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In times of vast and overwhelming uncertainty, the wines I crave are rich, velvety, and fuller bodied; something that's going to warm you from the inside out. While there's still a bit of a chill in the air, and well, we're not going outside much these days anyway, it's a great time to crack open something that will envelop the senses and give you a tiny moment of escape.
One of my favorite comfort wines is old-vine California Zinfandel. There's something so reassuring about a wine that comes from centenarian vines. Their steadfastness, their will to dig deep, and more importantly, the intensity and concentration they bring to their tiny yield of fruit. There's a sense of being connected to the past with these old vines. Zinfandel was one of the first grapes to be planted in this country. Dating back to the 1820's when nursery owner, George Gibbs brought cuttings from Vienna all the way to Long Island. In fact, Zinfandel was a big hit in the northeast for many years, before cuttings were taken to California in the late 1840's. It was quickly discovered that vines would grow much more easily in the California climate, and by using the European "head-training" technique, they didn't require any special wiring or equipment.
For many, Zinfandel has a bit of a sordid reputation, having been used for various bulk wines labeled "White Zinfandel" or turned into wines that could be mistaken for Port, clocking in at 15% ABV or more. I'm here to urge you to give it a second chance. Many of these gnarly, head-trained vines are being treated with the utmost respect in the hands of some phenomenal winemakers. The Stampede Vineyard Zinfandel from Maître de Chai shows finesse and restraint, while maintaining the luscious quality you want from vines planted in the 1920's. Together with the Pergelos family who owns the vineyard, they have worked tirelessly converting this vineyard to organic farming and have not used any synthetic herbicides or fungicides in at least four years in the hope of keeping this heritage alive and well for another century.
We could not speak about high quality, impeccably-farmed Zinfandel without mentioning the Bedrock Vineyard. Originally planted in 1854, and then replanted in 1888, these vines continue to amaze us by making exceedingly flavorful wines. The Heritage Red from Bedrock Wine Co. coaxes every ounce of aroma from this incredible site. The team at Bedrock has been committed to preserving old vines across California, embracing no-tilling practices, planting cover crops to improve soil health, and increasing biodiversity to limit the need for pesticides with natural predators.
Although not quite as "ancient", Sky Vineyards has been carefully tending to their Zinfandel vines since 1973. Located at 2100 ft above sea level on Mt. Veeder, nestled between the Napa and Sonoma Valleys, lies this humble vineyard of Zinfandel and now also Syrah. The vines are farmed organically, with no irrigation, and with a variety of cover crops. Even the winery aims to be as low-impact as possible, run entirely by solar power and a small generator, with minimal water usage and all cellar work done by hand. These wines are anything but rustic, however. The 2014 Zinfandel is an elegant Zin if ever there was one. Driven by minerality, light on its feet, truly speaking to its unique, mountain origins.
The fact that so many of these vines are still alive through bouts of phylloxera, through Prohibition, through droughts, and times of war, and yet, they keep thriving, keep producing. That is truly something worth celebrating right now. Michelle DeWyngaert
One of the first wines I ever loved was old-vine California Zinfandel, so I was very excited to taste this expression from Maître de Chai. The Stampede Vineyard was planted in the early 1920s with own-rooted Zinfandel on decomposed granite. Inspired by the wines of the famous Ridge Vineyards, this bottling is a field blend of mainly Zinfandel, with a bit of Mission and Carignan. The fermentation is done with 50% whole cluster bunches in open-top neutral oak and then aged for one year. The wine is a classic Zinfandel mix of fresh, ripe, and also dried red plum and raspberry. The tannins are present and driving, but not aggressive, well balanced by its fresh acidity, and a peppery finish. This wine will be excellent with flavorful game meats, and I look forward to trying it again in several years to see how it has progressed. Michelle DeWyngaert
This is a truly unique expression of Zinfandel. It's not flashy, or bold, it embodies freshness and minerality (not words we generally associate with this grape). The Sky vineyards sit way up at 2100ft elevation on Mt. Veeder with 14 acres of Zinfandel, and a few of Syrah, on red clay soils. The vines are tended with only organic treatments, an abundance of cover crops, and no irrigation. Everything in the cellar is done by hand, fermented in open-top bins with native yeasts, punched down three times per day, pressed through an old basket press and aged in neutral oak barrels. All of that cool mountain air brings plenty of bright acidity to this wine with notes of fresh raspberry and blackberry, a touch of fresh herbs and white pepper. The palate has a beautiful, powdery texture from the clay soils, lifted by the wild, brambly fruit. Michelle DeWyngaert
The Heritage Red from Bedrock Vineyard is from a Zinfandel-based blend composed of 22 inter-planted varieties planted in the 1880s in Red Hill clay-loam soils, using no-till cover crop farming, and native yeast fermentation. Zinfandel really shines from these old, gnarled vines. The concentration of flavor that you get from the very low yields adds richness to the wines without having to pick them late and overripe. The nose shows a mix of violet, minty eucalyptus, and ripe, but not syrupy, purple plum. The palate shows additional complexity with a touch of cocoa powder, black tea, and black cherry. Rich and comforting, this will be excellent in the colder months! Michelle DeWyngaert