Honestly, I didn’t mean to keep this bottle for so long – it’s just that Ridge’s wine club sends nearly two cases of wine a year, and I just can’t keep up. This is a members only bottling from a while back that someone got lost in the back of the wine chiller; upon pouring it’s clear that some of the normally dense color has gone missing over the last six years or so.
I’m not making this up – this wine smells almost exactly like gingerbread. At first, a softness of raspberries and then boom, gingerbread just like your Bubbie used to make. It mutates into blueberry at some point, but the spice and ginger hang in there.I’ve had more than my fair share of Zinfandel, and this one really does stand out.
At first threatening to be elegant and medium bodied, the wine quickly fans out in the mouth to a more varietally appropriate stance; it’s fairly rich, somewhat jagged (the acids and the tannins are all jostling for place here), and offers a surprising range of flavors, ranging from something like candied damson to Rainier cherry to Christmas pudding to sage honey and cedar wood. The only fault I can find (if indeed it is one) is a slight tendency for the acidity to surge up on the finish – but of course if you’re raising a wine (as opposed to making a wine) this is entirely to be expected.
Even at its advanced age, I don’t detect any aged notes; the wine is fresh and lovely and quite a pleasure to drink at this stage. Just add meatloaf and roasted veg and you’re good to go.
The University of California at Davis, thanks to Professor Carole Meredith’s work with DNA research, figured out where Zinfandel comes from a few years ago. Given that Zinfandel is very much our national grape, there’s been quite a lot of work done here to better understand the plant material that we have in the state. Given that the grape itself is so incredibly obscure (there are a few dozen vines in Croatia that presumably gave birth to all that we have here), vintners ganged up a decade or two ago to gather all of the different sorts of Zinfandel that were planted around the state in hopes of better understanding if certain sports or clones have better characteristics than other. That’s where this wine comes into play: this wine was made from the selection of different Zinfandel vines from all over California that are planted at a UC research station in the Napa Valley (more information is available over at ZAP).
Every year, a different winemaker takes the harvested grapes and makes wine from them. It’s an interesting conceit, and I don’t know of anything else like this in the state. 2003 was Paul Draper’s year, so this is in essence a Ridge wine made from Heritage Vineyard grapes.
Five years on from harvest, it’s still deep purple and strictly jammy in appearance. The nose is striking, with a very typically Californian Zinfandel outrageously fruity nose, surprisingly undershot with a sort of dusty, musty note. Together, what you get is – to me, at least – what a Californian red table wine should smell like: a distinctly odd mix of the Californian sun mixed with the restraint of traditional French winemaking. You could not possibly mistake this for a Bordeaux: this is Zin.
Strangely, the first thing you notice when you take a sip are the tannins: they’re surprisingly strong, anchoring the sense of the wine with fair seriousness. There’s a nearly green sourness that sneaks in towards the finish, which is fairly lengthy and peters out in a brambly black cherry orchard somewhere on the coast, with a faint hint of iodine and salt air. It’s peculiar, definitely not a Ridge wine proper, but there’s still that same familiar sense of restraint in letting the fruit speak for itself here. There’s also very much a dark chocolate, bittered oaky note which I’m assuming isn’t actually (American?) oak, but who knows?
This one acre of vines were gathered from fifteen California counties; this is the Grand Unification Zinfandel of my homeland.
Heritage Vineyard Project with Paul Draper
Price: about $25
Date tasted: November 2008
For the first time in several months, I experienced a brief shiver of pleasure just smelling this wine. That doesn’t happen often, and the list of wines that have had that sort of visceral effect on me is still fairly short (even after a decade’s worth of sporadically heavy drinking).Ahem. Where was I? It smells like… baked goods? Tarte tatin? Some sort of flower, not rose, but heavier? And would you believe it, finally a wine that actually smells like delicious freshly cooked bacon? I swear I’ve had dozens of French syrahs and Aussie shirazes that claimed to smell like bacon, but none have… until now. Wow. It’s like Farmer John pitched in at the winery. Whoa. On the next sniff, it’s gone again, and this time it smells like Zwetschgenkuchen – freshly baked German plum tart. Oh man. This is amazing. It moves on again, this time to Czech morello cherries fresh from the jar (!), or maybe even baker’s chocolate – the kind you only eat once as a child before discovering it tastes nothing like it smells. It just keeps going and going, changing every few minutes.And I haven’t even tasted this stuff yet.It’s not as heavy as I would have suspected – in the mouth it’s almost more like velvety, silky soft raspberry cordial, hugely surprising. There are no rough edges… but the finish hangs in there for quite a while before resolving itself in an almost woody note of cloves and burnt sugar. There’s almost a coconut shaving note there as well… definitely American oak in play here, no doubt about it. (I cheated before writing that down: yes, there is.) Coming back to it again, the next time it’s almost like cinnamon-specked candy I remember from faux pioneer mercantiles in the Gold Rush country of California: sugar with what would taste like imperfections in modern candy, but subtly delicious in a historic context. Blackstrap molasses, nutmeg, cherries, sweetness, and gentle acidity weaving around it all. There are tannins here as well, but you wouldn’t notice them unless you paid careful attention; they’re beautifully integrated and lend a fascinating sense of traditionality to what, I suppose, is hardly a traditional wine… unless you’re a Californian like myself, in which case you wish you could hand deliver a bottle of this to any European who pooh-poohs the very idea of California wine – or to anyone who thinks that a great Zinfandel can’t hold its own with the traditional great wines of the world.Amazing stuff. I can’t imagine what it’ll be like in five years, but I’m going to try and hold on to my other bottle in hopes of finding out for myself.
Price: US $30
Date tasted: January 2008
At first smell, this wine offered up sour black cherries and shoe leather, with a very small amount of mousiness (or is that honeysuckle?). Dark, dark purplish red in color, the wine is surprisingly light in the mouth for a Zinfandel, with simple black cherry fruit complicated by that same slightly off-putting animalistic character reminiscent of Brettanomyces (but is it? I can’t really tell). It seems sweeter than most zinfandels I’ve had before and definitely tends towards flabbiness. The finish is surprisingly long, but not particularly complex, ending on a sweet, raspberry Lip Smacker note. There’s a potentially appetizing sourness about this wine that seems distinctly Italian, but on the whole the sameness of every sip quickly grows tiresome.
Ogio (but really fresh&easy)
Price: US $3.99
Date tasted: November 2007
I was originally going to allow my native Californian out to whinge at great length about the, ahem, chutzpah of importing Italian zinfandel to California of all places given our state’s long history of quality Zinfandel wine production – and then I double-checked my receipt for this wine and dropped the idea. $3.99? Never mind. The best California zinfandel I’ve had in this price range (Three Thieves) ran $10 per liter, so this is a steal. It’s perhaps not correct (in that it’s frankly too sweet), but it has definite potential as an easy drinking party wine. Caution: may result in unintended pregnancy.