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The Successful Collector – By Julian Hitner~ Zinfandel – the pride of many in California ~ 12 May 2012

Julian Hitner

Julian Hitner

Getting to know the last grape in the alphabet:   In 2006, lawmakers pressed hard to have Zinfandel declared the ‘state grape’ of California, drafting a bill and presenting it to then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger for approval. At the time, it seemed like a good idea. Ranked third in popularity after Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, Zinfandel’s affiliation with California, from both an historical and contemporary perspective, is undeniable. In the twenty-first century, it has become the grape collectors and wine enthusiasts have come to identify as quintessentially Californian.

Seghesio old-vine Zinfandel

But is Zinfandel truly Californian? While the grape has been cultivated throughout much of the state since the 1870s, its true origins have only recently been discovered. Through DNA fingerprinting, oenologists—thanks to the efforts of Dr. Carole Meredith during her tenure at the University of California at Davis (UCD)—now know that Zinfandel is actually the same grape as Primitivo, one of the most important full-bodied workhorse varietals in Puglia, the provincial ‘heel’ of southern Italy. Even more important, it was recently discovered that the original birthplace of Zinfandel/Primitivo is not even Italy, but present-day Croatia. Hailing from various Dalmatian islands along the Croatian coastline in the Adriatic, the exact vine was discovered to be one named Crljenak Kaštelanski—the first word is pronounced ‘tsurl-yen-nak.’

So what does this mean for Californian winegrowers and fervent admirers of Zinfandel? Does this revelation make Zinfandel any less California-specific? Hardly, for few would disagree that California, not Puglia or Dalmatia, has done more for Zinfandel than any other place in the world. Seriously, is there any other place one can think of where Zinfandel is crafted to such fruity sumptuousness, such darkly fragrant and incense-driven lustre, such alcoholic potency and length, agreeable when the wine is in balance?

Zinfandel Grapes

So let’s take a closer look at this marvellous grape. Found throughout many winegrowing regions of California, Zinfandel usually performs best in warm conditions and long growing seasons. Indeed, there are few other grapes that seem to tolerate heat so well, with excessive ripeness seeming almost a non-factor in the eyes of many top growers. In fact, some have even claimed high potential alcohol to be an actual prerequisite for the crafting of great Zinfandel. However, as with all other types of wine, the ratio of opinion-to-qualitative execution will vary from winemaker to winemaker.

Ridge Lytton Springs

Of soils, while Zinfandel doesn’t seem particularly fussy about where it is planted, the best examples often hail from poor, well-drained hillsides, with places of greater mineral content proving additionally advantageous. However, for most winegrowers (excepting Ridge’s Paul Draper), soil conditions are considered secondary to the actual age of the vine. In particular places throughout California, the most sought-after grapes are those from vines over fifty years old. Compared to their younger siblings, the oldest Zinfandel vines provide for such greater intensity, sumptuousness, flavour, and additional cellaring potential that collectors and enthusiasts seldom have trouble figuring out which is which.

Rafanelli 2010 Zinfandel

So where does the best Zinfandel come from? For all intents and purposes, the most famous is probably Dry Creek Valley, located in northern Sonoma. This is where some of the most potent old-vine versions are made, benefitting from the region’s hot days and cool nights (particularly on the eastern side of the valley), with temperatures becoming increasingly warmer as one heads north from Healdsburg. Located on benchlands, the best sites tend to have a mixture of gravel and red clays, making for good drainage and reduced risk of rot. Other AVAs in Sonoma to watch out for are Alexander Valley and, on occasion, Russian River Valley. This said, many Sonoma producers will often source grapes from multiple AVAs to craft a superior wine. This means that many of the best wines will often simply be labelled as ‘Sonoma County.’

Chateau Montelena Zinfandel

The same applies to many of the best versions throughout the Napa Valley. Even more so than Sonoma, the most premium bottlings are oftentimes excellent: full-bodied, plummy, and carrying just an extra speck of acidity that seems to improve the wine beyond measure. Just as intriguing is the fact that the best producers are often those whose primary speciality are Cabernet-blends, not Zinfandel.

