I don’t drink much zinfandel. Some people say that I’m a Eurocentric snob, but that doesn’t really have anything to do with it. I don’t have anything against the grape itself. It’s the style of the wine in the post-Turley era that I have little interest in. It doesn’t really matter where it’s from or what it’s made out of – if your wine has 16 percent alcohol, perceptible residual sugar and jammy, overripe fruit, I don’t want to drink it. (I will happily discriminate equally, without regard to variety, region, race or religion.)
Zinfandel wasn’t always made this way. Given a chance, zinfandel can make an elegantly balanced, soil-expressive, ageworthy wine. Last night my friends and I tasted a number of zins from Joseph Swan, one of the old masters of the variety. The 1986, one of the last vintages made by Swan himself, was impressively youthful, with a dark, rich concentration of fruit and firm acidity to hold it in place. I was a little less enthralled with the 1985, which felt compressed and one-dimensional, or with the 1983, which was the only one that showed a roasted, warm-weather character to the fruit. The 1982, however, was my favorite of the night – rich, complex and harmonious, it saturated the palate through intensity of flavor rather than relying on weight or ripeness, and appeared to be at an optimal point of maturity. I also loved the 1981 for its crisp, cranberry-like acidity and juicy, high-toned sense of red fruit flavor.
None of these wines had the alcohol listed on the label, but I doubt that any of them could be higher than 13 percent. None of them felt in the least bit alcoholic, nor did any of them exhibit any trace of overripeness. Even the 1983 felt roasted from warm weather rather than desiccated from over-maturity as many modern wines are. I realize that these might not be the sort of wines that true zin lovers are looking for, and in fact, some might be distinctly disappointed with them. But for me, this style is so much more intrinsically worthwhile than the over-extracted, alcoholic fruit bombs. I’m not saying that there aren’t good zins being made today. I don’t think, though, that anyone is making wines like these. If they did, I might be more interested in zinfandel.