Last week I held two blind tastings that were thematically as different as wines can be: Zinfandel and Savennières. The former was part of a tasting series I hold regularly, The Old and the Restless while the other one was on Super Bowl Sunday, with eight other wine professionals who also could care less about football (modern day gladiators), especially when presented with the opportunity to drink arguably some of the world’s finest Chenin Blanc.
In a sense, Zinfandel epitomizes California wine in the sense that it is just about as fruit forward as any one grape gets and is often pretty brash, especially when it is young. I’ve heard more than one person refer to it as “frat boy wine,” which really can mean a number of things since there are different types of frats (and Zins) but let’s just stick with the stereotype for now: loud bordering on obnoxious and packed with alcohol.
While Savennières is not delicate, it can be slow coming out of the gate and though promising, can force you to dig deep. However, once it matures there is nothing like it. If Zinfandel is frat boy wine, Savennières is for “eggheads” but both comparison are marginally useful, at best.
Lytton Springs Vineyard
The Old and the Restless: Zinfandel included nine wines (all Zinfandel) that were at least ten years old. More specifically, the oldest was from 1994, a vintage I remember well as it was the year of the baseball strike, Kurt Cobain died and Hayes & Vine, my first wine bar, opened. People underestimate Zinfandel’s ability to age and there was a time when I was not crazy about older Zin as I felt its fruit was essential to its character. Maybe because I’m older I’ve grown to appreciate the grape more as it mellows out. At any rate, I thought it would be fun to throw a bunch of classic Zins into a blind tasting and see how they were holding up. In general, I thought they were very good though I wouldn’t say any were spectacular. Here are the impressions, both mine and the other tasters, listed in the order poured.
Ridge Zinfandel, Lytton Springs, 1998 (Dry Creek Valley) 14.3% ($45)
Principessa Wedding Gown Barbie
Lytton Springs is a 112-year vineyard. Ridge has been working with it since 1972 and now owns the whole thing but up until I think, the early 90’s, there was a separate “Lytton Springs” label that was often equally impressive. I thought this wine was pleasant and still has some grip but definitely the time to drink it is now as the fruit is starting to dry up. The group seemed to enjoy it well enough to give it a fourth place finish. Among the descriptors used to describe its nose were herbal, floral and one I have never heard before but is no less valid, “Barbie Doll head.” Most people thought it was from the late 90’s and were willing to pay around $30. In case you’re wondering what a Barbie Doll’s head smells like, you can buy one for as little as $5.99 for the Barbie Beach Summer Doll. Fashion Model Collection Principessa Wedding Gown Barbie cost $125 and for the life of me, I have no idea if it smells any better.
Ravenswood Zinfandel, Dickerson, 1994 (Napa Valley) 13.8% ($54)
The Dickerson vineyard was planted in the 20’s. Ravenswood is now the only winery that uses it but the Dickerson family made their own wine at one time, as did Louis Martini. It has a signature menthol, eucalyptus nose so knowing that it was in the mix I was able to pick it out and that might have made me pre-disposed to a little favoritism, as I’ve always thought it was one of Ravenswood’s best wines. Others also got this herbaceous note but were less kind, commenting that it was medicinal and smelled like Band-Aids. It was a little hot and the finish was on the short side but 20 years can be a stretch for Zin. Everyone seemed think it was one of the oldest wines of the tasting and, as a curiosity, were willing to pay $30. In spite of this, it was the second overall favorite of the evening.
McIlroy Zinfandel, Porter-Bass Vineyard, 1995 (Russian River Valley) 13.6% ($29)
McIlroy is located in the Russian River. It is a family run property that specializes in Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and I don’t think they still work Zinfandel though could be mistaken. This is an old vineyard, most of which has been replanted. The Bass family purchased it in 1980 and it underwent biodynamic conversion in the last decade. It’s cool microclimate, abetted by ocean fog, is ideal for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and most of the original Zinfandel has been replanted. However, it is also a good site to make high acid Zin so I was not surprised that it was by far the brightest wine of the tasting with explosive cherry and cranberry fruit. A few people thought it was the youngest and most Zin-like with spice and tar. As such, the consensus was that it was from the late 90’s and that $45-$50 was a fair price. No wonder it came in first.
Joseph Swan Vineyards Zinfandel, Ziegler Vineyard, 1997 (Russian River Valley) 14.9% ($40)
Joseph Swan’s wines are far from perfect but that is one of things I’ve always appreciated about them; they are anything but formulaic. I’ve always been a fan of the Ziegler Zin, too, as in spite of its alcohol never feels overbearing. And, the nose in this wine is really great with cedar, an array of spice and dried fruit. However we all seemed to feel it was lackluster on the palate. I wouldn’t say it is completely over the hill but its drinking window is rapidly closing. Most people thought it was from the early to mid 90’s and when pressed, might pay $30.