Another bastion for the grape is Mendocino County, the most northerly fine winegrowing region in California. As in most other places, the first vines were planted on hillsides over a century ago by Italian immigrants. And while Mendocino Zinfandels might not be the best known, the finest examples are often of remarkable quality, not to mention well priced.

The same applies for those of the Lodi AVA, located south of Sacramento. Like Mendocino, there are few famous names here, though the area is littered with fantastic old-vine plantings. Soils here are washed down from the Sierras, and the best bottlings are agreeably full-bodied and supple. Further east in the Sierra Foothills, even more powerful versions in the Amador vicinity can be found: full-bodied, sumptuous, and packing quite an alcoholic wallop.

Finally, the gargantuan Paso Robles AVA in San Obispo County is home to some of the most forceful Zinfandels in California, similar in style to those found around Amador and just as imposing; though the more balanced versions will also reflect the former’s hot days and maritime evenings. As with virtually all other plantings in California, the best wines will be sourced from dry-farmed old vines, planted many decades ago by Italian trailblazers. Like Zinfandel, where would California winemaking be without the Italian influence?

By and large, the best Zinfandels can be cellared for a fairly long time, up to fifteen years in some cases. Still, most people prefer to drink their wines young, when such aromas as blackberries, currants, cherries, berries, incense, and plummy black fruits are at their fullest abundance. Other scents to pick up in young Zinfandels are baked fruits, licorice, rose petals, mocha, toasted oak, and spice.

Like other wines, more mature Zinfandels will often lose their primary fruits, featuring more savoury nuances that often include tobacco, cigarbox, and more texturally creamy characteristics. While decanting is always recommended for young wines, older Zinfandel seems to demand it. A temperature range of 16-18°C for premium examples is probably your best bet. Whether the same rule applies for Crljenak Kaštelanski is anyone’s guess.

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Lawrason’s Take on Vintages March 3rd Release: On Carmenère’s Case, Zinfandel’s Too; Miramar’s Bargain Chardonnay, The Curiosity of Andrezj Lipinski

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

I am dispatching this newsletter from Vancouver where I am spending the week at the 34th Vancouver Playhouse International Wine Festival. As a consumer/wine lover experience it is unparalleled in this country. The range of wines, wineries and winemakers on parade in the grand tastings is extraordinary. As is the variety of side events from dinners, seminars, grazing events and even speed dating exercises – all done with a sense of grace, class and community. No one minds paying the freight at Playhouse because one never feels ripped off. I am making a week in Vancouver an annual busman’s holiday. If you love wine you should too.

Whither Carmenère?Montes Purple AngelCasa Silva Reserva CarmenèreConcha Y Toro Terrunyo Block 27 CarmenèreI was not able to taste all of the March 3rd release but I did get to the Chilean carmenères, and I see many more in my immediate future. Chile is this year’s theme country here at Playhouse. So I will get a chance to test drive the theory I put forward below about the direction these wines should be going. I was underwhelmed by Vintages carmenère selection – almost bored – until I finally tasted Montes 2009 Purple Angel at $56.95.  But should it take $50 to deliver exciting carmenère? Here is a grape with all the potential tools – a propensity to show excellent depth and concentration, firm structure based on its thick skinned nature, and complexity to spare when properly ripened – when its green tendency is subsumed by ripe fruit and judicious oak treatment. Yet Chile seems fixated on hitting a “market” under $20 which in turn doesn’t allow carmenère to hit its potential.  This is Chile’s self appointed signature variety – a claim to fame and distinction. Give us a reason to buy it, other than it being inexpensive. Concha Y Toro 2008 Terrunyo Block 27 Carmenère from the Peumo Vineyard in the Cachapoal Valley is one example of a carefully ripened and thoughtfully made carmenère that maintains its sense of value at $29.95. Of the selections under $20 I liked Casa Silva 2009 Reserva Carmenère from the Colchagua Valley ($15.00) for its sense of unplugged authenticity, if lacking some grace. But at $15 one doesn’t expect great polish.

