I’m asked all the time what my favorite wine is. That’s a tough question because I love so many kinds of wine. I guess it sort of depends on where I am, who I’m with and what I’m eating.
For example, on an annual trek to Maine I’ve been making for the last 20 years, it’s hard to beat a fresh Maine lobster and a glass of chablis. But a rack of New Zealand lamb chops with a California cabernet is equally wonderful. Then again, an Oregon pinot noir with a grilled salmon fillet is a meal to savor and fantasize about.
As I said, it’s tough to pick a favor- ite. But if I was asked to pick a wine that was consistently good, a great food wine and a great value, and only grown in the U.S., I’d say zinfandel. And not white zinfandel, which is sort of the “soda pop” version of this great red wine.
It turns out there is a great story behind this grape and the wine it makes. For more than 100 years, grape grow-ers didn’t know where zinfandel came from. Records show that in 1848 it was grown in Salem, Mass., and even earlier, out on Long Island, where it was called black zinfandel. There was nothing more illuminating until 1967 when the same grape was found in Southern Italy, where it was called primitivo.
At this point, knowing zinfandel’s origins brought aficionados back to square one.
A few years ago a grape called plavac mali was discovered in Yugoslavia and, with the use of DNA analysis, it was determined that it was closely related to zinfandel. We now know that zinfandel came to California from Yugoslavia in the mid-1800s. By the end of the 1800s, it was the most widely grown grape in California. The popularity of this wine remained strong for many years, produc- ing a range of wines from light and fruity to dark, intensely fruity and tannic.
But the love of zinfandel began to wane in the 1970s with preference for cabernet sauvignon and merlot. Wine made from zinfandel was getting hard to sell and, as a result, century-old vineyards that had produced decades of quality wine were being shuttered. And then there was white zinfandel. The folks at a winery called Sut-ter Home decided to take the zinfandel grapes that were so available and cheap, and to press out the juice without fermenting on the skins. As a result, they got blush-col-ored wine from red grapes. It was pretty, it was sweet, it sold out quickly and the 100-year-old vineyards were saved.
With time, the demand for zinfandel returned. So much so that an organization called ZAP (Zinfandel Ad-vocates and Producers) was formed. This group travels around the country pouring zinfandel for zinfandel lovers, and the number of these fans continues to climb. I went to their ZAP Festival in January in San Francisco, three days of zinfandel- tasting events. The first evening, there were 50 zin producers, each featuring a chef who paired a zinfandel with a dish. This event really showed the versatility of this wine. The next day, there was a seminar with the producers of some of the giants of zinfandel: Ridge Winery, Rosenblum Winery and Ravenswood. They poured zins from vintages going back 20 years. The last day was the big event; more than 400 zinfandel producers poured their wines in a grand tasting. I tasted almost a hundred wines that day. Of course, I spit rather than swallowed, or I wouldn’t have much faith in my wine notes.
As I look at my notes now, I see adjectives such as “gorgeous,” “luscious,” “jammy,” “fantastic.”
Of all the wines I tasted there were only two I didn’t like. One was fruity but just too high in alcohol and tasted hot. The other just smelled bad. The rest of the wines were wonderful. I don’t know of any wine that is so consistently good at all price levels.
If you’re not drinking zinfandel regularly, you’re missing a real treat. These wines smell and taste of blueber- ries, blackberries, black raspberries and plums. The wines feel jammy in the mouth and the fruit flavors last for a long time. I noticed that the less expensive ones are very fruity, fun and simple, something like a Beaujolais. As the price goes up, the wines become more complex, adding spice, black pepper and tannins to the fruit flavors.
So if you’re matching these wines with food, go cheap ($6 to $10) when you’re having hamburgers. If you’re din- ing on London broil, go up a notch ($14 to $18). If it’s a rack of lamb with rose-mary, step it up even more ($25 to $30).
The “7 to try” are a must buy. These are all great wines and great values. I have already added them to my wine cel-lar. They will continue to give pleasure for many years; however, I drink most zinfan- dels within two years of purchase, when the fruity flavors are still most intense. By the way, we do not grow this hot-climate grape in New Jersey.
Dr. Pavlis is a Rutgers Extension agent and member of the Garden State Wine Growers
Sutter Home, $5.99 – Very fruity, just a fun wine
Barefoot Cellars Non-vintage California, $6.50 – Very Beaujolaislike
Cline Cellars 2008 California, $9.99 – My house Zin
Cline Cellars 2007 Ancient Vines, $19 – What a mouthful of fruit
Klinker Brick Old Vine Lodi, $16.99 – Blueberries black raspberries, black pepper, lush
Seghesio Old Vine Zinfandel 2008 Sonoma County, $31.00 – Great fruit, great complexity
Ridge Geyserville 2007, $29.99, Pricey but magnificent