America’s quintessential grape variety has a rocky reputation, but here are some standout Zinfandels to look for.

By Brian Freedman
August 25, 2020
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Zinfandel has baggage. All wine does, but with Zinfandel, it’s not uncommon to hear people discuss America’s quintessential grape variety in overly broad terms: super-ripe, overtly fruit-focused, high-octane. 

And while there are certainly plenty of Zins out there that fit that description, the category is far broader than that, with wines of serious nuance, complexity, and stylistic variation.

Credit: Grist Vineyard / Andis Wines / Dutton-Goldfield Winery, Frank Family Vineyards / Chappellet Winery

“Yes, that characterization of Zinfandel as super-ripe, etc. is unfortunate indeed. The reality is far more complex,” said Joel Peterson, the influential “Godfather of Zinfandel” who founded Ravenswood in 1976 and now makes exceptional wines under his new label, Once and Future. “In actuality, Zinfandel has gone [through] a number of style changes in its history. In the ’50s and early ’60s, it was considered a solid table wine [and] usually between 12 and 13.5% [alcohol]. It may have been the most consumed red wine in California, frequently in jug. Then,” he said, “late in the 1960s, people discovered uber-ripe Amador wines with alcohols that occasionally approached 17% and were frequently port-like with residual sugar. These wines made a brief splash with the press and the cognoscenti, but they did not age well and created a backlash against this stye of wine, that seems to have stuck to the image of the grape.”

These days, however, California Zinfandel is far more approachable, and the best of them are produced in a style that, according to Peterson, highlights “good fruit and spice without… jammy-ness [and have] lovely acid balance.” He points to producers like Bedrock, Biale, Ridge, his own Once and Future wines, and Storybook Mountain, as exemplifying this shift.

Rebecca Robinson, Executive Director of ZAP, Zinfandel Advocates & Producers, stressed both the versatility of Zinfandel as well as its ability to convey a sense of terroir with delicious clarity. “Zinfandel does indeed display a wide range of versatility and can be grown throughout the wine regions of California,” she explained. “That’s why Zinfandels from Mendocino County can display distinct raspberry-cherry character, while Amador Zinfandels can feature black pepper and anise. Over the past eight years or so, there has definitely been a return to balance in Zinfandel winemaking. And, of course, there are consumers who embrace the bolder side of Zinfandel.”

For a real sense of Zinfandel’s relationship with a particular terroir, Robinson suggests focusing on single-vineyard bottlings. “ZAP conducted a survey last year, and of the over 1,400 vineyards producing Zinfandel in California, there were 460 single vineyard designates classified. There are also multiple wineries producing single vineyard wines from the same vineyard, demonstrating the quality reputation of these grapes.” 

 Over the course of tasting several dozen Zinfandels for this article, I was struck by the amazing diversity of styles among them all, the excellent value of even the most expressive single-vineyard bottlings, and the ability of my favorites among them to remain balanced and energetic at a broad range of alcohol percentages.

Here are 21 of my favorites, listed alphabetically.

2018 Alquimista Cellars Jessie’s Grove Ancient Vine Zinfandel Lodi ($57)

From vines of more than 130 years old, this is generous, meaty, and spicy, with acid-zipped and concentrated flavors of plums and brambly berries that resolve on a distinctly savory note. Primarily Zinfandel, with Carignane, Flame Tokay, Black Prince, Mission, and Malvasia Bianca.

 

2017 Andis Original Grandpère Vineyard Zinfandel Sierra Foothills ($45)

The Zin here comes from a vineyard planted in 1869 (way back in the Grant administration!) and drips with spiced cherry and cherry pit, dried oregano, and thyme aromas that transition to a sappy palate that is almost Port-like in its richness and concentration yet about so much more than just ripe fruit: This is savory as well, with licorice and deeply toasted fennel seeds, and plenty of energy to the blackberries, cassis, and blueberries, with hints of vanilla-tinged cookie dough on the finish.

 

2015 Bella Vineyards & Wine Caves Maple Vineyards Annie’s Block Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley ($55)

The early stages of maturity are just starting to shine through on the nose, with hints of butterscotch, cedar, tobacco, and apricots leading to a palate of sweet fruit, nicely concentrated yet not overwhelming, with cherry pastry crème, graham cracker pie crust, and a mix of mountain berries, cherries, and currants. There’s a hint of rosemary on the finish, as well as the suggestion of orange oils and chocolate-enrobed espresso beans.

Credit: Marc Fiorito courtesy of Brandlin Vineyard

 

2018 Brandlin Brandlin Vineyard Old Vine Zinfandel Mount Veeder - Napa Valley ($50)

From vines planted by the Brandlin family in 1926, this shows a smoke-kissed nose of fresh-tilled earth and sun-warmed slate alongside black cherry compote and red licorice, and then a silk-textured palate pulsing with energy and full of kirsch, red and black currants, Rainier cherries, pomegranate juice, and spice. The finish rings through with subtly floral peppercorns, and dusty tannins structure this beautiful, balanced wine.

 

2017 Chappellet Zinfandel Napa Valley ($45)

Chappellet may be more famous for their Bordeaux varieties, but this bottling proves that they’re Zinfandel experts, too. Aromas of toast, beef bouillon, black plums, licorice, and toasted fennel seeds set the stage for a palate generous with black cherries, blueberries, violets, a hint of forest floor, cardamom, and floral black peppercorns. Crafted from nearly half-century-old vines grown at 2,000 above sea level in the Mayacamas.