Et Tu California Zinfandel?
Ridge Three ValleysAs carmenère is the signature of Chile, zinfandel is the signature of California, and this release contains a terrific example from a leading producer – Ridge 2009 Three Valleys from Sonoma County. It is not cheap at $34.95 but I like it for its honesty and authenticity as well as its quality. The story of California’s “heritage” grape is oft’ told – its origins in Adriatic Europe, its emigration to California with Italians who joined the Gold Rush in the 1850s, and its renaissance as finer wine over a century later when folks like Paul Draper from Ridge began to source from pockets of old vines around the state.

To me Zinfandel makes sense in California simply because it is a Mediterranean grape and California has a Mediterranean climate. And it generally makes more sense in California than cabernet, merlot and pinot.  What’s more, it works wonderfully well when blended with other Mediterranean varieties like petite sirah, carignan and mourvèdre that provide structural ballast and more flavour complexity.

That is the formula in the Ridge Three Valleys, and in many of the better zinfandels I recently tasted at the ZAP (Zinfandel Advocates & Producers) love-in in San Francisco. There were over 500 zins from 204 wineries at this event, and it was attended by over 8,000 people.  The scope was stunning! One attendee called it the “University of Zinfandel”. Indeed, and the morning I spent there was a crash course on the many different winemaking perspectives on this grape.  It’s a minefield out there, but I have decided that like carmenère I really don’t like cheap zinfandel and that too many of the large producers treat it as a third class citizen. It too deserves more respect.

Miramar Torres and Sonoma Chardonnay
Speaking of California, the best white wine value of the release is Marimar Estate 2007 La Masía Don Miguel Vineyard Chardonnay from the Russian River Valley of Sonoma County – a stunning value at $19.95.  I had lunch with Miramar Torres and her agents (Family Wine Merchants) at Crush Wine Bar recently and discovered that this was a “one- off deal” at half the regular price. I don’t like to get mixed up in the pricing of wine, but like wine scores, prices are numbers too. And prices are suggestive of the producer’s, distributer’s or retailer’s opinion of the wine.  What does 50% off suggest to you about the situation of the wine and winery?  And will you still buy it when the price returns to $40?

Marimar Estate La Masía Don Miguel Vineyard Chardonnay 2007
In this case I would, because the wine is quite riveting and intriguing. The 2007 is mature, and I can see why there might be some rush to “move it”. But it remains a vital, complex and interesting wine made in a somewhat free-spirited, unconventional style that has defined Miramar’s biodynamic approach ever since she left her Torres family operation in Spain to venture into the New World in the 80s.  She was never really alone in this endeavour – her family always mentored and encouraged.  More so, she was unconventional within California, which is generally a very “safe” place for winemaking. She likes to say her approach is Burgundian, which to me defines a traditional, non-technical ambiance – and I certainly get that here. As I encountered in the 2008 La Masia coming next fall at closer to $40, and the splendid unoaked 2009 Acero Chardonnay now available through Family Wine Merchants.

Hartford Court Four Hearts Vineyards ChardonnayThe other interesting subtext bound up in a glass of Miramar La Masia is its origin in Sonoma’s Russian River Valley appellation. Her property is actually in the sub-region of Green Valley – a bit closer to the Pacific coast, a bit cooler and greener. There is no question in my mind that coastal Sonoma is a leading locale globally for chardonnay. Having visited Sonoma recently and having participated in several California chardonnay tastings and seminars, it is obvious that great attention is being focused on this grape in Sonoma, and in the Russian River in particular. If you want to understand why, try the Hartford Court 2009 Four Hearts Vineyards Chardonnay, Russian River Valley, at $47.95. It and many others are very classy indeed, as was the Rodney Strong Reserve 2009 on the previous release.

