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Tasting Notes

Red Wine of the Season: Zinfandel, What Else?

January 16, 2002|CHARLES E. OLKEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

January is Zinfandel time for me. The year's end, from Thanksgiving to New Year's Eve, is devoted to festive eating and the Cabernet Sauvignons, Pinot Noirs, Chardonnays and Champagnes that naturally accompany it. But once that ball falls in Times Square, my attention turns to more rustic foods. That's when Zinfandel becomes my red wine of choice. Gone are the roast beef and rack of lamb, and in their stead come sausages, pork chops with red cabbage and spaghetti with red sauce.

Zinfandel has a special affinity for these kinds of food, and, to my taste, no other red wine in California comes close. There is something about the ripe, berryish flavor of Zin, with its slightly piquant edge, that makes it a far better mate for the sweet flavors of those foods than the richer but drier flavors of Cabernet Sauvignons, Pinot Noirs and most Syrahs and Merlots. I will admit that a good Chianti also works well, but only a few California Sangioveses resemble Chianti yet.

Yet not every Zinfandel is right for the job. Over the last decade, most red Zins have become riper and richer, sweeter and deeper, but at the cost of brightness and vitality. They are dramatic but not as food-friendly as their predecessors. I think wines of such exaggerated ripeness go better with cheese and walnuts than with main-course dishes. For traditional pasta in marinara or Bolognese sauce, I still look for a fruity, medium-full-bodied Zinfandel.

January also means Zinfandel for the people who attend the biggest annual wine tasting in the United States. On Jan. 26, 10,000 members of ZAP (Zinfandel Advocates & Producers) gather in San Francisco to taste the new Zinfandels of almost 300 producers. It is my favorite wine event of the year, because I get to rub elbows with the throngs in attendance, meet as many winemakers as possible and taste at least a fair share of wines that will come to market over the next several months. To learn more about ZAP, visit www. zinfandel.org.

$* 2000 Beaulieu Vineyard, Napa Valley, $12. The Napa Valley is not known for Zinfandel, but many fine versions of the grape are grown in what is becoming exclusively Cabernet Sauvignon territory. This ripe, jammy, fairly concentrated wine has plenty of youthful brightness on its side and a streak of firming tannins. Its balance and energy allow it to work with tomatoey pasta sauces and barbecue.

1999 Burgess Cellars, Napa Valley, $20. A typical Burgess Zinfandel is tight, demands some aging and is structured more like a young Cabernet than a Zinfandel. In this vintage, though, Burgess has opened the wine up to let its plump, berrylike fruitiness show through without losing the underlying balance and polish that has made the wine a fine choice over the years.

*** 1999 August Briggs, Napa Valley, $30. This is another Napa Valley Zinfandel that has emerged from my recent blind tastings. It's pricey, but worth it. The expansive, complex aromas of sweet blackberries, vanilla and creme brulee compare well with the best Pinot Noirs for richness, and its compelling, impeccably balanced flavors have the depth and careful construction to last for years. This is no spaghetti wine--it should be set aside for more elegant dinners that might include sweeter or tangier flavors.

$* 2000 Joel Gott, California, $13. This wine may not come from Napa Valley but the Napa connection runs deep. Gott's father, winemaker Cary Gott, worked in Napa for years, and Joel's wife, Sarah, has just been appointed winemaker at Joseph Phelps. This wine, however, does not follow the more structured Napa model. It's open and rounded in a way that fully displays its ripe, plump fruit. This is a tasty, "drink-it-by-the-glassful" Zin with no airs or pretensions.

** 1999 Grgich Hills Cellar, 55% Sonoma County/45% Napa County, $23. The classic ripe blackberry flavors of Zinfandel show up in this wine's insistently fruity aromas and flavors, and oak adds its own creamy, vanilla-like richness without ever getting in the way of the fruit. The wine is wonderfully well-balanced, with the poise and polish to serve alongside pork roasts as well as the delightfully bright fruit to accompany red-sauced pastas.

** 1999 Robert Mondavi Winery, Napa Valley, $20. This well-proportioned marriage of ripe blackberries, raspberries and creamy oak deserves raves for its fine balance and very deep fruit. It is medium-full in body and relatively supple in feel for a young wine, and just the right touch of tannin in the finish gives it firmness. It invites current drinking but can age for several years.

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