July Fourth: Rockets will scream through the darkening sky, sparklers will sputter and cherry bombs will pop in backyards all across the United States. Why not also celebrate Independence Day with a firecracker of a wine, a zinfandel from California's Sonoma County?
The pairing is doubly fitting. Not only has this imported grape produced what is generally agreed to be the most all-American of wines — perfect for this American holiday — but Sonoma County's history of zin production extends back past Prohibition into the 19th century. About 1,000 acres of gnarly, twisting vines thought to be 50, 80 even 100 years old are treated by the local wine world with the reverence the general public reserves for the county's redwood forests.
Pinot noir is the most widely grown red wine grape in Sonoma, according to 2008 figures from the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission, a trade group. Zinfandel ranks only fourth among red wine grapes in terms of acres planted, but there's a special link between the wine and the region.
"There was a belief we held for a long time that zinfandel was native to California," said John Ash, the Sonoma-based restaurateur, author and winemaker. That premise turned out to be false; zinfandel descends from a Croatian grape. Still, there's a tie.
"It has special status," Ash said. "It is still our own in many ways."
Ash said many California wine regions make great zinfandel, but "Sonoma seems to be its place. Like many grape varieties, it's terroir." Terroir is a French term that denotes a sense of place.
"It has such interesting flavor notes to it when really done well that don't exist in other wines. There's that wonderful pepperiness," he added. "This time of year, especially, it serves as such a wonderful bridge to the grill."
Zinfandel, he said, doesn't have the profile of wines like cabernet sauvignon, merlot and pinot noir. People have heard of it, yes, but they're not exposed to it as often.
"It's still a discovery grape," Ash said. "It could have a bigger profile on wine lists."
Tasting Sonoma's zins
California's Sonoma County is a large region and, like many other wine areas, it has a number of subregions or American Viticultural Areas (AVA). Dry Creek Valley in north-central Sonoma is particularly noted for zinfandel; the two examples we tasted scored the best. Some of the zins we sampled are labeled as "old vines." There's no legal definition for the term, but it's generally understood to mean the grapes are of higher quality because they come from mature vines with low crop yields.
2007 Francis Ford Coppola Director's Cut, Dry Creek Valley: The famed filmmaker has a smash hit with this lively, classic zin. Colored a deep ruby red and sporting a fruity nose warmed by wood and spice, the wine is bright, balanced, a bit earthy and loaded with vivid black fruit. Good finish. Serve with fried chicken, New York strip steak, cheeseburgers. Three stars; $21
2008 Ridge East Bench Dry Creek Valley: Subtle, almost elegant, with a soft berry fragrance and a flavor profile of tea, wood, cassis, tobacco and black earth. Serve with sausage and peppers, grilled lamb chops. Three stars; $27
2007 St. Francis Sonoma Old Vines: Tied for third place with the Dashe, this zinfandel has a voluptuous mouth feel and an equally mouth-filling berry flavor. This is no fruit bomb, however; there are touches of wood, chocolate and incense. Serve with barbecued ribs, grilled pork tenderloin. Two stars; $22
2007 Dashe Todd Brothers Ranch, Alexander Valley Old Vines: Tied with St. Francis for third, this inky wine offers a complex nose of earth, cassia bark, black pepper and mushrooms. The flavor is rich and slightly sweet, with notes of black pepper and chocolate. Serve with glazed spareribs, grilled duck, ham. Two stars; $32
2007 Murphy-Goode Liar's Dice, Sonoma: Purply red, with a spicy cinnamon nose, this wine has a sweet cherry flavor spiked with a sprig of mint. Not a lot of tannins, but the structure is there. Serve with grilled chicken, Korean-style short ribs. Two stars; $21
2007 Kenwood Jack London Vineyard, Sonoma: Robust but still elegant, with black cherry, cassis and black pepper flavors. The nose is pleasantly spicy. Serve with pork belly, leg of lamb, brisket. Two stars; $20
(Ratings key: Four stars, excellent; three stars, very good; two stars, good; one star, fair; zero stars, skip it.)
You want that wine. But your store or area distributor may not carry it. State law may prohibit you from ordering a wine online. What to do? Ask your wine retailer for a wine similar in flavor, style and price. Remember, too, prices vary.
— B. D.
By the numbers
62-67 Degrees considered optimal serving temperature for zinfandel
5,401 Acres of zinfandel vines in Sonoma County
1852 Year zinfandel grapes imported into California
Sources: Sonoma County Winegrape Commission; "The New Wine Lover's Companion"
The roots of zinfandel
Like many an immigrant to the United States, the zinfandel grape has hard-to-find roots.
Zinfandel is a cousin of primitivo, a grape grown in Puglia, which is the "heel" of the Italian boot, according to "The New Wine Lover's Companion." DNA testing in 2001 confirmed both grape varieties descend from a little-known Croatian grape called Crljenak Kastelanski.
California is the major production center for zinfandel, which was first planted there in the 1850s.