The Curiosity of Andrejz Lipinski
The Organized Crime GewurztraminerOne of the most interesting and controversial whites of this release is The Organized Crime 2009 Gewürztraminer from the Niagara Peninsula ($22.20). It is barrel fermented and aged gerwurz, a very unorthodox treatment for this aromatic variety and one that purists will not appreciate.  I too think it pushed an already big and powerful wine a bit too far to the point of being out of balance. But I do like the added flavour complexity and dimension, because winemaker Andrejz Lipinski has done a good job meshing the wood.  More than that, I simply enjoy tasting Lipinski’s wines precisely because they do challenge. Oaking gewürztraminer is not his only notoriety; he is better known for his work with making appassimento-styled wines (both red and white) from grapes dried after harvest (as in amarone). He first tried this style at A Foreign Affair, but has since moved on to ply this particular craft at Organized Crime, Colaneri, Cornerstone and the new Burning Kiln winery near Port Dover on Lake Erie. The latter winery is on former tobacco lands where there is a surplus of old tobacco drying kilns now converting to grape drying. I simply like his curiosity and creativity, something that is quite rare in mainstream winemaking these days.

March 8 VSOs Reviews Coming Up
There has been a bit of a hiatus in tasting of Vintages Shop-on-Line releases but I was able to taste some from the March 8 release – largely a selection of grand cru classé Bordeaux from 2005 and 2008. As these wines were not posted on Vintages site at our press time we are not able to create finished listings on Wine Align. But watch next week for my reviews to appear, with notification via Twitter.
Back to the Playhouse……

David Lawrason,
VP of Wine at WineAlignCheck out reviews on over 100 wines from the March 3rd release here.

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Lawrason’s Take on Vintages June 11th Release – Veneto Basics, Zin’s Salvation, Chile Rising, A Pair of 91s, Serious Beaujolais, 2009 Bouchard Burgundies and I4C

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

My apologies if the selection below is not very summery, now that summer has fully sprung in Ontario.  There are some decent whites on this release, and a fine Perrin Tavel rosé, but as it happens the real head turners in terms of quality and value are among reds. At least three of my picks however are of a lighter, chillable style. I also draw your attention below to Bouchard Pere’s 2009 Burgundy offer, news on next month’s ambitious International Cool Climate Chardonnay Celebration in Niagara, as well as an exciting new video series we are announcing today.

Veneto Back to Basics

Giuseppe Campagnola Vigneti Vallata Di Marano Amarone Della Valpolicella Classico 2006I remain perplexed and unmoved by the red wines in Italy’s northeastern Veneto region. Once clearly defined by light, fruity Valpolicella and Bardolino on the one hand, and beefcake Amarone on the other, the wines of this area have become terribly confused by the introduction of a sprawling family of ripasso/ripassa, appassimento, appassimento breve and new “rosso di Veronese” reds that are somewhere in between. I really have lost my bearings, nor am I very happy overall with the quality I am encountering as countless producers join the fray.  Sandro Boscaini of Masi was the gentleman to introduce the ripasso technique (re-fermenting wine after the inclusion of amarone lees) in his Campofiorin back  in 1964.  When I last met up with him a couple of years ago in Toronto he too was lamenting the dilution of the concept and quality as well.

Monte Del Frá Bardolino 2010For just that reason, Vintages special feature on Veneto in All its Glory, is not all that glorious. There are some highlights on either end of the spectrum that I have picked out below, but that middle ground is very blurred, and of unremarkable quality or value, so I am going to leave it aside and go back to basics. I do like amarone, although often I find it overpriced given the quality therein.  Of the four amarones on this release I point you to GIUSEPPE CAMPAGNOLA 2006 VIGNETI VALLATA DI MARANO ($41.95) as a fine example of a classic style. This was a great vintage for Venetian reds. At the opposite end of the spectrum you will enjoy the freshness and charm of MONTE DEL FRÁ 2010 BARDOLINO, which is a great deal in summer red at only $11.95. Can’t wait to try this on the deck, lightly chilled, with prosciutto, fresh young goat cheese and antipasto. In this era of complication it is a straight forward beacon of delicious simplicity.