 

2018 Cline Ancient Vines Zinfandel Contra Costa County ($22)

Deeply spiced nose with a hint of green olives, smoked pork ribs, and sage, and a palate of tamarind, tart cherries, currants, and singed vanilla pod. Energetic, and a great value, especially considering that the vines for this are more than 100 years old.

 

2017 Decoy Zinfandel 2017 Sonoma County ($25)

Plush aromas of dark cherries marked by toasty oak, this boasts candied orange peel, Amarena cherries, raspberry coulis, currants, and a hint of raisins simmered with vanilla pod. Food-friendly and dusty tannins finish this otherwise silky wine.

 

2017 Dutton Goldfield Morelli Lane Vineyard Zinfandel Russian River Valley ($50)

Melted red licorice, huckleberries, strawberries, blueberries, and sweet spice on the nose, and a palate of generosity and energy in equal measure, with dried orange flavors alongside wild berries, blood orange, hints of lemon, sweet spice, and, unexpectedly, sumac. So lively.

 

2017 Flambeaux Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley ($40)

Vanilla from the oak is still absorbing, but provides an appealing sense of baking spice and structure alongside figs, licorice, wild strawberries, cherries, ripe blueberries, candied rose petals and violets, and a hint of cinnamon crème caramel.

2016 Foppiano Vineyards Zinfandel Russian River Valley ($28)

Evocative aromas of goji berries swirl alongside cherry cobbler, and turn to a palate of excellent detail and finesse, with plenty of spice and blackberries pulsing through it all.

 

2017 Frank Family Vineyards Zinfandel Napa Valley ($38)

A wave of blueberries and blackberries on the nose precedes a palate of black raspberries, blueberries, mountain berries, warming spices, and melted black licorice, all with a dusting of baker’s chocolate and singed vanilla pod.

Credit: Courtesy of Flambeaux Wine

 

2016 Gary Farrell Grist Vineyard Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley ($50)

Shimmering aromas of red berries, licorice, and a hint of candied violets all set the stage for a palate of remarkable clarity and detail, with cranberries, figs, and spice that, on the finish, finds a counterpoint in an almost salty note that makes this a savory, wildly food-friendly wine.

 

2017 Goosecross Zinfandel Napa Valley ($42)

From Lincoln Creek Vineyard in Oakville, this starts off in the glass with a pure evocation of deeply floral cracked black and pink peppercorns, which follows through to the palate where it’s joined by wild cherries, tamarind, thyme, cardamom, and mountain berries. Fantastic, and full of life and energy.

 

2017 Ironstone Vineyards Old Vine Zinfandel Reserve Lodi ($28)

Big, rich, and structured, with blueberries, chocolate, cassis, spice, and black tea coming in a wave on the palate, and resolving in a suggestion of flowers and chamomile on the generous finish.

 

2017 J. Lohr “Gesture” Zinfandel Paso Robles ($25)

Brambly berries, wild strawberries, and peppercorns dance with subtle balsamic notes lifting it up. Remarkably fresh and lively, despite its sheer size at 15.4% ABV. This is a big, balanced wine that screams out for steak au poivre.

 

2016 Mount Peak Winery Rattlesnake Zinfandel Sonoma County (approx. $40)

Rich and lush, but anchored by a distinct meaty character to the green and black olive tapenade, all of which are joined by cracked peppercorns all allspice, finishing with boysenberry and blackberry liqueur-filled chocolate. That finish is seamed through with subtle smoky notes that play up the savory side of this broad-shouldered Zinfandel that carries its alcohol beautifully.  86% of the fruit for this comes from the legendary Monte Rosso vineyard.

 

2018 Once & Future Frank’s Block Teldeschi Vineyard Zinfandel 2018 Dry Creek Valley ($55)

So bright, full of coiled energy and real presence on the silk-textured palate, where bright acidity carries mountain berries, cherries, a hint of pomegranate, dusty tannins, clove, and orange oils, as well as a very subtle hint of purple flowers, especially on the finish. This is a totally unique and thoroughly delicious Zinfandel from the “godfather” of the variety.

 

2016 Peachy Canyon Mustang Springs Zinfandel Adelaida District - Paso Robles ($42)

Fantastic juxtaposition of acidity and controlled power, with cranberries, spice, and black cardamom, as well as a hint of asphalt, pink peppercorns, and chamomile, all carried on a frame of precision and detail.

 

2016 Prie Vineyards Soucie Vineyard Old Vine Zinfandel Lodi ($35)

From vines planted in 1916, this is lush and marked with aromas of chocolate-enrobed blueberries that transition to an elegant palate of sweet blackberries, boysenberries, and assertive spice that remains in perfect harmony with the ripe fruit, the finish lingering with plums and fig reduction.

 

2018 Ridge Pagani Ranch Zinfandel Sonoma Valley ($40)

84% ZInfandel / 9% Alicante Bouschet / 7% Petite Sirah

Bright acidity and clarity in a wine that pulses energetically through flavors of wild brambly berries, pomegranates, a hint of flowers, blood orange, and mineral-tinged spice. Proof, once again, of why Ridge is such a Zinfandel benchmark vintage after vintage.

 

2017 Terra d’Oro Deaver Vineyard Zinfandel Amador County ($30)

135-year-old vines have resulted in a wine ringing with sweet cola spice, cherries, and baseball-mitt leather on the nose, and a ripe palate of sweet fruit with a vividly spiced spine and mineral to spare, both lending ballast to black raspberries and red cherries before a long, mineral-flecked finish.