrounding environment, so wineries will leave forests uncultivated next to vineyards, plant fruit trees and keep bees, which are vital conduits in the ecosphere, and allow natural pests to flourish to protect the vines. 

Many famous wineries and expensive wines are biodynamic, though not all boast of it, leading me to call these wineries biodynamic in all but name. In California, these include Frog's Leap and Littorai. However, others fully and proudly adhere to the biodynamic philosophy. In Burgundy, one of the most exclusive wineries in the world, Domaine Romanée-Conti, has been biodynamic since 2007, while in Western Australia, Cullen Wines shifted to being biodynamic after being certified organic in 2003

The most obvious reason a winery doesn't call itself biodynamic is the cow horn, but there's also contradictory guidance on the use of sulphur which causes winemakers to pick and choose the elements of biodynamics they like. Sulphur is allowed to be sprayed on vines as they grow, but it isn't permitted in the winemaking process, where sulphur dioxide has long been used as an anti-oxidant preservative

Despite the overly spiritual approach of biodynamic winemaking, I have more sympathy for it than for organic, which is more prescriptive and makes life difficult for the small producers it should be helping. However, the minute you try to explain the principles to someone, they immediately switch off at the sound of cow horns and lunar cycles. It feels time that Steiner's early-twentieth-century philosophy is updated to twenty-first sensibilities, making it more appealing and accessible without sacrificing its core ideology.

Natural wines

The most controversial of all these categories. On one side are those who maintain that there is no such thing as natural wine for wine can only come from the vine due to human interference; on the other are the supporters who insist that these are wines that nature intended and how they used to be made before modern technology got in the way. 

Unlike the above categories, there's no strict definition of what natural wine means: it's more of a philosophy to follow as and how the winemakers choose. Although this has the advantage of giving a winemaker a certain freedom, it means no one knows what exactly to expect from a natural wine

The real reason natural wines cause such controversy, however, is that, unlike organic and biodynamic wines, they can taste foul. This puts natural wine in the same category as sour beer: under the watchful expertise of a skilled winemaker, something truly unique and expressive can be created. With less watchfulness and less expertise, it's basically fermentation gone wrong.

I visited Terroir, a natural wine bar in San Francisco to test the quality of a few natural wines. Many bottles of great wine from Champagne, Alsace, and Jura stared down from the shelves (although some were organic or biodynamic, rather than defiantly natural). Natural wine is a cause led in particular by the French, stubborn traditionalists that they are, though there were also impressive bottles from Barolo. None of these quality wines is labelled as natural: they're just expensive expressions of terroir. 

a wine glass doesn't stop it tasting like cider
There's no doubt that any wine promoted as 'natural' should be approached with caution: it's likely to be cloudy and may have a very short shelf life. The three wines I tasted summed up the highs and lows of natural wine. 

Donkey & Goat Rousanne 2012 El Dorado AVA, CA A cloudy green colour that looked like a farmhouse cider: many natural wines are unfiltered to keep the haziness 'natural' to wine before bottling. Stinky apples on the nose, like a farmhouse cider. And on the palate, you've guessed it. I was too polite to ask if they'd poured me a cider by mistake. 

The manifesto of this San Francisco producer sums up natural wine well: no cultured yeast or bacteria, no plastic, no nutrients, enzymes or enhancers, no machines for crushing, little (to no) sulphur, no new oak, no prophylatic racking schedules (not exactly sure what this means, but it's clearly a bad thing), and no stablization. I'm pretty sure the wine could have done with some of these treatments. 

Simion Grenache Gris 2012 Rhône Much better, though the aromas were too individual (code for stinky and earthy) to appeal to the everyday drinker. However, this was a quality, if overly sweaty, wine that was characteristic of the grape. Its dominant fruit were apples, which I put down to a coincidence. (I can't find anything on this producer, which suggests I may have written the name down wrong.)

Tripoz Crémant de Bourgogne NV From a certified biodynamic producer in Burgundy, this sparkling wine was by far the most appealing and sophisticated of the three. Beautiful cinnamon-biscuit aromas, though dare I say it a little too appley. 

