Recently I sat down with Joel Peterson, founder and longtime winemaker of Ravenswood Winery, to taste through the winery’s new single-vineyard releases and chat a bit about Zinfandel in general.

Ravenswood Zinfanels
Credit: © Alan Ross

Recently I sat down with Joel Peterson, founder and longtime winemaker of Ravenswood Winery, to taste through the winery’s new single-vineyard releases and chat a bit about Zinfandel in general.

The new releases are from the 2013 vintage, “a pretty glorious year,” as Peterson put it. “Very even weather, and a long end to the season that was warm without being hot. As opposed to this year,” he added, referring to 2015, “which was just total mayhem as a winemaker.”

About Zinfandel in general, Peterson has noted a pull-back from the super-ripe styles of the ’90s and ’00s. “Take Turley,” he said. “The wines they were famous for in the ’90s were 17 percent alcohol, five to six grams residual sugar, incredibly oaky. A lot of people were making that sort of Zinfandel. Now, Turley’s wines are at 14 to 15 percent—basically where I’ve always been, which is when the grapes are ripe but not overripe when you pick them, and you let the wine ferment to its natural level. Wines like that are fresher, brighter, have more longevity and are more interesting to drink. You get more expression of the place where they’re grown, and they’re just less syrupy.”

Couldn’t agree more. And Peterson’s 2013 vineyard-designate Zinfandels fit that model, though as always they reflect the character of the individual vineyards they are from. The 2013 Ravenswood Dickerson Vineyard Zinfandel ($35), from vines planted in the 1920s on Zinfandel Lane (appropriately) in Napa Valley, is soft and plush, but with appealing brightness. “The vines have leaf roll virus,” Peterson commented, “so you get these perfumey, raspberry-scented wines, fresh and mouth-watering.”

By contrast, the 2013 Ravenswood Belloni Vineyard Zinfnadel ($35) has a much more intense floral note, and plenty of ripe boysenberry character, cocoa notes and lightly grippy tannins. “The vineyard was planted in 1900,” Peterson said, “and it’s a true California field blend—a sort of random mix of 75 percent Zinfandel with Carignan, Alicante Bousche, Mourvedre, Petite Sirah and other varieties.”

The 2013 Ravenswood Teldeschi Vineyard Zinfandel ($35) comes from a Dry Creek Valley site farmed since 1915, about 85 percent Zinfandel, with the rest Carignane and Petite Sirah. This was the only one of the group that came off as somewhat oaky right now to me; it’s a powerful wine, with grippy tannins and dark cherry flavors.

The 2013 Ravenswood Old Hill Ranch Zinfandel ($60) is sourced from one of Sonoma’s oldest surviving vineyards. Old Hill Ranch was originally planted in 1862, then replanted after it was wiped out by phylloxera in 1885. “This vineyard has a long history of producing amazing wines,” Peterson noted, “but it’s a throwback. It’s 60 percent Zinfandel, then this whole crazy patois of mixed black varieties. It even has varieties we can’t identify by DNA—there’s one I call the black panther, because it’s black with black spots.” The wine in 2013 has a lovely dark berry aroma with a touch of mint/eucalyptus, and is more open than Old Hill usually is on release, though the wine’s classic density is there in the finish.

An Alexander Valley vineyard planted in 1900 is the source for the 2013 Ravenswood Big River Vineyard Zinfandel ($35), which, as Peterson says, “has that charming Zinfanality about it.” Translate that as inviting raspberry liqueur flavors, lightly chewy tannins and a cherry-vanilla note. “It’s the true character of old vine Zinfandel,” Peterson added. “Couldn’t be anything else.” I agree.

Finally, the 2013 Ravenswood Barricia Vineyard Zinfandel ($35) is full of dark, briary boysenberry fruit. It's rich and dense, a “lick-your-lips sort of Zin” was what I wrote when I tasted it. “It’s got a high percentage of Petite Sirah,” Peterson told me, “which makes it more structured and not quite as pretty as the Big River.” Much of the fruit for this wine comes from Zinfandel vines planted before 1892.