California grape goes ape in Oregon
Although Zinfandel may be a minor factor in Oregon, the best examples emerging lately deserve to be discussed in the same context as those from California.
First, let’s look at the playing field. Of the many wine varieties grown in California, the one most closely identified with the Golden State is Zinfandel.
For decades, it was regarded as the helpful orphan. Growers uncertain of its origin, were thankful that the grape proved to be so robust and well balanced without presenting any significant difficulties in the vineyard. Eventually, researchers were able to determine that Zinfandel and Southern Italy’s Primitivo were essentially identical. Even more recently, with the advent of plant DNA, it was discovered that both had a couple Croatian ancestors, too.
Although Zinfandel may not actually be from California, it certainly is of California. Approximately 11 percent of the state’s vineyard acreage is planted to the variety. With an annual yield of about 400,000 tons, it is California’s third most-grown grape, behind Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. By comparison, Oregon’s combined total production in 2012 was just over 50,000 tons.
The vast majority of California Zin production is warm-climate and high-yield, as shown by the variety’s average tons per acre. In 2013, California counted a grand total of about 525,000 bearing vineyard acres across the state. Zinfandel’s share of 11 percent translates to 57,750 acres. Divide 400,000 tons by that figure and you arrive at just under seven tons per acre.
The vast majority is eventually turned into bulk-packaged, price-driven white Zin. Nearly 85 percent of California’s Zinfandel grapes are used to make this mass market wine. What remains is the 15 percent, or 8,700 acres, planted primarily in North and Central Coast AVAs.
From Mendocino to Paso Robles, grapes grown in cooler climates under lower yield conditions are capable of nuanced character and elegant expression. Amador County in the Sierra foothills produces some superb bottlings as well.
The Stanford professors who in 1962 founded Ridge Vineyards atop the Santa Cruz Mountains proved Zinfandel’s potential. They created everything, from 17-percent alcohol blockbusters to cru-equivalent Cabernet styles. A true Zin-sation.
But, as public wine interest began to surge in the 1990s, Zinfandel stalled, a victim of ho-hum consumer image and lack of a premium pedigree. Now that the market has sorted itself out, there’s been a resurgence of interest in the variety. Several premium producers never wavered in their dedication to making top-tier Zins; while others are now giving them more attention.
The comeback is not just a California phenomenon. A select group of Oregon wineries has reserved an important place in their portfolios for the one-time orphaned wine that can morph from ordinary to outstanding.
But, how do Oregon’s best measure up to their California counterparts besides, of course, being overwhelmed by sheer numbers? It’s a difficult question to answer given that most media sources don’t seem to know or, at least, don’t bother to mention that Oregon Zins even exist.
Take, for example, Snooth.com, which purports to be “the world’s most comprehensive wine website hosting the largest online wine community.” The company recently queried wine writers about their favorite Zinfandels and received praiseworthy replies, predictably, all from California.
Given such a glaring omission, it’s time Oregon Zinfandels received respect. They may be few, but I’d put them up against the likes of such consistently heralded brands as Dry Creek, Elyse, Gary Farrell, Seghesio, William Selyem, Joseph Swan, Turley, etc., any day.
First mention should go to Lonnie Wright’s The Pines 1852 Old Vine Zinfandel. A talented and long-experienced viticulturist, Wright resurrected a moribund vineyard in the Columbia Gorge near The Dalles. Originally planted in the 1880s by an Italian immigrant who imported the vines from Italy, it had been abandoned since the mid-1960s.
The famed vineyard produces phenomenal, if limited quantity, fruit, vinified by much-heralded enologist Peter Rosback in St. Paul, to the delight of those who snap up the annual production upon release. He also takes a portion of the grapes for his own production, so you can buy something similar, if not exactly the same, under the Sineann label.
Angel Vine in Carlton is a relative newcomer, but owner/winemaker Ed Fus has secured agreements, sourcing both Zinfandel and Primitivo grapes from five top vineyards in four Columbia Valley sub-AVAs and the Walla Walla Valley.
Since 2008, Fus has focused on the two permutations of Zin so intently that The Oregonian wine columnist Katherine Cole said he is “exploring the grape to a degree previously unknown in the Northwest.”
Paul Gregutt, contributing editor of Wine Enthusiast Magazine, declared that Fus makes “what is arguably Oregon’s most hedonistic California-style Zinfandel.”
Whereas growers acknowledge that often-rainy and cool northwestern Oregon is no place for Zinfandel, Southern Oregon, like Southeastern Washington, tells a different tale.
Dry, warm growing conditions on selected sites have proven quite accommodating for the sun-loving variety. Although full ripening can occasionally be a challenge, when achieved, the wines are beautifully balanced.
For years, the estate Zin from Troon Vineyard in Southern Oregon’s Applegate Valley has been loved and lauded with loads of appreciation. Long-credentialed wine writer Jerry Mead’s International Wine Competition awarded Troon’s estate bottling, “Best New World Zinfandel.” That’s saying a lot against all those classy California competitors.
The two couples who own Wooldridge Creek Vineyards near Troon are also big Zin fans. Their four Applegate Valley estate acres planted to the variety, dating back 1978, contribute to a Zin-only offering and a proprietary blend. Unfortunately for consumers, but good for Wooldridge Creek, its annual production of 5,000 cases sells out entirely at the winery and through the wine club.
In short, though Oregon can currently count only 95 acres of Zinfandel — and Washington’s plantings are thrown into a catch-all, other-reds category for its 1,300 acres — the character of the resulting wines cannot be denied. Among them, you’ll find classic styles bursting with red berry lusciousness accompanied by oak and cocoa, as well as examples exhibiting juicy plum and currant with earthy cedar, smoke, spicy pepper and herbal notes.
If this sounds more like Cabernets you’ve tasted, that’s no coincidence. Growers and winemakers are committed to the variety and convinced of its ability to achieve quality levels equivalent to — if not better than — the best California has to offer.