The three categories of organic, biodynamic, and natural often overlap, making trying to define a winemaker's methods more difficult and confusing than it needs to be. Of course, attempting to create a global system adhered to by all winemakers which successfully defines sustainable wine producing practices is all but impossible. However, each of these three categories have flaws which seem to hinder, rather than help, the cause of sustainable farming. What it of course comes down to is what's in the bottle; of all these wines, I'd always seek out a biodynamic producer as likely to be the most interesting as well as the highest quality. Anyone for some Romanée-Conti?  

Tuesday, 16 September 2014


Zinfandel is the all-American grape: big, bold, and brash. Up-front and fruity, it has nothing to hide and everything to say. It's high in alcohol (usually climbing above 15%), low in subtlety, screaming its California motto at you: "Go big or go home." All of this has made Zinfandel a very popular style of wine, its immediate flavours having an easy appeal that's hard to resist.

However, rather like Australian Shiraz, its appeal is also its downside. If you don't want a wine whose alcohol approaches the levels of fortified wine, then avoid Zinfandel. If you don't want a fruit bomb, then give Zinfandel a miss. If you want a structured, balanced wine, then don't stop at the Zinfandel shelf.

My travels around California have confirmed some of those impressions, but also challenged them. It's still nearly always high in alcohol and Zinfandel wouldn't be Zinfandel without its jammy black and blue fruits, but I've discovered plenty of serious wines with structure, depth, and ageability. Maybe because I've come to the wines quite fresh, I've often preferred Napa Zins to Cab Sabs - they're certainly more affordable.

where's it from?

The world came crashing in on the all-American grape in the 1990s when genetic fingerprinting proved that Zinfandel was the same grape as obscure, rustic Primitivo - rather like an American tycoon learning that they were descended from poor Italian immigrants...

It is, of course, impossible for Zinfandel to be an indigeneous American grape - all wine-producing vines are part of the vitis vinifera species which originates from Europe. Although Zinfandel was only known in California, it had to have come from Europe at some point. There are various theories about its origin, but the likelihood is that it was imported from Vienna by one George Gibbs late in the 1820s, making its way to California during the Gold Rush as Zinfandal. The grape itself doesn't originate from Italy, however, but Croatia. There's also a strong chance that Primitivo was imported into Italy by Italians returning home from California.

For all its genetic controversy, Zinfandel is now very much its own grape, grown in California for a hundred and fifty years, with nineteenth-century plantings still in use. During that time it's been soaked in California sunshine, reflecting the dry, dusty Californian terroir as well as time's changing fashions. 

Zinfandel in véraison, Calistoga

what does it taste like?

Due to its hardiness and popularity, Zinfandel is grown in areas that are too hot because it can cope with that heat and is overproduced because it has no problem providing high yields. That's where the image of Zinfandel as jammy and obvious comes from. The high alcohol has risen as the trend for rich, alcoholic wines has grown, although, as with other styles of wine in California, levels of alcohol are beginning to settle.

Whatever the style of Zinfandel, the black and blue fruits should be immediate, but serious examples of Zinfandel use American oak for up to two years, giving the wine real structure and balance, as well as adding a peppery spiciness.

There is also a phenomenon called White Zinfandel, which has further damaged the reputation of the grape if not producers' finances. Bob Trinchero of Sutter Home in Napa launched White Zinfandel in the 1970s and saw sales mushroom in the 80s; this resulted in increased plantings of the grape, which is one positive outcome. White Zinfandel is pink, sweet, and a tiny bit fizzy.


Without doubt the greatest producer of Zinfandel in California is Ridge. Although they are based in Santa Cruz, their finest Zinfandels come from Lytton Springs and Geyserville in northern Sonoma. The best Napa and Sonoma Zinfandels come from high altitude areas that are hot during the day but cool at night, allowing the grape to ripen at a slow, steady pace. I haven't visited Ridge yet, but the Lytton Springs is one my favourite Californian wines, arguably besting even their own famous Cabernets. It's a great example of a big, powerful, unabashed wine that is still classically balanced. Here are some of the many Zinfandels I've tasted over the last two months.

