A best-selling brand of Zinfandel made from seven growers in Lodi
Critics call it the gonzo grape, rock 'n roll wine and the cult of the "Zin". Graham Howe looks for the X-factor at a taste-off of Zinfandel
from California and the Cape.
"I've got a head made for business and a body made for Zin" (US bumper sticker)
"My sin is the Zin enslaving my lust" (Kevin Phillips, 7 Deadly Zins)
"When you pop the cork, it's an act of love" (Charlize Theron)
"I often feel 'Zinned' out afterwards" (Stuart Pigott)
In the global village of wine, if “A” stands for Agiorgitiko, “Z” stands for Zinfandel, the first and last grapes in the alphabet. There are lots of grapes which come in-between but only Pinot Noir and Pinotage may come close to the cult of Zinfandel. “One of the most fanatical red wine cults on the planet”, Stuart Pigott raves in Planet Wine, “I freely admit I am frequently high on Zin - a similar kind of intoxication you get from cannabis or from riding a fast motorcycle. This grape taught wine to rock”.
Blaauwklippen, billed as “the home of Zinfandel” (well, in the Cape), hosted its fifth annual International Zinfandel Tasting in Cape Town in early March. Cellar master Rolf Zeitvogel was the only South African exhibitor at the recent ZAP (Zinfandel Advocates and Producers) show in San Francisco, the big event which celebrates one of the most widely planted red grapes in California, attended by 250 producers and 10 000 fervent fans. He returned from the golden gate with the big five Zinfandels of California for us to taste - as well as Blaauwklippen’s own new reserve Zinfandel.
Zinfandel is one of those extroverted varieties you either love or hate. Rolf says consumers in the US like “outspoken flavours on the palate” - the upfront fruit, big black berry flavours, wild/spicy/savoury character, fresh acidity and bold, full-bodied style of this loud quintessential Californian wine. After visiting key cellars, he adds that old vines, the expression of terroir, blending (typically with Petit Syrah) and the more conservative use of oak are key principles of the Zinfandel creed of California. The wines we tasted, ranging from 14.6% ABV to 16%, are not for the faint-hearted.
But if Zinfandel sounds like a muscular spin on Arnold Schwarzenegger on steroids, consider the fact that bombshell Charlize Theron is a big fan of Blaauwklippen - and reportedly enjoys its Zinfandel. In Gilbert and Gaillard (winter 2011), our own Hollywood celeb compares wine and sex: “When you pop the cork, it’s an act of love”; bowled over by “the intoxicating scents”, she compares the stem of a wine glass to a stiletto heel, and finds the shape of the bottle “very pleasing to the eye”.
Even Charlize says it’s nicer to be given wine than to buy it yourself. So who buys Zinfandel in South Africa? Zeitvogel says that it stands out on wine shows, that local consumers always ask for Zinfandel at Blaauwklippen’s stall and at the cellar-door - it’s a point of difference. Blaauwklippen markets a history of Zinfandel going back to the 1970s - and now makes 6000 cases of its focus variety - Red Zin, White Zin, Noble Late Harvest Zin and the new (single vineyard) reserve Zin (a flagship at R290). While other key producers Glen Carlou and Hartenberg pulled out their Zinfandel, only two other Cape cellars (Idiom and Zevenwacht) persist with this cult variety - and Blaauwklippen is adding new Californian clones to its plantings of 10 ha of Zin.
The making of Zinfandel even resembles a Hollywood thriller. In a CSI-type DNA search for the origins of the grape beginning in 1998, Dr Carole Meredith, a grapevine geneticist from the University of California and a research team tracked the source of the grape known as Zinfandel in the US and Primitivo in Apulia at the heel of Italy to an old variety called crljenak kastelanski planted at Radunic vineyard near Split on the Dalmatian coast. The vines made their way from Croatia via the palace gardens of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in Vienna to Italy and the US via Italian immigrants who followed the gold rush to California in the mid-19th century (see Jasenka Piljac’s "Zinfandel: A Croatian-American Wine Story" at www.crozinfandel.com).
Tasting living history, we sampled one of these old vine wines at the Zin tasting - Terra d’Oro Deaver Zinfandel 2008 planted 131 years ago in gold rush country in Amador County, California (This elegant expression of Zin was voted the best out of the Californina Zins at the Cape tasting). Earthquake Zinfandel 2010 from Michael David Phillips Winery in Lodi - the heart of old vine Zin - is made from 106 year old vineyards with a gorgeous dark, black, organic character. This winery is home to “7 Deadly Zins” (sic), a best-selling brand of Zinfandel from seven growers in Lodi under a fabulous label which sells over eight million bottles across the US. Awarding it 90 points, Robert Parker raves, “Drink this seductive, full throttle classic”.
Wine producer Kevin Phillips writes on the great label, “Seven of Lodi’s best growers gave their souls to produce this one of a kind sinful blend of seven old vine deadly Zins. My sin is the Zin, enslaving my lust. Oh Lord, forgive me my many Zins”!
Our lesson in the Zin bin included a big spicy Zinfandel from 132 year old vineyards in Sonoma Valley - owned by Bob Biale, the president of ZAP. One of the old Italian families who brought over this grape from the old country in the 19th century called their original Zinfandel wine by the code-name “the black chicken” in the bad old days of prohibition (perhaps after the meaty black cherry, black olive and savoury flavours). Next up was Annette’s Reserve Zinfandel 2009 from Rosenblum Cellars - an elegant example of Zinfandel filled out by blending in 11% Petit Syrah and 11% Carignan - the flagship of a top cellar owned by “the Steve Jobs of Zinfandel”.
The first Zinfandel I ever enjoyed was from Blaauwklippen in the early 1980’s. Variety is the spice of a wine cellar - and I’ve kept older vintages in my collection ever since in the spirit of bio-diversity. Over the years, I’ve tasted Zinfandel all over the world from California to Croatia, Italy and Australia - most recently enjoying the celebrated Zinfandel made by James Sweetapple at Cargo Road Wines in Orange and Dave Lowe’s iconic bushvine Zinfandel in Mudgee. I still remember the gorgeous Blaauwklippen Zinfandel 1987 we tasted in an Italian and Cape flight at the first International Zinfandel Tasting in July 2007 - a wine made by Walter Finlayson, the celebrated winemaker who pioneered Zinfandel in South Africa in the early days.
Matured in French oak for 18 months, Blaauwklippen’s new Reserve Zinfandel 2009 is a serious newcomer to the cellar’s Zin range - made with grapes sourced from a twenty year-old vineyard, this barrel-fermented wine made with native yeast gives classic expression to the variety, with typical black plum, raison and spicy flavours.
Cellar master Rolf Zeitvogel comments, “You have to really work with Zinfandel and wood. It doesn’t absorb oak easily. We’ve experimented with toasting and the type of barrel. At Blaauwklippen we’re switching to a more conservative use of oak.” Handing out perfectly ripe grapes and raisons from two sides of the same bunch of Zinfandel harvested at Blaauwklippen, Zeitvogel concludes, “The small, compact bunches ripen unevenly - and are prone to sour rot. We have to pick at regular intervals to ensure we harvest fruit at the same maturity. Zinfandel is a diva grape.”