Tuesday, 25 June 2024

Foodie Freak: Zinfandel and fanatics


I’m not a big fan of tannins in wine. Amusingly enough, as a very hairy guy I don’t like that fuzzy feeling in my mouth. Heavy tannins give me the feeling like I’m eating a whole wolverine. That doesn’t mean I don’t like Zinfandel, but I’m sure you would agree that if Zinfandel was a celebrity it would be Hugh Jackman. Ah, now the wolverine comment makes much more sense, doesn’t it?

I initially thought Hugh Jackman and Zinfandel compared very well, and researching for this column has reinforced that opinion for me. For instance, people not only like Zinfandel, but the wine seems to draw downright fanatics. There are Zinfandel organizations and Web sites the likes of which I’ve never seen regarding any other wine. I found a similar following for Hugh Jackman, with the words “Hugh Jackman is my idol!” appearing many times across the Web.

The Zinfandel grape is a bold, hearty grape which originates from the Croatian area of Europe where it is called “Crljenak Kaštelanski” (No, I can’t pronounce that for you). The Ogulin family immigrated to Lake County and brought the Zinfandel vines with them. The Ogulins are Slovenian in heritage, which is the same general area as Croatia, so it would seem natural that they would bring a grape they were familiar with to the area.

Lake County has always had a love affair with Zinfandel, and the oldest grapevines in the county planted by the Ogulin family in 1875 are still thriving on the Shannon Ridge property. Similarly, Hugh Jackman, although Austrailian by birth, is something of a transplant being that his parents are English.

Hugh Jackman is considered by many to be one of the sweetest men you could ever meet. In fact, he found it so difficult to express the rage needed for the role of Wolverine in the first X-Men movie that he spent three weeks with the director just to get it right. The Zinfandel grape is so sweet that it can reach a brix of 25 which means it can contain 25 percent sugar, one of the highest of any winegrape and even fruit in general.

Flavors you will find in Zinfandels can include anise, boysenberry, burnt match, cassis, cardboard, clove, cranberry, black cherry, briar, chocolate, cinnamon, clove, coffee, forest floor, “jammy,” licorice, nettle, nuts, orange zest, raisin, rhubarb, varnish, violets, vegetal, even wet dog.

There are some climate specific flavors such as red berries, raspberry and cola in hotter climates, and in cooler climates you might find anise, blackberry and black pepper come forward.

The aging process can produce many different smell and flavor descriptors in Zinfandel too. Carbonic maceration, or fermenting the grapes while still whole or in a carbon dioxide filled enclosure, can produce flavors similar to candy or descriptors like “tutti frutti” and bubblegum. Aging the wine in oak can add cedar, coconut, wood or oak, sagebrush, smoke, tar, or toast aromas and flavors.

Zinfandel can ferment to a higher alcohol content than most wines; 15 percent alcohol can easily be achieved, and sometimes greater. Aging a Zinfandel can increase the perception of a high alcohol content and make the wine taste “hot,” or as if it is spiked with extra alcohol.

Normally when I write one of these columns I like to include every taste descriptor for that wine I can find or think of, but with Zinfandel this would be an exhausting effort due to the amount of descriptors I’ve found. If you would like to find more Zinfandel flavor descriptors, www.zinfandel.org has a fantastic descriptor wheel on its Web site or for purchase.

Speaking to Zinfandel drinkers gets interesting as they refer to the Zinfandel regions and ages: “I prefer old growth coastal Zinfandels,” or “I don’t like the peppery coastal Zinfandels, I only drink the inland Zinfandels.” People are fanatical over Zinfandels, but then again other people are Hugh Jackman fanatics!

Unlike many other red wines, Zinfandel is best consumed within three to five years of bottling since aging too long can give the previously mentioned “hot” or high alcohol taste, and can also add cedar, cigar box, earthy, leather and musky flavors to the wine, which many people do not care for. Overaging a Zinfandel can result in the wine losing its unique qualities and becoming more generally vinous, meaning that you couldn’t tell the difference between it and a Cabernet Sauvignon or other red wine.

