Rize of the Zinot

By Boris Wiedenfeld-Needham

Not so long ago, winegrowers in the Willamette Valley were worried — very worried, indeed. What would be in store for them with global climate change taking effect? No matter the local weather at any given time, evidence showed one fact: Earth is warming up, and Oregon’s vineyards are not an exception.

How would the fickle Pinot Noir grape — the Big Kahuna of Oregon wine and foundation of the state’s oenological reputation — fare in this warmer climate? With 2003, 2006 and 2009 vintage grapes already approaching 28 to 30 Brix at some wineries, and the resulting alcohol levels at 14.5 percent or more, how much room was there to go up from here? Would there be a point when Pinot Noir became unsustainable?

Sheep farmers and fiber-tree cultivators alike peered salaciously upon winegrowers’ desire for higher altitudes, but that was all before the introduction of the grape that might have saved the entire state’s vinous industry. Of course, I am referring to Zinot Noir.

The hybrid of Pinot Noir and Zinfandel was first developed by Horst Borscht at Geisenheim University in Germany, where Borscht was a post-doctoral candidate in 1991. Back then, Zinot was chastised as “utterly worthless.”

“Why?  Why on earth would you do such a thing?” pondered primary investigating scientist Pjotr Ivanovic Istdochnichwar. “It’s like mixing orange juice with beef stock! Why the hell would anyone want that?”

Well, that was before the age of global climate change. Fast-forward to 2014, and Zinot Noir is all the rage.

Within the last two years, this once obscure grape has seen by far the most dramatic increase in acreage in Oregon. In 2009, there were fewer than 10 acres planted to Zinot; by 2012 that number had jumped to 940. And while the precise numbers for 2013 are not available yet, industry experts estimate there are currently more than 8,000 acres planted.

Veteran vineyard nursery owner Chad Stevens, who’s been selling vines for more than 30 years, says he’s never seen anything like this. “I can’t give away Pinot Noir plants anymore.  Pommard? Wadenswill? Dijon clones 777, 667? Nope. Nobody wants them anymore. All they want now is Zinot Noir.”

Oregon’s superstar viticulturist Dai Crisp, who manages Temperance Hill and Rudolfo vineyards and owns Lumos Wine Co., was one of the early adopters.

“We’re actually in the process of ripping out most of our Pinot Noir grapes and replacing them with Zinot,” Crisp said. “The demand from winemakers is simply overwhelming.  I haven’t seen such a run on a grape since the Grüner Veltliner fad of 2008.

“You know those new vineyards that KJ [Kendall-Jackson] and [Louis] Jadot are planting? Not one vine of Pinot Noir; it’s all Zinot.” Crisp continued.

One of the characteristics that endeared Zinot Noir so much to Crisp, who has been farming his vineyards organically for many years, is that all Zinot plants are automatically USDA certified organic. “It doesn’t matter what you spray; the wine will still be certified organic. I can drop Round Up, DDT, Agent Orange, you name it. Still organic!” Crisp raved.

Mark Nicholl, owner/winemaker of William Rose and Bootlegger Wines, is also a Zinot zealot.

“Zinot Noir has simply been a revelation to us,” Nicholl said. “We were looking for a way to keep up with some of our neighbors in the [Willamette] Valley but could never get the extraction and alcohol levels up high enough. With Zinot Noir, that is not a problem.

“Now I’m getting my grapes in at 32, 33, even 35 Brix. We’re starting to experiment with some new specialty yeasts that can go up to 18.5% alcohol. That, together with the inky black color, and Parker might just have to expand his scores to 110,” Nicholl continued. “Heck, most of the people that come to our tasting room would rather drink Zinfandel anyway. Thanks to Zinot Noir, they can drink something that tastes like Zin and still feel superior to their neighbors.”

And Robert Parker may well have to add more points to his scale when he sees the Nicholl’s new luxury line simply called Mac. It’s a 17-percent alcohol monster that sees 250 percent new oak — after spending two years in brand-new American oak, it gets racked into another brand-new oak barrel, at which point oak chips, staves and sawdust get added before it’s bottled in custom eight-pound magnums.

On the retail side, Zinot Noir has been a runaway success. Michael Alberty, owner of Portland’s Storyteller Wine Company, was at first unprepared for the explosive growth of the new super-grape but quickly caught up.

“Two years ago, my clientele was nothing but jorts-wearing, bearded and bespectacled hipsters who would want a half-hour of my attention to discuss soil types, clonal selections and Biodynamic practices before buying a $15 bottle of Pinot. Now I get tourists, baby! Fat tourists with fat wallets. And they just can’t get enough of Zinot Noir,” Alberty commented.

With such enthusiastic reception on all levels, it seems that Zinot Noir’s meteoric rise from obscurity is far from its apogee. Maybe in 20 years or so, we will be telling our kids that there were once people growing Pinot Noir here in Oregon.

Boris Wiedenfeld-Needham, CSW, sells wine for The Estates Group of Young’s Market Co. He’s the co-founder/host of “Food for Thought” (KLCC), and he writes about wine and food for several publications.

Boris has lots of fancy letters behind his name that are supposed to impress you about just how much he knows about wine and other adult beverages.  Certain publications and NPR stations let him rant and rave about wine and food from time to time to relieve his boredom. In his free time, he slings wine for a very hoity-toity wine distributor.

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