Zest for Zin

Excitement runs high for California’s heritage red in 2015

Excerpted from the June 30, 2018, issue

Anyone who drinks California Zinfandel—and they are a passionate sect of wine lovers—must feel spoiled. The Golden State’s unique red wine is experiencing a four-year run of outstanding vintages. That doesn’t happen often. The 2013 vintage kicked things off, followed by the impressive 2014 and 2015 harvests—and early indications suggest that 2016 is in the same league.

Since my previous report on the category (“Winning Streak,” July 31, 2017), I have reviewed approximately 300 Zinfandels in blind tastings at our Napa office, with nearly half of them receiving outstanding ratings of 90 points or higher on Wine Spectator’s 100-point scale. The bulk of the wines are from the excellent 2015 vintage, which earns an overall rating of 94 points in Sonoma and 92 points in Napa. (A free alphabetical list of scores and prices for all wines tasted is available.)

I have been reviewing Zinfandel for 12 years, and I can say that the wines have never been better. The best among the current releases are well-structured and balanced, but remain true to the essence of Zin’s lively, zesty appeal.

The 2015 and 2016 vintages are particularly generous when it comes to value. The Peachy Canyon Zinfandel Paso Robles Westside 2015 (91, $22) is a spice bomb that marks a return to form for this longtime producer, and the Pedroncelli Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley Bushnell Vineyard 2015 (91, $25) is a fine example from this Sonoma veteran, briary and full of verve.

Other values to look for include the spirited Alexander Valley Vineyards Zinfandel Alexander Valley 2015 (90, $20); the zesty Ancient Peaks Zinfandel Santa Margarita Ranch 2015 (90, $20); the appealingly old-school Dry Creek Zinfandel Sonoma County Heritage Vines 2016 (90, $24); and the plump, lively Kunde Estate Zinfandel Sonoma Valley 2015 (90, $22).

“I’m pretty stoked about both years,” Bedrock’s Morgan Twain-Peterson says of the 2015 and 2016 vintages. Indeed, after running the table with 11 outstanding wines in 2015 (most of them reviewed for last year’s report), Bedrock has already notched eight 90-plus Zins in 2016, including two classic-scorers. The Bedrock Heritage Sonoma Valley 2016 (95, $46), a field blend of vines first planted 120 years ago, is a knockout red loaded with personality, while the Zinfandel Russian River Valley Carlisle Vineyard 2016 (95, $46) is dramatic yet refined.

When Pete Seghesio went his own way after the sale of his family’s historic winery in 2011, he founded a new brand, San Lorenzo, that also focused on Zin. The debut 2014 vintage was impressive, yet the 2015s are even better.

The wines of Limerick Lane have a celebrated past, yet since taking over in 2011, owner Jake Bilbro has established a new standard. The Limerick Lane 1023 Russian River Valley 2015 (95, $65) is a blend of Zinfandel and Syrah from vines planted between 1910 and 1980. It shows the power, richness and pedigree of a great Rhône Valley red, expressing blackberry, bacon fat and garrigue notes.

No one had a more impressive Zinfandel year than Mike Officer of Carlisle, who made 15 outstanding wines in this report, six of them rated 94 points and another three at 93 points (all $47 apiece).

Hartford Family winemaker Jeff Stewart continues to show the old vines of Sonoma’s Wood Road area at their best, with two of his 2016 Zins among this report’s top-scorers.

Rounding out the best wines are bottlings from Turley and Seghesio. At Turley, winemaker Tegan Passalacqua makes a range of outstanding Zins, with two of the winery’s key vineyards rising to the top in 2015.

The 2015 growing season offered mostly moderate weather, but there were several difficulties. The drought was still in full force and budbreak was early. “A protracted bloom and cool spring weather caused some shatter, reducing the crop size,” recalls Seghesio.

Summer was very warm and occasionally quite hot, with an extended heat wave over Labor Day weekend. “It was a record early start and end to harvest,” says Officer.

“It was a challenge to stay ahead of ripeness,” Twain-Peterson adds. “However, the wines have retained a freshness you don’t normally associate with a vintage like that.”

In terms of style, the wines generally show more red fruit than black. “In 2015, the Zinfandels really shined,” says John Olney, winemaker for Ridge’s Lytton Springs estate in Sonoma.

The 2016 growing season was more easygoing, except for the cool and soggy weather that arrived during spring bloom, once again stunting grape development and ultimately crop size. Summer weather was moderate to slightly warm until August, when, according to Ted Seghesio, a marine layer of fog settled in over Northern California.

“Harvest almost started as early as Aug. 22, but then the weather cooled considerably,” Officer explains. “That allowed us to hang the fruit for several weeks longer than in 2015 without sugars getting out of hand. The resulting wines ended up with great color, plush textures and exceptional balance.”

“The 2015s are going to present more immediate drinkability and juiciness,” Twain-Peterson says, “while the best of the ’16s are going to need a little time to unfurl.”

Looking ahead, the 2017 growing season was a roller coaster for producers. Heavy rains in the winter and spring put an end to the drought—for now—and played havoc on the early season. Summer temperatures frequently soared to 95° F and higher. Then finally, in early October, deadly and damaging wildfires ravaged Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino and beyond.

Preliminary word on the vintage is mixed, with smoke taint still a potential concern, so keep that in mind as the 2017s start to appear in the coming months. For now, winemakers are focused on pouring and selling their 2015s and 2016s—and there’s plenty to be excited about.

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

For the complete California Zinfandel tasting report, including scores and prices, read the full article, “Zest for Zin,” in our online magazine archives.