David Coffaro Zinfandel, 1997 (Dry Creek Valley) 14.9% ($40)
When I think of Zinfandel producers, David Coffaro never crosses my mind so I was happy to include this wine and it was a sleeper, at least for me. With black olives, thyme, bay leaf, Ricola cough drops and a whiff of Lidocaine in the nose it was promising and the palate, though not particularly vibrant, was generous. Again, it seemed a little bit older than it was with most of the tasters placing it in the mid 90’s. A couple of folks were willing to spend up to $35.
Greenwood Ridge Zinfandel, Scherrer Vineyards, 1998 (Sonoma County) 14.1% ($29)
Fred Scherrer owns this vineyard and often makes very good wine from it though I have never tried one of his that has this much age. As for this 17 year old Greenwood Ridge version, it posed a bit of a quandary. Someone aptly said it seemed like there was “some character under the mess.” I felt it had the most materized nose though this did not mask a pretty strong licorice aroma. Others got porcinis, brandy, bouillon and umami. Interestingly, the majority seemed to think it was one of the younger wines, maybe from the early 2000’s. No one wanted to pay more than $25 and preferably less.
Nalle Zinfandel, 1995 (Dry Creek Valley) 13.5% ($50)
When I think of the memorable Zinfandels from the early 90’s, Nalle always comes to mind. The property has been in Lee Nalle’s family since 1927 and she and her husband, Doug, have been making wine from it for 30 years. Of the nine wines tasted, it had the most divergent reactions with some finding it way too hot while others thought it was lighter and brighter than the rest. I’m somewhere in the middle. With kirsch, pepper and Red Hots, it seems more youthful in the nose than a 19-year-old wine. Yet, the alcohol stood out which is why I say kirsch, as opposed to cherries. At the low end, some wanted to pay no more than $20 but a few were willing to splurge at $35.
Dashe Zinfandel, Todd Brothers Ranch, 2004 (Alexander Valley) 14.8% ($35)
Located in Geyserville, Todd Brothers Ranch was planted more than 50 years ago. I usually find it to be the most structured Dashe wine but this one is a little slutty. There was a good backbone of tannin and enough acid but the fruit had a sweetness that put some people off. One person said it had a lot of leg up front but not much on the finish. I don’t think it was showing particularly well but having tried other vintages of Todd Brothers Ranch, both younger and older, would give it another shot as it still has a lot of fruit. I recall some comments to the effect that it was probably more expensive than what people would want to pay, somewhere in the $30 – $35 range.
Ridge Zinfandel, Paso Robles, 1995 (Paso Robles) 14.7% ($49)
By fate, Ridge bookended the tasting, with this wine, the only one that was not from northern California, getting the proverbial bronze. One of two wines that Ridge makes from the Benito Dusi Ranch, it is sometimes under appreciated when compared to Geyserville, Pagani Ranch and Lytton Springs. It seemed older but showed up with black currant jam, an herbal and humus nose and reasonably good acidity. As a group, we were in the mid to late 90’s camp and priced it at $35.
In the End
A few people were pretty surprised by how over the course of double digit years Zinfandel can so completely change. For years, Josh Green, the publisher of Wine & Spirits Magazine, has been saying that Zinfandel was generally under priced, “at least in relation to Pinot noir and Cabernet.” Without agreeing or disagreeing, I think it does not get as much credit as it deserves for its potential complexity and that is in part the winemakers’ fault. Many are huge, monolithic fruit bombs that lack nuance and fall apart after a few years. Yet Zinfandel can be more so much more as this tasting demonstrated. Some frat boys turn into subdued, complex and charming men.
Domaine du Closel
Since I volunteered to host this fête with my monthly tasting group I chose Savennières, with unanimous approval. Two of our comrades were in the Loire Valley, prancing around the wine various fairs, so Savennières seemed like the morally correct thing to do.
Learning from last’s month’s slightly confusing experience of having eight wines in two separate flights, we opted for one flight with six wines instead but tragically, number four, “Vieux Clos”from Coulée de Serrant, was corked. Very sad not only because this is such a storied estate but the wine rocks.
In any event, hunting down Savennières is not an easy feat in the Bay Area. For the third time in 23 years I actually had to go the town of Burlingame, which is about 25 minutes away from San Francisco.
No disrespect meant to Burlingame – it has a very good school system – but unless you live nearby, are going to the airport or, as I discovered, looking for Savennières…enough said. I wish I could say that I see a lot of Savennières on restaurant and wine bar lists in SF, if not in retail shops, but I don’t. There may have been more living in my house last week, including some wines I have stashed away for my nephews, than anywhere else in San Francisco.
Savennières is a magical appellation, driven by its schist soil but with some variation in its terroir and more dramatic differences between producers with some making bone dry wines and others preferring a little residual sugar. While the five wines we tasted were not as extreme as it gets, there was a good range. Here it goes, in order.
