Saturday, December 29, 2007

Peter + Zinfandel =

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.


Charles Woods said...

any idea about the more recent vintages being produced at Joseph Swan? Also, I was wondering if the friends who have been holding these or who had been intrigued enough to buy them were also fans of Nalle in Dry Creek Valley and/or Sky Zinfandel on Mt. Veeder. These two wineries doggedly stick to their guns and make the wines in the same way they made them and have been making them since before anyone had ever heard of Turley that is to say, with finesse and balance, not at all what today’s Zin fan’s want or expect. I brought these back into New York with David Bowler Wine after they had been out of the market for years, victims of the high alcohol, high extraction trend that now seems synonymous with the grape. We tasted verticals at each winery and were wowed at the consistent quality and though I’m hardly well versed on California wine, by benefit of tasting multiple vintages of each they certainly seemed to be possessed of the transparency of site and vintage that we enjoy finding in Burgundy and Germany. The wines have had some success in NY, especially Sky which has a little more cult cache and has the geeky marketable distinction of being made by a hermit named Lore Olds who lives year round at the vineyard on Mt. Veeder in a tar paper shack with no electricity. This is Napa? (Our visit there also relates to your cooking over open fire blog entry as we were treated to one of the best meals I’ve had, prepared by Lore’s girlfriend who just happens to work at Chez Panisse!) The winery is right there and also operates free of electricity. The winery space is dominated by a huge vat that contains the entire production of the 2003 and 2004 vintages which went horribly bad and is only sellable for distilling purposes because of experimentation with limited sulpher use. Oops. 2005 was put back on track with the help of Lore’s incredibly beautiful daughter Mayacamas (it’s true! That’s her given name, Maya for short) whose strained relationship with her father along with his very questionable and possibly deteriorating grasp on reality leaves one to question the reliability of the future production from this very unique winery. I can vouch for the 2002 however, it is absolutely stellar and the 2005 is said by reliable sources to be quite good. I highly recommend trying both Sky and Nalle to anyone with an inerest in real old school Zinfandel.

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