Ridge Pagani Ranch 2003

It’s a cold, rainy night here in San Diego, so I went for the most alcoholic wine I could find; there are two reasons for this. One, I’m cold and could use some alcoholic heat, and two, after kvetching about the high alcohol content of Mollydooker wines last week, I figured it was time to try another high octane wine from a different winery and see if I can find any reason at all for my dislike of the high alcohol Mollydooker house style. So: here I am.

This wine’s older; the back label suggests holding it until 2010-2011 to allow it to ‘soften,’ and I’ve done that more or less as proscribed. The color doesn’t seem to have faded much, if at all: it’s still that rich, dark, opaque black color I associate with Zinfandel. Just like the Mollydookers, it also has a noticeably clear rim and jambes d’enfer, making its 15.4% alcohol level perfectly clear. Things couldn’t be more clearly different than the Mollydooker wines, though, on the nose.

This doesn’t smell like other wines, not even like other Ridge zinfandels. This takes the whole jammy, Christmas pudding, spice box, Turkish delight aesthetic to overdriven levels. There’s not much by the way of obvious wood; instead, what you get here is extremely ripe fruit. What’s odd, though, is that the alcohol seems to be relatively adroit at keeping itself out of the way enough to smell the wine; you don’t get a snootful of alcoholic vapors, just a twinge. Even so, the second you drink some, bang, there it is: unavoidable alcohol that’s a little bit harsh, obstructing the otherwise clean line here. For all of the delicious, dried fruit, dates and treacle going on here, there’s still a clearly porty aspect you just can’t avoid.

So what’s the deal here? Why does this bother me less than similarly alcoholic syrah and cabernet from Mollydooker? I think it’s simple: zinfandel is more or less an inherently ridiculous grape. It tastes best at higher alcohol levels; it doesn’t really gain a thing when it’s harvested at 13% potential alcohol because the grape just isn’t ripe at those sugar levels. Instead, you have to get it up in the 14s before you can make a palatable wine from it at all. However, cabernet and syrah both do just fine in the 12-14 percent range, and I just don’t see what they gain at higher alcohol levels; I think they begin to lose quite a bit in interest and complexity once you get anywhere past, oh, about 14.5%. When you hit 15, 16, and (God forbid), 16.5% alcohol, a lot of the interesting bits seem to have gone, and the good bits that are left don’t seem to particularly complement the alcohol (in the sense that the overall effect is of a less complex port), unlike zinfandel, whose innate characteristics (think spicy date pudding) do in fact sit will at relatively insane levels of alcohol.

Digression over. Back to this wine: it’s drinking rather beautifully right now and is a fine example of a high alcohol (if not quite late harvest) zinfandel (or, technically, a field blend – there’s alicante bouschet and durif/petite sirah here as well). Age has brought a genteel faded character to the hyperripe fruitfest and given it an earthy, almost cedary edge that’s lovely. If there’s any Old World wine to which I’d compare it, it would be to a 40 year old port; it has definite similarities in terms of complexity, and a lot of the bottom end has fallen out, leaving a melody almost entirely in the treble clef, a wonderful harmony of rich, fruity, aged notes with a nearly sherry-like hint of maderization. Pretty damn good wine, if I say so myself.

Ridge Vineyards
Price: $30
Closure: Cork
Source: Retail