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Single Varietal Comparison

cont'd: Zinfandel (aka: Primitivo)

Welcome to this week's installment at the WOO!

I got a little ahead of myself last week and forgot to post this follow-up to the all white single varietal (Chardonnay) tasting. Can you blame me? Last week's wines were delicious! 

This week we're going to explore the Zinfandel (Primitivo) grape through three wines from different areas: Puglia, Italy; and Lodi and Napa Valley, California.

I have noticed over the years that many people think of the characteristics of "White Zinfandel" when I mention to them that they should "try a Zinfandel" with their meal. Their first response is often, "Oh no! Zinfandel is too sweet." I then have to explain to them that they are thinking of WHITE Zinfandel. Their next reaction is more often than not, "Wait, I thought Zinfandel WAS a white grape?!" Ah, the struggle is real.

So, to be clear: we are discussing Zinfandel (a deep, dark, red, berry grape) today. Not its sweet, pink cousin that comes from the very same grape (created by mistake in the early 1970s at Sutter Home) and rose to prominence over the next decade. Click here to learn more about White Zinfandel.

Zinfandel—whose delicious, rich, dark, fruit flavors, full body and, round tannins, evoke thoughts of black cherry and black raspberry jams, layered with notes of black pepper, baking spices and rich, earthy tobacco—are typically some of the highest alcohol content wines available.

That said, let's begin our journey by traveling back to the Old World: Italy. More specifically, to the area around the town of Manduria, in the province of Taranto. Manduria lies in the southwestern area of the viticultural area of Puglia, Italy. Puglia is the area that makes up the "heel" of Italy's boot shape.

In the Taranto region, the soil consists of iron-rich, red clay soils. The climate is Mediterranean, with warm days and cool nights. This allows the Primitivo grape (Primitivo comes from the Latin “primitivus” and Old Italian “primiticcio” (both meaning “first to ripen” or “early ripening”), to thrive and enjoy a long growing season. It also gives growers many choices of WHEN to harvest their grapes. Harvesting Primitivo early can yield young fruit notes of boysenberry and strawberry, while a later harvest can yield notes of blackberry, black raspberry and raisin. By planting many blocks of Primitivo, the growers can harvest fruit at several different times, and blend the resulting wine yields together to produce final wines with many layers and depth.

Our first wine today is one such wine: Terra dei Trulli's 'Pinnacoli' Primitivo di Manduria.

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In the glass, the wine is deep dark purple. It has a powerful nose of black fruits, boysenberry and blackberry. It also has layers of iron-rich earth and tobacco. This wine comes from ancient vines that survived the EU's incentive-based push to uproot vineyards that were centuries old, in favor of re-planting new vines and olive trees. (Side note: Puglia grows some of the world's best quality and largest quantities of olives used to make olive oil. It also grows more wine grapes than any other region in Italy.)

These ancient vines produce a wine that, on the palate, is big and luscious with powerful flavors of blackberry, black raspberry, cinnamon, clove, and sweet tobacco. It is a full-bodied, high alcohol wine, but it is low in acid and tannins. It pairs beautifully with cured meats like smoked ham or beef jerky, and wild game, such as boar or elk.

Price range: $10-$15

Next up is Lodi's Criss Cross Old Vine Zinfandel.

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Now before you go and get your nose all bent out of shape, let me explain why—in spite of Napa being crowned the "King" when it comes to Cabernet and to a greater degree, Zinfandel—the wines from certain vineyards in Lodi are superior to those in Napa when it comes to Zinfandel.

Sit back, here comes your history lesson for the day: Let's go back to a time before California was a state ... Back to the Gold Rush of 1849. When gold was discovered at Sutter's Mill, a rush soon followed. Newly arrived immigrants from Ireland and Italy fled the crowded slums of New York, Boston and Philadelphia for California's Sierra Nevada Mountains. 

After a few years, when the big corporate mining operators bought up the claims or ran off the poor immigrant miners, the Irish made their way to the coast and settled in San Francisco. The Italian immigrants went as far as the flat lands and rolling hills surrounding Sacramento, Stockton, and Lodi. They decided that the weather and geography were similar enough to their native Italia that they could farm the land and make a life for themselves in the New World. 

These new Italian Lodi residents sent letters home to their families telling them to "come on over." Folks back in Italy packed their bags and brought along the family vines. So, Primitivo (aka: Zinfandel) found its way to sunny Lodi, California, where the climate and iron-rich soils, similar to those of Puglia, have allowed this varietal to thrive and produce fruit of such layers and complexity that it rivals, if not outshines, that if its homeland and its nearby neighbor, Napa Valley.

The Criss Cross Zinfandel is big, bold and layered. Once it has fully opened, the wine reveals aromas of blackberry, ripe raspberry, raisin, and cola. On the palate, you'll notice right away the big, bold flavors of blackberry jam and some black pepper. The mid palate is smooth and fruity, the finish is medium with notes of cherry cola tempered by slight notes of vanilla. Pair this wine with barbecued short ribs, smoked salmon, or lasagna.

Price range: $9-$13

Finally, we come to the Pozzan Napa Valley Zinfandel.

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To say that Napa is "King" when it comes to Zinfandel is an understatement.

Napa produces some of the best examples of this varietal of any region in the world. With rich alluvial soils and perfect weather for growing grapes, Napa's Zinfandels are big, full and flavorful. Michael Pozzan's (Gold Series) Zinfandel comes from a single vineyard from the hallowed Oakville AVA.

One whiff of this wine and you know it's a quality Zin. Full rich notes of red raspberry, cola, baking spices and an oak derived hint of vanilla creme. On the palate, a wave of fruit flavor fills your mouth with a low tannin suppleness and warmth from the high alcohol content. Black raspberry and plum notes are detectable, followed by a creme soda-like vanilla and light allspice finish from aging in French oak for 18 months. These flavors linger with the fruit for a good while. This is a nicely balanced and age-worthy wine, and will drink beautifully for the next 10 to 15 years or possibly more, so buy several bottles, enjoy a few now, and save some for later.

Pair this special wine with a special meal, like a milestone birthday or anniversary. My first choice would be a tender Filet Mignon or a juicy Prime Rib, but you can have it with lamb, pork or beef tenderloin, accompanied by some honey-brown sugar-glazed carrots or grilled asparagus and roasted garlic mashed potatoes. For my vegetarian drinkers, try this wine with kale and spinach along with the roasted garlic mashed potatoes.

Price range: $13-$18

I hope you will try these wines, I know you will enjoy them as much as I have. Until next week...