Zinfandel was my gateway to fine wine. In my early 20s, I was an avowed White Zinfandel drinker, imagining this the height of sophistication. One day in a local wine shop, I noticed a bottle on the shelf that said Zinfandel on the label, but the wine inside was red. Confused and knowing next to nothing about wine, I decided to pick up a bottle.
Spicy, fruity and with some sweetness, it turned out that I had accidentally discovered a terrific wine for newbies – but one that can also impress sophisticated wine drinkers. While very good ones can be had for under $15 (see below), wines from star producers can top $60 a bottle.
The “white” kind is made from the same grape but treated in a radically different way. White Zinfandel is actually a rosé wine, made from the Zinfandel grape, which is red, with minimal skin contact and halted fermentation, leaving (oftentimes) a lot of residual sugar.
Unfortunately, as Zinfandel grew in popularity, many winemakers tried to make this very big wine even bigger, letting the grapes get overripe and making wines that were too sweet and too high in alcohol for my palate – Zins can average more than 15 percent alcohol, which is not especially food-friendly or great for drinking on a hot summer day.
At its best, Zinfandel is an ideal barbeque wine – the fruitiness and sweetness won’t be overwhelmed by steak, burgers or barbeque sauce. Here are three Zinfandels that will make a good impression. Stick them in the fridge for about 10 minutes before serving, but no more. An ever so slight chill makes these wines more pleasurable in the hot weather, but too much cold will damp down the fruity aromas and palate, leaving behind just the taste of alcohol.
Mountain View Zinfandel, Clockspring Vineyard 2010
This casually elegant wine, made from organic grapes from Amador County, is a remarkable value. Loaded with cherry and raspberry on the nose, it is bright with a long finish. With hints of plum and vanilla, it is surprisingly light and fresh. ($12.99, 14.5 percent alcohol, Nasty Nonnie’s in Saugus, Salem Wine Imports)
Optima Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel 2009
This is a big blockbuster wine, packed with black cherry and chocolate, with hints of vanilla and oak. Not for timid palates, the finish is a bit hot – not surprising, given the alcohol content. ($23, 14.9 percent alcohol, Busa Wine & Spirits in Salem, Vinnin Square Liquors in Swampscott)
Five Vintners 2012 Zinfandel, Dry Creek Valley
From a family that has been making wine in California since 1876, this crowd pleaser shows the typical black cherry along with some licorice and even a sort of minty chocolate. Firm tannins mean it will stand up to a juicy burger, but the ripe roundness would be just as nice with pasta. ($24, 14.5 percent alcohol, Savour Wine & Cheese, Gloucester)