While it is recommended that most Zinfandels are to be drunk young, most Zinfandel aficionados say that the best Zinfandel comes from old vines, ones that are at least 50 years old. There is some sense in this belief since the grapes in a cluster on a young vine can mature at different rates, while on older vines the grapes tend to ripen more evenly.

Primativo is a grape grown in the “heel of the boot” of Italy, and genetic testing has proven that it is identical to the Zinfandel grape; just like identical twins have different fingerprints, the Primativo vines have their own unique qualities. They tend to ripen before regular Zinfandel vines, generally have heavier yields, and fewer bunch rot disease problems.

Due to Zinfandel’s popularity in the United States and Primativo’s obscurity to the average American wine drinker, Italy allows Primativo winemakers to label their wine as “Zinfandel” if being sold to the U.S. The Alcohol and Tobacco Trade and Tax Bureau in 2002 announced that they consider Primativo and Zinfandel as synonymous.

It is believed that the Zinfandel grapevine was the first domesticated winegrape and that domestication started around 6,000 years ago. The Zinfandel grape was one of the first grown in Napa and Lake counties.

In my personal opinion Zinfandel is the most complex of the winegrapes, and many will agree that a good winemaker can really pull the most from the grape and show his/her unique style in the finished wine. Hugh Jackman is also amazingly versatile, not only being a beloved actor but an accomplished singer and dancer as well.

You can usually identify an old growth Zinfandel vineyard by the untrellised, gnarly looking vines. Having the vines unsupported causes the vines to produce fewer grapes but of a higher quality. I’m sure that most wine makers would agree that they would prefer higher quality rather than higher quantity of grapes.

Hugh Jackman has starred as action super heroes, a dramatic independent film actor and even as a romantic comedy leading man, as in “Kate and Leopold.” Hey, what good is a romantic comedy without a time-traveling baron? No matter what the venue, Hugh Jackman has chosen his roles to be in typically high quality productions, which has resulted in fewer film roles than a conventional “A-List” celebrity.

However, his body of work is eclectic, unique and impressive. For example, “The Fountain,” while cinematically an amazing and gorgeous movie, is mentally challenging.

Correspondingly, Zinfandel grapes are also that “A-list” celebrity, and can be made into a heavy wine, a light wine, a tannic wine, a smooth wine, dry, sweet, etc. Zinfandel and Hugh Jackman both have the ability to transform themselves to be whatever they are needed to be.

In full truth Zinfandel is the only one of this series that I’ve written on winegrape varieties that really came to intimidate me. As I researched and talked to different Zinfandel fans I found that Zinfandel has so much history and complexity that only an entire book solely about Zinfandel could do it justice.

So for all of those fanatics, I’m sorry if I didn’t cover your favorite part about your wine. And to Hugh Jackman, comparing you to the Zinfandel is the highest complement I can give you.

Lake County Zinfandels

Barclay and Browning Wines (Hoodoo Creek Old growth vines)
Beaver Creek Vineyards
Big Valley Wine Co.
Brassfield Estate Winery
Cougar’s Leap Winery
DeLoach Vineyards
Gregory Graham Wines
Jelly Jar Wines (Rutherford Winery, old growth Lake County vines)
Langtry Estate & Vineyards
Moore Family Winery
Monte Lago (coming soon)
Ployez Winery
Rosa D’Oro Vineyards (Primativo)
Shannon Ridge Vineyards and Winery
Shed Horn Cellars
Sol Rouge Vineyard and Winery
Steele Wines (Winner, Peoples Choice Competition, Writers Block) Catfish, Shooting Star, Steele, also available
Tulip Hill Winery
Wild Hog Vineyard (Sonoma County Winery, Old growth Lake County vines)
Wildhurst Vineyards

Ross A. Christensen is an award-winning gardener and gourmet cook. He is the author of "Sushi A to Z, The Ultimate Guide" and is currently working on a new book. He has been a public speaker for many years and enjoys being involved in the community. Follow him on Twitter, http://twitter.com/Foodiefreak .

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