Zinfandel Riches

A string of great vintages brings choices aplenty for fans of this California grape

Excerpted from the June 30, 2016, issue

California Zinfandel lovers, rejoice. A trio of excellent vintages is now stocking retail shelves and restaurant wine lists, and Zinfandel drinkers need simply choose the style they like best. Last year, releases from 2012 impressed with a soft and fruit-forward character; now the 2013s arrive to offer a more intense and lively structure. And it gets better: The 2014s may embody the best of both vintages. “It’s kind of an embarrassment of riches for Zin,” says veteran winemaker Ted Seghesio.

Since my last report (“Big Crop, Bold Wines,” June 30, 2015), I have blind-tasted more than 350 California Zinfandels in our Napa office, with a hefty one-third of them earning outstanding scores of 90 points or higher on the Wine Spectator 100-point scale. Sonoma County inched out Napa for the best 2013 Zins, with a vintage rating of 92 points compared to Napa’s solid 91-point score. My tastings of nearly 60 early-arriving 2014s suggest that year has even greater potential: I give Sonoma a preliminary rating of 92-95 for the vintage, while Napa earns 91-94.

Many winemakers made outstanding Zinfandels in 2013 but none fared better than Mike Officer at Carlisle. He crafted 10 wines rating 90 points or more, including the Carlisle Zinfandel Russian River Valley Papera Ranch 2013 (96 points, $47), tied for top-scoring wine of the vintage. Produced from a vineyard first planted in 1934, the wine balances sheer power with a lively structure and fleshy, ripe flavors of blackberry and smoky cracked pepper

For his part, Seghesio believes 2013 is one of the best vintages of his long career. Seghesio Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley Cortina 2013 (94, $40) certainly impresses. Capturing a sense of place, this evocative wine offers notes of briary raspberry and smoky cinnamon, with flavors of dried sage and dark cherry.

The 2013 growing season paved the way for greatness. The previous December saw a lot of rain, but that didn’t last. “As soon as we hit January it was like the tap had been turned off,” Officer says. Budbreak was earlier than normal and spring weather was moderate, but after several months of no rain, growers and winemakers started to panic. Finally, in late March, a few small storms arrived. “That kind of saved the vintage,” Seghesio says. As it was, Seghesio’s growers in Rockpile, a mountainous region above Dry Creek Valley, still had to truck water up from nearby Lake Sonoma to drip-irrigate vineyards.

Summer weather was sunny, and temperatures rarely spiked above the mid-90s. There was little of the typical morning fog to help cool things down. It all culminated in one of the earliest harvests on record in some regions, as well as a large crop.

The 2013 Zins in general are concentrated, somewhat briary, and have excellent acidity and tannic structure. “I’m really fond of the 2013s but they’re a little less immediately enjoyable than the 2014s,” says Bedrock winemaker Morgan Twain-Peterson.

Among other wines, Twain-Peterson made two potent old-vine Zinfandel blends from 2014. His Bedrock Oakville Farmhouse Oakville 2014 (94, $75) is loaded with personality, showing notes of black licorice, dried cherry and tobacco. Bedrock Pagani Ranch Heritage Sonoma Valley 2014 (94, $48) is rich and well-structured, with aromas of peppered beef, wild berry and orange zest.

The 2014 vintage was also a good one for winemaker Clay Mauritson, whose family owns or manages more than 300 acres of vineyards in Rockpile and Dry Creek and Alexander valleys. Harvested from a rocky vineyard some 1,200 feet in elevation, Mauritson Zinfandel Rockpile Cemetery Vineyard 2014 (93, $47) is stylish and complex, with blackberry cobbler, loamy mineral and orange blossom notes. Mauritson Zinfandel Rockpile Black Sheep 2014 (93, $110) offers bold aromas of black raspberry, licorice and semisweet chocolate.

The 2014 growing season was broadly similar to that of 2013 and 2012, with a few notable differences. Budbreak was early again, and spring weather moderate, but temperatures were slightly warmer in summer 2014, with a handful of heat spells. Some vintners worried in midsummer that sugars were soaring ahead of flavor development. “It was key to be in the vineyards to make sure the sugar levels didn’t get away from us,” Twain-Peterson says. “It was easy to miss the ripeness window.”

But cool weather prevailed in September and stalled ripening. “Had it not rained a little in the latter half of September, our harvest would have been over before Oct. 1,” Officer says. “Some years we don’t even get our first fruit until Oct. 1.”

Top winemakers were able to maintain fresh juicy acidity, even though the fruit flavors in 2014 are generally more soft and approachable. “The 2014s are elegant. They’re a little bit more come-hither in their youth,” explains Twain-Peterson.

There are plenty of good values to be found in Zinfandel this year. Three perennial favorites lead the pack. Seghesio Zinfandel Sonoma County Sonoma 2014 is plump and luscious, jam-packed with fruit, while Dry Creek’s Zinfandel Sonoma County Heritage Vines 2014 offers good focus and zesty black raspberry, toasty herb and licorice flavors. Turley Zinfandel California Juvenile 2014 is racy and ripe, with vivid flavors of dried cherry, licorice and rosemary.

With winemakers now whispering about the promise of the 2015 vintage, and the statewide drought potentially winding down in 2016, the future looks bright for California Zinfandel.

Senior editor Tim Fish is Wine Spectator’s lead taster on California Zinfandel.

For the complete Zinfandel tasting report, including more highlights from the 2013 vintage and additional values, read the full article, “Zinfandel Riches,” in our online archives.