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From the rich, red earth

The Zinfandels of Mendocino's Redwood Valley owe everything to the unique rust-colored slopes that bear outstandingly bold fruit.

September 03, 2003|Rod Smith | Special to The Times

It makes perfect sense that some of California's most distinctive Zinfandels come from the Redwood Valley in southern Mendocino County. This is one of the state's most distinctive viticultural enclaves, with a combination of climate and soils -- particularly its deposits of the rare, rust-colored Redvine soil -- that rightly may be called unique. There's nothing else quite like it, anywhere.

Yet for many years these wonderful wines were only on the Zin fanatic's radar, virtually unknown in the mainstream. Redwood Valley was only recently recognized as an American Viticultural Area. It was the first place in Mendocino County to produce commercial wine grapes (in the 1850s), but it has never had more than a few wineries (eight at the moment). Even today, virtually all its crop (mostly Chardonnay) disappears into blends bottled by large North Coast wineries, so wine lovers seldom get a taste of the valley's outstanding viticultural character.

However, a staunch corps of Redwood Valley wineries have consistently bottled Zinfandels from the valley's red-dirt slopes. It was largely on the strength of those wines that Redwood Valley finally became an AVA in 1996.

Not a moment too soon. Because a characteristic Redwood Valley Zin is among the glories of California winedom, an archetypal expression of region and grape.

The Fife Vineyards "Redhead" Zinfandel 2000 is an excellent illustration because the winery's minimalist winemaking aims at letting the terroir speak loud and clear. Here's a wine of complementary contrasts held in balance by the je ne sais quoi that characterizes remarkable terroirs, at once rough and suave, heavy and buoyant, massive and fleshy yet cut and buffed. The fruit flavor tends toward a jammy quality, yet it retains a clear, juicy freshness that dances in the mouth and sings in the finish.

"To me the Zin grapes here are like Santa Rosa plums. They're nice and sweet but have that great acid core," says Redwood Valley-based wine consultant John Buechtenstein, who was Fife's winemaker through 2002. "And they also have that deep intensity of flavor, like jam you simmer so long you can stand a spoon up in it."

That balance of concentration and acidity is Redwood Valley's sensory keynote. Most regional Zin expressions are all about variations in fruit flavor, with differences discussed in terms of the salient berry of choice (usually blackberry, raspberry or cherry), and maybe the presence or absence of a spicy component (usually black pepper). But a Redwood Valley Zin also is distinguished by the character of its acidity -- not just the lively tartness typical of Zin, but a gleaming radiance of ripe acidity deep within the concentrated fruit.

This is the same kind of ripe, complex, mouth-massaging acidity that ennobles an outstanding Riesling. It reminds me of the very ripe yet zesty Rieslings from Australia's Clare Valley or Spatleses from the blue-slate sun traps on the high banks of the Moselle.

You can find the same qualities in other Redwood Valley Zins. Lolonis 2001 is an organically grown beauty that's more rustic in nature than the Fife "Redhead" but no less impressive. The Lolonis family has been farming organically for more than 50 years. A pillar of their program is controlling pests with natural predators such as ladybugs instead of pesticides; that tradition is celebrated with their new Ladybug Red, a scrumptious Carignan-based blend from venerable dry-farmed vines.

Silversmith Vineyards Zinfandel 1999 is the impressive debut bottling from another old Redwood Valley grape-growing family. Rosenblum "Annette's Reserve" 2000, from the Rhodes Vineyard, shows stunning window-clear fruit and nicely raspy texture. Although Kent Rosenblum's winery is in the urban Bay Area, it specializes in Zinfandels made from outstanding old vineyards throughout the North Coast, and this is quintessential Redwood Valley Zin. JC Cellars "Rhodes Vineyard" 2001 is a bigger, more opulent version from the same vineyard, produced by Rosenblum winemaker Jeff Cohn.

Redwood Valley is one of the Russian River Valleys, a group of coastal watersheds feeding into the river along its route from the rugged Mendocino Plateau to the sea. Redwood Valley is the closest to the river's source; then come (in descending order) Ukiah Valley, Alexander Valley, Santa Rosa Valley, and then the lower Russian River Valley, which meets the Pacific at Jenner.

Like the unusual east-west valleys of California's central coast, which act as throats that draw in cool marine air, Redwood Valley is set up to receive the summer season's westerly straight off the Pacific through gaps on the Coast Range. But unlike neighboring Anderson Valley, which lies between it and the ocean, Redwood Valley gets cold air without fog.

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