Hot climes, big zins
People wonder why zinfandels seem to be higher in alcohol content (some more than 14 percent) than most unfortified red wines seen in the marketplace today. Some believe it's a direct result of the grape itself, that somehow zinfandel carries an inherent propensity for high alcohol. This is not true.
It's because of where the grape is grown.
Many well-made zinfandels are grown in areas such as Lodi, Paso Robles or Amador County, where it can get very warm — downright blazing, in fact. Winemakers and zinfandel lovers enjoy the power of the fruit, the weightiness of the grape and the palate density it offers. A red wine with viscosity, depth and palate grip has to have the corresponding level of alcohol to complete the overall round taste sensations. These hotter areas give all of these components naturally. Cooler-area zinfandels have lower levels of alcohol and may seem to be "weak" or unstructured.
Many zinfandel lovers require the "more is better" aspect of these higher alcohol zinfandels. It has little to do with the grape itself but much to do with vineyard management, soil, winemaker talent, weather and where the grape comes from.
It is interesting to note that zinfandel and barbera were the staple red grapes for everyday wine consumption from the very beginning of West Coast American wine consciousness. From the 1950s to about 1985, zinfandel with an alcohol content of less than 13 percent was planted all over California. Zinfandel was cheap, accessible and went with just about anything one wanted to put on a plate.
Venerable Napa Valley estates such as Charles Krug and Louis Martini led the way in zinfandel production, and their wines were seen in just about every restaurant and pizza parlor imaginable. At that time the wines sold from $2 to $5 a bottle, then reached the $15 mark for the higher-end releases in the late '80s.
By the middle to late 1970s, the "bigger" style zinfandels were starting to emerge as well as the very weird "late harvest" zinfandels which were simply over-wooded, insanely high-alcohol wines whose makers let nature take its course. Winemakers let the grapes sit forever on the vines until they nearly resembled raisins, allowing evaporation from within the grape and resulting in intense sugars and lower yield. When the yeast and sugars met in the winery, the result was intense zinfandel flavors and a whopping amount of alcohol.
I remember in the very early 1970s working in a winery when the late harvest juice met the yeast and it resembled a witch's cauldron and smelled like a jam and jelly factory. It was not uncommon for alcohol levels to hit close to 17 percent with special strains of alcohol-resistant yeast leading the way. Thankfully, today, we see little of these monsters on the shelves.
All in all, try to stick with zinfandel under 14.5 percent alcohol. I think you will be better for it with complexity and elegance as a reward.
Lorn Razzano is owner of the Wine Cellar in Ashland. Reach him at email@example.com.