Robust and spicy, zinfandel could be the best red wine you’ve never tasted
Zinfandel, the robust, spicy red wine, doesn’t get enough respect. Think about it: When was the last time you ordered a zinfandel at a restaurant, or served a bottle at dinner? It’s probably been a while, and that’s a shame. David Williams, co-owner of Northampton Wine + Dine, agrees. “Zinfandel is such a great food wine,” he says. “So many robust foods like barbecue will overpower red wines.”
Zinfandel, however, can stand up to bold foods while not overpowering them. During a wine tasting earlier this year, Williams poured eight different zinfandels. Some were bold, while others offered more nuanced flavors. Here are five of my favorites from the tasting.
Time Place Wine Co. Zinfandel Suss Vineyard, $30
Founded in 2017, Time Place is a joint venture between a distributor and winemaker Jamey Whetstone.
Whetstone, who was born in South Carolina, moved to Napa, California, in 1996 and began his winemaking career at Turley Wine Cellars, which is known for its zinfandel. The grapes for this wine come from the 98-year-old Suss Vineyard in Lodi, California, and the wine spends eight months in oak. Despite the age of the vines, it won’t overpower most foods, even lighter fare such as cheese and charcuterie. It would also pair nicely with roast pork. This is a relatively lean, food-friendly zinfandel that presents flavors of blackberry, plum, and raspberry. And, although the wine is made in California, the bottle pays homage to Whetstone’s roots with label art depicting Church Creek, which divides Johns Island from Wadmalaw Island.
“This is a great bargain for a super-small production wine,” Williams says. “It’s a great vintage.”
Rombauer Zinfandel, $40
This well-regarded California zin—a top seller at Northampton—blends grapes from five regions, but most of the grapes are sourced from the El Dorado and Amador County areas, which are known for great zinfandel production.
After careful sorting and fermentation of the grapes—93 percent zinfandel and 7 percent petite syrah—the wine is aged for 16 months in American and French oak. This wine exudes flavors of blackberry, chocolate, and plum, and has a big, rich finish—which Williams attributes to the wine’s higher alcohol percentage. “It gives the impression of sweetness,” Williams admits. “But I think, more often than not, when people want a zinfandel, people want this bigger, richer style.” Pair this wine with bold or spicy dishes such as smoked brisket, ribs, or fajitas.
A bit of trivia: Koerner Rombauer, who founded Rombauer Vineyards in 1980, was the grandson of Irma Rombauer, who wrote The Joy of Cooking in the 1930s.
Ghost Block Zinfandel Pelissa Vineyard, $43
Ever since Joseph Pelissa began growing grapes in 1903, the Pelissa family sold its fruit to other wineries.
Nothing was made under the family name. That all changed in 2006, and today, with more than 600 acres of vineyards, the family produces wines under several brands, including Ghost Block. This zin is not blended with any other grapes, and spends 18 months in oak. The grapes are sourced from the Pelissa Vineyard in the Oakville appellation, best known for cabernet sauvignon. This is a medium-bodied wine, with a bright ruby color and rich mouthfeel. Flavors of ripe berries, cherry, plum, smoke, and spice linger on the palate, while the light acidity keeps the wine from becoming overpowering. This would be a good wine for someone who is looking for a bigger zin but who doesn’t want a sweet wine.
I’d pair this with a good steak, grilled pork loin, or spicy pasta.
St. Francis Reserve Zinfandel, $46
This is one of my favorite zinfandels because of its smooth, balanced presentation.
With this zin, St. Francis, which for years was known for great merlot, shows it still has strong wine-making skills. The wine, which contains 5 percent petite syrah, presents a deep, rich color. Flavors of blueberries, cranberries, and other dark fruits abound, with a hint of pepper and spice on the long finish. The fruit comes from the northern end of Sonoma County’s Dry Creek Valley. After fermentation, the wine is aged for 20 months in French oak barrels. According to the winemaker’s notes, the petite syrah adds color and texture to the wine, as well as overall balance. “This was always a real good bottle of wine,” Williams says.
“They don’t make much of this.” I’d pair this wine with Asian dishes, pork, grilled meats, and bolder cheeses—or just about anything. If you’re looking for a crowd-pleasing zin, this is it.
Tobin James Fat Boy, $56
If you want a big, bold zinfandel, Fat Boy might be it.
The deep purple color in the glass hints at what’s to come—what the winery calls a “big, bold, jammy, olallieberry pie smacking-you-right-in-the-face wine.” Not sure what olallieberry is? It’s a type of blackberry. While I can’t vouch for that flavor, there is plenty of fruit in this wine. There’s also plenty of alcohol: 15.6 percent, according to the winery. It’s 100 percent zin, aged for 18 months in oak. “In the tasting notes the winery sent me, they said this is the jammiest of all jammy zinfandels. It is a huge fruit bomb,” Williams says. The grapes for this wine come from Paso Robles, a large area known for zinfandel that is a relatively recent player in wine. “In 1990, there were fewer than 20 wineries in Paso Robles,” Williams says. “Today, there are more than 200.”
I’d pair this with barbecue brisket, pork, or ribs.
Northampton Wine + Dine, 211-A E Broad St, Greenville. 864-271-3919.
Photo by Pete Martin.