Saddleback Old Vine Zinfandel 2012 ($40)

Most of the grapes for this wine are grown in hot Calistoga, the best area of the Napa Valley for Zinfandel. Like the rest of Saddleback's wines, this is a serious, oaky, tannic wine, but softened by the Zinfandel fruits (plums and blueberries). The only Saddleback red to be aged in American oak, the wine has distinct vanilla, chocolate, and coconut aromas, and is very spicy on the mouth with pepper and liquorice. Still young, with plenty of ageing potential.

Regusci Zinfandel 2010 ($60)

Regusci are the only winery in Stags Leap AVA to plant their own Zinfandel - there just isn't enough money compared to Cabernet Sauvignon to justify planting the grape in the heart of Napa Valley. The intensity of the wine is quite different from those grown at higher altitudes: besides the black and blue fruits, the nose is toasty, oaky, and peppery, with a spicy, dusty palate - it's the dust that marks it out as from the lower reaches of the valley.

Nichelini Reserve Zinfandel 2010 ($41)

Nichelini, Chiles Valley
Yet another old Italian family still using original plantings of the vine - the family have been making wine in the same spot since the 1890s, including through Prohibition. Nichelini are based high in Chiles Valley, where altitude again affects the character of the wine. This Zinfandel is not shy: from 2010, when an unexpected heat spike overripened the grapes, the wine comes to a whopping 16.1% ABV. It's big, spicy, and alcoholic: the pepper, liquorice, and alcohol leave the tongue burning. It may mellow out after a few years, but even after four it's a bit too much. Nichelini also make a Primitivo, which is a bit more mellow (although it was from the cooler 2011 vintage), its fruits more chocolatey; an interesting comparison.

Seghesio Rockpile Zinfandel 2012 ($38) & Home Ranch Zinfandel 2012 ($58)

Seghesio are a Sonoma producer who have made their name growing Italian grape varieties - they also make wines from Arneis, Vermentino, Barbera, Sangiovese, Aglianco, and Petite Sirah (a French grape known in France as Durif but often grown in California by Italian immigrants). Zinfandel was first planted by founder Edoardo Seghesio in 1895 on the Home Ranch vineyard, plantings which are still used today. Besides Home Ranch, Seghesio make several Zinfandels, all from vineyards throughout Sonoma County. My favourite is the Rockpile, from a small AVA where the vines must be above the fog level, attracting intense sunshine during the day but subject to cool nights - perfect for Zinfandel. It's a stony, floral wine, with subtle fruits on the nose; on the palate, it's more aggressive and oaky, with drying, slightly bitter tannins. Seghesio's premium wine, from the original Home Ranch vineyard, is serious, almost like a Cabernet Sauvignon on the nose. The palate is concentrated and complex, juicy, oaky, and spicy, with a particularly peppery finish.

Joseph Swan Stellwagen Zinfandel 2008 ($30)

Although Russian River Valley is best known for its Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays, it produces intense Zinfandels from select slopes. Joseph Swan make several single-vineyards Zins. The last ever vintage from the Stellwagen vineyard, this is a fruity, savoury wine, with vanilla, anise, and roses and violets adding a refined elegance.

When visiting the Joseph Swan winery, I couldn't resist buying one of their Zinfandels from 2001, for just $35. This is the first mature Zinfandel I've tasted: the rich black fruits were there, but were more dried and overladen with leather and game. Although Joseph Swan wines are unusual and generally come into their own with a bit of age, this was proof that Zinfandel is ageworthy, and not just a young, fruity wine to be drunk straightaway.

I've been tasting Zinfandel throughout my visits to different California wineries - more than any grape, it grows successfully in most areas. I've already reviewed the following wines on previous blogs from Laura Michael, Lone Madrone, and Pomar Junction.

From being somewhat sceptical of Zinfandel upon my arrival in California, I now look forward to tasting each winery's style and I'm disappointed if one isn't made. It's produced in different ways, from fruity and fun to oaky and serious, and you're never quite sure what you're going to get. As ever in California, terroir is key: it's at its best in high areas with significant variations in temperature from day to night, and it reflects the dusty intensity of California's summer heat. Zinfandel has so won me over as an expression of California, that the Saddleback Zin is going to feature at my wedding next week alongside Chardonnay and Rioja. I can think of no greater compliment than that.