By Rose Murray Brown MW Published in The Scotsman 12 October 2019
I am standing on the top of Rattlesnake Hill in northern Sonoma during harvest sampling sweet juicy ripe Zinfandel grapes in a sizzling 40+ C heat.
My host Ned Neumiller, fifth generation of the Seghesio family, tells me there are rattlesnake pits amongst the vines here where his Italian ancestors first planted vines, but if I make enough noise it will scare them away. So I am trying my best to enjoy the view, rather than study the ground between vines for movements.
The view is prime Zinfandel country. In the foreground stretches narrow Alexander Valley with famous Geyserville and the winding Russian River in the distance with vineyards intermingled with fig, walnut and plum orchards – this valley was once USA’s prune capital. To my right just over Pritchett’s Peak, I can see the historic Zinfandel enclave of Dry Creek Valley and to the far right its remote rugged Rockpile subzone – these names all familiar to Zinfandel drinkers.
It is hot and arid on the valley floor, although mornings on the Russian River valley can be foggy. The early Italian immigrants like the Pedroncellis and Teldeschis first planted Zinfandel here in the 1880’s above the fog line – and these dry farmed (unirrigated) vineyards still exist today.
“Zinfandel is big berried with thin skins and tastes like a table grape, so that is why it lasted during prohibition” says Neumiller. “It was thanks to Italian growers here who kept their vines in the ground, planted on phylloxera-resistant St George rootstock, that so many survive today”.
It had been a day of Zin. Earlier that morning I had visited one of California’s most historic Zinfandel vineyards at Ridge’s Lytton Springs just a few miles away in Dry Creek Valley, north of the town of Healdsburg, where the Zinfandels tend to be more structured and tannic compared to Alexander Valley’s rich dense style.
Ridge’s 118 yr old Dry Creek vines yield extremely low crops of intensely flavoured grapes – with Zinfandel co-planted with Petite Sirah, Carignan, Mourvedre and Alicante Bouchet. These low growing gnarled rambling bush vines (pictured right) looked so different to the manicured wire-trained vineyards I had seen in Napa Valley a few days before.
“Even though Zinfandel is planted amidst a host of other vines, we can identify Zinfandel with its small T section of grapes at the top of the bunch which we cut off and the hairy underside to its leaf, which deters bugs”, says Elliot Nett of Ridge. “Grapes in the field blends actually tend to ripen within a week of each other; we pick and co-ferment them all together – one of the ways we can tell when they are ready to pick is when the pips have a nutty crunchy texture”.
It was Paul Draper of Ridge who really championed these ‘field blends’ back in the 1970s, which today have become so trendy. He was also passionate about using American, rather than French oak, for both his Sonoma Zinfandels and Santa Cruz Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon blends. “His double blind study of oak put American out top ahead of Baltic oak; Draper loved the hint of dill and sweetness lifting the fruit, rather than more neutral tannic grainy French oak”, says Nett.
Another highlight of my Zin trip had been at Joseph Swan Vineyards about 20 minutes drive further south of Healdsburg town in the Russian River Valley, where fog influence is greater with big diurnal temperature ranges and cooler nights.
Winemaker Rod Berglund (pictured right), Joseph Swan’s son-in-law, is best known for his great Pinot Noir, but this 52 year old winery has its roots in old vine Zinfandel too. Berglund buys Zinfandel from different sources. For his 2013 vintage, he bought from growers Martha Bastoni and Russ Messana at Bastoni Vineyards in Fountaingrove AVA near Santa Rosa. Here volcanic soils give Zinfandel a very different style to Dry Creek or Alexander Valley with high acidity, brightness and a savoury richness. Bastoni vineyard was one of Sonoma’s vineyards damaged in the October 2017 California wildfires.
Over the Mayacamas Mountains in Napa Valley, Zinfandel plays second fiddle to Cabernet Sauvignon. Styles differ here too with a more restrained fruit and structured tannic style from mountain grown fruit, like Outpost winery’s Howell Mountain Zinfandel grown 2000 ft up on Napa’s eastern slopes.
My favourite Napa Zinfandel is from pioneer John Williams (pictured right) at Frogs Leap winery who makes some of the ripest most affordable Napa Zinfandel from his organic and biodynamic vineyards. He co-ferments “ripe, but not raisined” St Helena-grown Zinfandel with mix of Petite Sirah and Carignan to make lush rich Zin which matures well – as he proved with his sweet briary silky old Frogs Leap 1999 Zinfandel.
Alexander Valley, Sonoma: RIDGE GEYSERVILLE ZINFANDEL 2017
(£27.50 hf bt Fortnum & Mason; £40 Vinorium)
Elegant spicy blend of 68% Zinfandel, 18% Carignane, 12% Petite Sirah & 2% Alicante Bouchot – with blackberry and plum notes with firm tannic structure.
Alexander Valley, Sonoma: SEGHESIO HOME RANCH ZINFANDEL 2011
(£58.99 Exel Wines, Perth)
Very rich raisiny densely pack Zinfandel with full texture, spicy and a lovely long length.
Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma: RIDGE LYTTON SPRINGS ZINFANDEL 2017 ***STAR BUY***
(£39 l’Art du Vin, Dunfermline www.aduv.co.uk; £43 Woodwinters www.woodwinters.com)
Stylish blend of 74% Zinfandel, 15% Petite Sirah, 9% Carignane & 2% Mourvedre co-fermented in the difficult 2017 harvest give a lovely complex mix of blackpepper, raspberry and redcurrant notes, chalky tannins and vibrant acidity.
Northern Sonoma: SEGHESIO OLD VINE ZINFANDEL 2016
(£44 Woodwinters, Edinburgh, Bridge of Allan & Inverness; Wine Raks, Aberdeen)
Blend of 50 year old vines from a mix of Dry Creek, Alexander Valley, Sonoma and Russian River; soft rounded silky smooth Zinfandel.
Russian River Valley, Sonoma: JOSEPH SWAN BASTONI VINEYARDS ZINFANDEL 2013 ***STAR BUY***
(£29.99 Raeburn Wines, Edinburgh)
Very plummy fruits, mature developed aromas with savoury undertones, cranberry, blueberry and juniper flavours with a spicy finish – made from lower Russian River valley fruit.
Napa Valley: FROGS LEAP ZINFANDEL 2017
(£26 Berry Bros www.bbr.com; Oxford Wine; The Whisky Exchange)
Rich ripe elegant fruity blend of 82% Zinfandel co-fermented with 17% Petite Sirah and 1% Carignane aged in American oak and concrete cubes, hint of spice, vivid freshness, 14% alcohol (moderate for Zinfandel) and soft approachable tannins.
Join Rose’s Fine Wine Tasting Dinner in Rhubarb Restaurant at Prestonfield House Hotel, Edinburgh £96 for 4 courses & 8 fine wines www.rosemurraybrown.com