Vineyards & Wine

In Praise of Zinfandel, the Complex, Balanced Wine Experts Adore

Caitlin Miller, Specialist, Wines & Spirits at Christie’s New York, shares what to look for in a truly great bottle of Zinfandel—and how it can dispel any misconceptions about this variety

Early in my wine education, I often dismissed Zinfandel as a cheap jug wine. A bottle of well-aged Ridge Vineyards Zinfandel dispelled this notion, and sparked my deep love for this versatile grape.

When the grape first arrived in California in 1852, it became the darling of the nascent wine industry. But despite its popularity, Zinfandel had a few flaws: it often lacked color, ripened unevenly, and could have either high or low acid depending on environmental factors. To combat these issues, winemakers adopted a method that was common in many Mediterranean regions: field blending.

Vineyards at Francis Ford Coppola Winery
Vineyards in California’s Geyserville region—such as the famed Francis Ford Coppola Winery, pictured here—are known for their vibrant, fruit-forward takes on Zinfandel. Image: Alamy

This is the practice of interplanting different grape varieties in a single vineyard and co-fermenting them in a single vat. Using the right selection of grapes, this process can create a more balanced and complex wine.

Many vineyards planted in the late 1800s and early 1900s included a mix of complementary varieties, such as Alicante Bouschet, Petite Sirah, and Mataro (Mourvèdre). It was common for field blends to contain 20 different varieties, but some early vineyards had as many as 40, including white grapes, which add aromatics and help stabilize color.

A few of these original field-blended vineyards still survive. With vines now averaging more than 100 years of age, their wines are powerful, complex, and capable of long cellar aging.

Ridge Vineyards, one of the most famous producers of Zinfandel-based field blends, is a personal favorite. Bottles produced in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, from vineyards such as Geyserville and Lytton Springs, are spectacular today. We were thrilled to include several of these bottlings in Christie’s successful Benjamin Ichinose sale in July 2020. Other vineyards to seek out include Bedrock, Pagani Ranch, Carlisle, and Nervo Ranch—the balance, depth, and complexity you get from these sites is impressive.

Three bottles of Ridge Vineyards Zinfandel
A perfect blend: Three bottles of Ridge Vineyards Zinfandel sold for $1,875 in July 2020 at Christie’s Benjamin Ichinose Collection of Fine and Rare Wines online sale.

4 Tasting Notes for an Excellent Red Zinfandel

1. Red Zinfandel explodes with fruitiness, with primary flavors of jam, blueberry, black pepper, cherry, plum, cranberry, and licorice. In a particularly good bottling, these should be followed by spice and a tobacco-like smoky finish.

2. Zinfandels are lighter in color than both Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, but their moderate tannins, high acidity, and higher alcohol levels—ranging from 14 to 17 percent ABV, which add a full-bodied texture—ensure the wine is still bold on taste.

3. Since it leans on the sweeter side of red wine, it pairs beautifully with curries and spiced barbecue dishes. Add it to any meal that contains ginger, garlic, rosemary, or cinnamon.

4. Search out producers that operate in high elevation areas. Zinfandels from these regions tend to be more savory, and offer great intensity and richness.

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