Zinfandel Salvation

Peachy Canyon Westside Zinfandel 2007California zinfandel is another grape/style that has become muddled by too many cooks in the kitchen, all of them trying to make an easy buck by rendering zinfandel as  soft, oak buffed, overly commercialized, every day red (not as serious and structured as say cabernet). It’s too bad this has happened to zinfandel, which can be one of the most distinctively perfumed, joyous and lively wines from California – especially when sourced from those old gnarled, head pruned, dry farmed vineyards that dot the hillsides of Sonoma, the Sierra Foothills, Paso Robles and other nooks and crannies in between. I spent several weeks long ago touring those sites and inhaling that wonderful brambly/black raspberry scent. One label I stumbled across back then was Peachy Canyon, a zin specialist buried in the folds of costal hills south of Paso Robles, so when I spied PEACHY CANYON 2007 WESTSIDE ZINFANDEL ($21.95) on this release I couldn’t wait to taste it. Lo and behold it has held true. Just Peachy thanks!

Chile’s Upward Trajectory

Arboleda Sauvignon Blanc 2010Chile is not “featured” on this release, but could have been. When I reviewed my notes and rating on the several Chilean wines presented, virtually all were scoring in the high 80s and low 90s, and all were $20 or less.  Furthermore, most were organically produced.  I have said before, perhaps ad nauseum for some, that Chile is increasingly poised as one of the world’s most reliable sources for conscientious, high quality, good value winemaking.  I could have picked a couple of good organic cab-based wines to highlight here, but instead I’ll choose ARBOLEDA 2010 SAUVIGNON BLANC at a mere $15.95. It has all the freshness and poised fruit that marks the modern era of coastal sauvignons in Chile. Aconcagua is a long valley more well know for big cabs and syrahs, but more vineyards are being planted on the low slopes farther downstream toward the ocean where they pick up cooler conditions, perhaps even fog on occasion.  Arboleda is a brand in the Errazuriz portfolio now focused on organic viticulture in this zone.

From far to the north, in a very similar valley, comes the best red buy of this release. FALERNIA RESERVA 2007 SYRAH ($15.95) from the Elqui Valley is a syrah lovers syrah – a dense, black yet surprisingly poised wine.  Remote Elqui, as you may have heard by now, is considered an almost mystical place by legions of trekkers and star gazers who come to hide away from modern life and breathe in its almost crystalline mountain air. (Some of the largest observatories in the southern Hemisphere are nearby).  I am not claiming its wines pack any spiritual force beyond the obvious, but there is real clarity in this syrah, and for now, until Elqui is discovered by the world at large, it is a huge bargain.

Falernia Reserva Syrah 2007

A Pair of 91s

Two other reds that stand out in the value department hail from quite opposite ends of the style spectrum.  I have always been a fan of Appollonio in southern Italy, for the generosity, suppleness and richness they achieve in their hot climate reds. So often wines from this area tend to be raisiny and leathery – impressive on the palate but varietally indistinct.  APOLLONIO TERRAGNOLO 2004 NEGROAMARO from Salento is nicely focused and fresh, made all the more surprising because it is going on seven years of age.  I really like the negroamaro (the “black bitter” grape) and this is a fine example and a great buy at only $17.95

More Orgeon pinot is surfacing at Vintages nowadays as CDN/US $ exchange rates even out. Oregon pinot caught Napa pricing fever back in the west coast’s pre-recession heyday, thus it all but disappeared from Ontario (with its juicy mark-ups). Meantime, our pinot noir market has been building steadily as we have embraced our own Ontario examples plus comparatively well priced examples from New Zealand in particular, and some from Australia and California as well. So we are approaching Oregon pinot now with a much more practiced eye, and I at least am often finding that Oregon half and half, California/Old World Oregon style clumsy and muddled. DELINEA 300 PINOT NOIR from the Willamette Valley ($27.95) is an exception – a delicious pinot with generous fruit, background terroir-driven complexity and balance. All at a price that is fair and perfectly commensurate with its quality. The reason?  I can only speculate that it might be due to second generation experience at the hands of Alex Sokol-Blossor, son of one of Oregon’s pioneers.

