From California to the Okanagan, a brazen yet enjoyable Zinfandel assault
Zinfandel is the cowboy wine—brash, brazen, bold, blood red (most of the time), and rough-edged. Nothing very subtle here. And it’s the penultimate ampelographic caboose on the grape-y train: only Zweigelt follows it to bring up the rear. It’s a California original and a mainstay of the Central Valley growing region, although some possible origins have been traced to Italy’s prince of raunch, Primitivo. It’s not for the faint of palate. Sometimes it’s white. Sometimes it bubbles. Sometimes it’s sweet.
To many wine drinkers, it is best known in its White Zinfandel configuration—a pop wine, on the sweet side, relatively low in alcohol, easy to toss back. But as a red it comes into its own as California’s wine. Although we have some plantings here, it is generally not widely grown beyond California’s wine boundaries. According to popular wisdom, it was brought here by the legendary father of California wine, Agoston Haraszthy, in the mid-1800s, and gained widespread acceptance with grape growers.
Here in the Okanagan it sits in the middle of total red-grape acreage planted: number 12 on the list. (Merlot is number one, with 16.23 percent.) Zin plantings account for 18.84 acres, or approximately 0.19 percent of total plantings. In The Wineries of British Columbia (Whitecap Books, 2009), John Schreiner references nine wineries making it: Black Sheep, Desert Hills, Dunham & Froese, Inniskillin Okanagan (which claims to have made the Okanagan’s first Zinfandel in 2002), Mount Boucherie, Pentâge (where owner Paul Gardner likes to call it his “dirty dozen varietal”), Quinta Ferreira, Road 13, and Rustico Farm & Cellars. There may be others by now.
A few more numbers before we get to taste some: the B.C. LDB lists 36 Zinfandels in the system, from $9.99 to $49.99. That number includes three from California’s Ravenswood, a frequent guest at the Vancouver Playhouse International Wine Festival. The winery’s marketing manifesto is “No Wimpy Wines”, which certainly holds true with this label. Try one and see. Your teeth may reel from the assault!
There are also a handful of White Zinfandels listed and an unusual eight-sided box containing three litres of Octavin Cardinal Zin, for $35.99—a light, quaffable foodie wine that’s just right to fuel a pizza party, spaghetti and puttanesca sauce, or a plethora of differently sauced chicken wings.
Some recently tasted Zins, in no particular order:
Sledgehammer North Coast Zinfandel 2009 ($19.99, specialty listing)
Aptly named; the back label warns “there is nothing subtle about Sledgehammer Zinfandel.” It gets at the nose first with big, in-your-face aromas but follows that with a surprisingly restrained presence on the palate. It’s softer than they think, methinks. Pleasant enough, and hearty food is an essential.
Mount Boucherie Family re- serve Zinfandel 2008 ($34.99 at the winery near Kelowna)
The price is getting up there, but this is a very hearty Zin—spicy and edgy with an intriguing overlay of licorice; quite soft and putting the lie to the unsubtle claim the Sledgehammer makes. In fact, this is so nicely tamed it’ll address a roast-beef family dinner with the in-laws comfortably. Yorkshire puddings are definitely called for.
Inniskillin Okanagan Zinfandel Bear Cub Vineyard 2005 ($29.95 when originally released)
Muscular and solid but with some uncommon (for Zin) finesse in the finish. Lots of berries and a rich texture all over the palate. Try the winery first; there are still some bottles kicking around in various dusty bins. Worth a quest.
Rustico Farm & Cellars Bonanza Old Vine Zinfandel 2008 ($34.95, at the winery’s Lonesome Quail Saloon only)
If you drive south on Highway 97 out of Oliver, you will come across all sorts of numbered roads angling off up into the hills of what is known as the Golden Mile. Here are quirky wineries galore, and one of the (nicely) quirkiest is Rustico Farm & Cellars, whose Bonanza Old Vine Zinfandel 2008 is proprietor Bruce Fuller’s pride and joy.
Fuller’s Zin announces its heady nature with an inky/tarry colour, followed by a cocoa-and-espresso nose. Then it gets big and brawling, substantial all over the palate. The proprietor points to a “toast-and-jam” fruit nose with a hint of violets, cloves, and blackberries and suggests spicy-sauced beef with it. There is some appealing hint of sweetness in the initial approach. Overall, this is a brilliant Zinfandel, ready to take on all comers.
Yes, it’s relatively costly, but I don’t think anyone has made a better Zinfandel in B.C. yet.