Domaine du Closel, Le Clos du Papillon, 2007 ($35)
Clos du Papillon is considered one of the best sites in Savennières. It has clay, sandstone and schist soil infused with quartz and volcanic stones. How does this translate? Generally, the wines are rich yet have brilliant acidity and intense minerality. They can also be among the most long lived. Closel’s vines are 35 – 75 years old. The grapes were hand harvested from early to mid October in four passings. It was aged in 400-liter French oak, on fine lees, for 24 months and lightly filtered on clay.
One person thought it had oak tannin. A couple found the alcohol to be too high. It was 14.5% so that is not an unfounded concern but elevated alcohol does not necessarily mean the wine is hot. Some, myself included, noticed what seemed like botrytis.
Personally, it was my second favorite wine of the tasting and seemed more youthful than some of the others. Minerally with spiced applesauce, a shocking current of acidity and burnt caramel and honey in the nose, I found it to be well balanced and not overly rich. In spite of being seven and a half years old, it still has a way to go. I’d put it down for at least another five years before revisiting.
Domaine du Closel, La Jalousie, 2012 ($30)
La Jalousie is grown on clay with sand and schist. The vines were planted a little more than 15 years ago. All of the grapes were hand harvested and sorted on the vine, with two pickings in the beginning of September. After a slow, light pressing, it underwent a two-month natural fermentation and was aged on its lees in vat for one year.
There were quite a few descriptors used here including Play-Doh being one (which we all agreed is not a bad thing), parmesan, pineapple and saline. Someone thought the oak was disjointed.
The issue for me is that this wine is still very young. It had a lot of tropical, mango leaning fruit that I don’t usually get in Savennières and there was a slight hint of B.O. (yes, as in body odor), too. Yet, there is an underlying racy minerality and spice. In a couple of years I bet this it is going to be much more integrated and really shine.
Clément Baraut Savennières Pitrouillet, 2012 ($30)
Baraut makes his Savennières from a 32-year-old vineyard of lime and sand over slate that he purchased from Nicolas Joly in 2009. He harvests by hand and looks for ripeness. The fruit was fermented in neutral Burgundy barrels and was aged on its lees for eight months.
A few people have said that this tasted like Chenin Blanc but not Savennières. One person felt the finish was bitter. On the other hand, there were those who found it to be focused and fresh, with river rocks and beautiful transparency.
Of the five wines we tasted, I thought it was the least generous. It opened up over time but never gave too much. Since the tasting was at my house I had the privilege to go back and try it again three days later and finally, it was putting out – but not much. I’ve never had an older Baraut Savennières but I’d bet a buck or two that in another five to ten years it will metamorphosize into a very different animal as there is great acidity and the fruit came from a terrific plot.
Domaine Richou Savennières, La Bigottiere, 2012 ($36)
Located outside of the appellation, Didier and Damien Richou purchased a three-acre parcel in Savennières in 2010 that was planted in 2008, behind Roche-Aux-Moines.
This vintage is their Savennières debut and it is true to form. The group got a plethora of aromas ranging from guava blossoms, Asian spices, pine needles, fennel and soap. Some found it to be complex and intriguing while others though it was less serious but approachable.
While it was not a personal favorite, I’d be happy to drink this wine all day long. I got honey and minerals, with floral nuances in the nose and fresh fruit on the palate. Pleasant though it is, it seemed to lack some depth though I’d definitely give in an “A” for a first effort and would love to try it again in five years.
Chateau d’Epire, 2012 ($30)
Chateau d’Epire works with several high elevation plots, one that is just above La Coulée de Serrant. The vines for this cuvee are 30 – 55 years old. Three passes were made, two earlier in the harvest with the last coming three weeks later when the fruit was riper. The grapes were lightly pressed and the juice was left to rest for 24 hours prior to fermentation. It underwent malolactic fermentation and was aged on its lees.
Interestingly enough, this wine seemed to be older than the rest and as such, was the overall favorite as the beauty of Savennières is in full force when it matures and picks up secondary and tertiary characteristics. It smelled like wet clay infused Bit-O-Honey, with distinct notes of almonds and honey. Richly textured and with a superb, long finish, it is a classic Savennières. While delicious now, I’m not sure it is going to improve, as it seems more advanced than its years. However, for $30 it is hard to find a wine that is this complex and ready to drink.
When comparing the three from 2012, which was a great year, we could really notice the variances among the producers with d’Epire being powerful and precocious, Baraut the most restrained and Closel’s Jalousie having outright fruit and spice. In spite of the variation and personal preferences, all five were thoroughly enjoyed.
Last summer Eric Asimov, of the New York Times, wrote that Savennières was more cerebral than Vouvray. I know what he meant but never underestimate the power of the palate to instinctively appreciate unfamiliar and challenging flavors. In the way you do not have to be a musician to be swooned by Beethoven, or for that matter, Johnny Cash, you do not have to be in the wine industry or an egghead to fall in love with Savennières.
Also, one caveat here is that there is always bottle variation, especially with older wines where storage is crucial. While I believe the wines were properly aged, there are never any guarantees, even in perfectly controlled cellars.
Until next time, rock on, roll out,