Apollonio Terragnolo Negroamaro 2004   Delinea 300 Pinot Noir 2008

Beaujolais Gets Serious

Beaujolais seems to be growing up too – in the sense of finally taking itself seriously.  In the late 70s and 80s the region took to making guplable, fruity unoaked, carbonic maceration gamays that seemed to be a thumbing of their nose at serious pinot noir in Burgundy north. Then came the even more frivolous barely-fermented Beaujolais Nouveau, which all but gassed the region’s reputation in the 90s and 2000s.  Now a revival of serious gamay seems to be taking hold, with modern, traditionally fermented and even oak aged wines that still accentuate the grape’s tendency to make floral, supple, low tannin wines. CHÂTEAU DE CHATELARD 2009 LES VIEUX GRANITS from Fleurie ($17.95) is the latest example, with more to come soon on other releases.

Château De Chatelard Les Vieux Granits Fleurie 2009

Bouchard Pere and Fils Previews 2009 Burgundy

At the end of May Ontario importer Woodman Wines and Spirits, in co-operation with Vintages, held its annual Burgundy vintage preview with a range of village, premier cru and grand cru wines from Bouchard Pere et Fils, among the largest houses in Burgundy.  A week prior I had toured the cellars of this venerable property (est 1731) with its classic, manicured winery property located in the heart of Beaune. If they had brought their entire line up to Toronto we would have been tasting all week. Bouchard’s portfolio is immense with 130 hectares of estate vineyard supplying wine for 74 Premier Cru and 12 Grand Cru bottlings, plus dozens of village and regional wines.

Bouchard Pere et Fils This day I focused on the 2009s reds, a hot year garnering a lot of accolades in trade and media circles. I was indeed struck by the delicious fruit ripeness and approachability of the wines. I overheard comments that the style was very New Zealand or at least somewhere New World.  Which is really not true; they didn’t handle the road like NZ pinot noir at all.  They do have some flesh but they still had classic Burgundy tension, minerality and structure that was most apparent in their finish. What I did love was the fruit purity, pinot perched at perfect red berry ripeness.  Of the ten tasted I would have rated seven in the 93 to 95 point range; and each clearly represented its appellation or terroir – yet another indicator that it is not “too ripe” a year.

Personal favourites included the 2009 Volnay 1er Cru Caillerets Ancienne Cuvee Carnot ($83), Pommard 1er Cru Rugiens ($92), Le Corton Grand Cru ($118) and Nuits-Saint-Georges 1er Cru Les Porrets ($92) – just four of almost fifty reds and whites now available for ordering at  And PS, I had a well cellared, delicious 1999 Volnay 1er Cru Caillerets in pristine, youthful condition at a BYO event at Earth Restaurant last week.  Consider all these wines for the cellar.

International Cool Climate Chardonnay Celebration (I4C) Re-Draws July 22-24 Schedule

IC4 Logo

With six weeks to go the first truly international wine event ever held in Ontario wine country has unveiled a new schedule designed to let guests pick and and pay individually for their events from July 22 to 24 at winery locations in Niagara. The full schedule is at  To find out which of the 56 international and Ontario wineries is pouring where, go to Programs then click on the individual events. All however will be on deck for the Vintages Taste and Buy Finale at Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto on July 24. And it is an impressive line-up with wineries from France, Italy and Austria in Europe, and from the USA, New Zealand, Australia and Chile. Plus a who’s who of Niagara and Prince Edward County. It’s something of a coming out party for Canadian wine, so even if wall to wall chardonnay is not your idea of a great summer weekend, do consider showing your support for this ambitious and worthwhile program.  Most of all it’s a chance for you to decide for yourself – glass by glass – where Ontario wine fits into the global (or at least cool climate) chardonnay scene.

That’s it for now, enjoy reading up on all the other wines from the June 11th Vintages release here.  And by the way, I have also recently entered new releases from Stratus and Hinterbrook in Niagara.

Cheers and enjoy, David

– David Lawrason, VP of Wine at WineAlign

Click here to see ranked lists and reviews of over 100 wines in this release.

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WineAlign Reviews

Coldstream Hills Pinot Noir 2008