1850 Zinfandel Amador County 2014
Zinfandel is considered by many people, California’s native son grape. That’s an interesting concept for a few reasons.
First and foremost, the grape is thought of as native to California because of spots in the Sierra Foothills, that heady region as the Bay Area slowly morphs into Sacramento and the long flat river delta plain, before climbing into the Sierra’s. But, that’s not nearly where most of the grapes in the state are grown.
Secondly, Zinfandel itself has it’s share of a checkered history. For years, vintners in California and their Italian counterparts argued about whether Zinfandel or its Italian cousin, Primitivo were the parent of the variety. There were quite a number of silly theories thrown around and I don’t know that I ever got on board with how Zinfandel would have gotten from California’s mountainous regions to Italy’s northern border around 1865. People are innovative, but that’s a trip that asks a lot.
Of course, the folks at UC Davis have the final answer. Through genetic testing (the concept is the same that we use for human DNA) it’s fairly evidently that Zin and Primitivo have a common ancestor, in fact they’re both clones from a Croatian grape called Crljenak. It seems that cuttings of Crljenak were transported to both Italy and California around the same time period, about 150 years ago. The current versions are closely enough related that European vintners can use the terms interchangeably, while different enough that the American government considers them separate grapes. It’s been said that the Primitivo grape ripens a bit earlier, but really the entirety of the differences is less than you receive from some basic winemaking choices, like at what Brix you pick the grapes.
Ok, so to be clear-there weren’t fields of wild Zinfandel growing in the California Sierra Foothills when miners showed up. Today though, it’s been said that the grape has been grown long enough that sometimes, just sometimes, if you know where to look, you’ll find an old field or a few scattered vines growing wild. That’s a pretty fun thing.
Amador County is an interesting spot in itself. It’s a spot where the huge tech and entertainment booms that have carried our state’s economy over the past few decades, has largely left untouched. When I was there last summer, I was surprised to see small towns that we learned about in California history-down to a few old buildings and often a post office. But, things are changing. Wine brings a load of tourist dollars. There’s grapes being grown and these small towns are picturesque and offer low rents-exactly the type of spot where artisan businesses tend to flourish.
Zinfandel, for all its faults, is still home here. Every winery I stepped into, grew the stuff. Some of the winemakers LOVE it. Others, HATE it. Some pulled it out to put in their tasting rooms. Others, were looking for ways to plant more.
In many ways, that helps tell the tale of Zinfandel. When it grows in a warm enough spot, it’s dense, not overly tannic but has plenty of alcohol to go around. It’s pretty good with a slice of pizza really.
Thinking back what’s getting on two hundred years, that’s the type of wine that I might have wanted after panning for a day, in water up to my knees, in 100+ degree heat. The Foothills weren’t the spot to make something complicated. Life was complicated enough.
Really, that’s where the burgeoning wine industry in the Sierra Foothills has some choices to make. Do they chase the lower alcohol cooler climate stuff that’s all the rage in San Francisco restaurants, New York wine stores and Austin bars? Or can they be happy making some consistent with the varietal itself?
When I was there, I was slightly fascinated by another of their issues. Zinfandel, unlike basically every other wine grapevine (maybe Cinsault and a few others) continues to produce grapes, seemingly indefinitely. There are patches of Zin, producing grapes having been planted 150 years ago.
I wondered, how does this work for the region to grow? People plant now and then, 6 generations in the future they have a cool vineyard?
That’s one reason there’s a lot of Barbera being planted. It’s similar in characteristics, its Italian origins let it stand up to the heat and it comes online in about 5 years.
I’m rambling a bit, but let’s just say that it’s interesting that a new winery has chosen to release a Zinfandel, even if they’re based in historic Sutter Creek. I think you’ll agree, this fits the standard Zin profile. It’s higher in alcohol, ripe and juicy. Since I’ve been accused of only shipping austere wines in my wine of the month clubs, I thought this might be a nice respite for folks looking for something different. Sometimes, things shouldn’t be so complicated-enjoy with a slice of pizza or a steak on the BBQ!
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