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Zinfandel has never been one of my favorite grapes. When it comes to California red wines, I tend to prefer Cabernet Sauvignon from Sonoma and Napa Counties. Big, bold, and fruity but well-rounded, I am hard-pressed to find or bother trying other varietals.
Zinfandel (NOT to be confused with the sticky sweet, blush colored White Zinfandel that I used to drink with my grandmother) usually strikes me as too acidic and tart, too middle of the road in terms of heaviness and depth of flavor.
One winery changed that opinion. Sonoma’s Martinelli, a family owned winery in the Russian River AVA, takes great pride in its single vineyard vintages from several small farms in Alexander Valley, as well as the neighboring Sonoma Coast AVA just to the west. With Sonoma’s wealth of microclimates, it is amazing to taste the unique characteristics from single varieties of grape cultivated just steps from one another. Soils with varying altitude, mineral composition, sunlight, and rainfall produce wines with noticeably different aromas or tasting notes.
Overall, I found Martinelli’s Zinfandels to be much richer than I remembered, with a touch of sweetness and varying berry notes. The Moonlight Ranch Zinfandel is made with the least contact with the grapes’ skin of any of the winery’s Zinfandels. This production feature not only lightens the wine’s color considerably, but it is lower in bitter tannins, bright with acidity, and sweet with the subtle aroma of strawberry. It isn’t as light as a rose, but it is light enough for poultry and excellent for a Thanksgiving turkey dinner. It paired beautifully with a soft ripened cheese and dried figs, which give it more of a cranberry-like tartness than it takes on without food.
The Lolita Ranch and Vellutini Ranch Zinfandels, in contrast, are a bit heavier, with darker cherry and blackberry notes, more minerality, and more layered tannins. If you’re not a wine snob, what the heck does that mean? You get wines that are a bit more earthy than a light Zinfandel. The acid or tartness is less pronounced, having been leveled out by the bitter tannins and more noticeable oak from the aging process. Yet the result is somehow slightly sweet for both wines. Both of these wines pair well with sharper, hard cheeses, dark chocolate, and, according to one of my good friends, a nice cigar. In the Vellutini, I tasted a bit of tobacco and a more noticeable bitterness that might be too much for a cigar. Lolita was just a bit softer and sweeter, which supposedly worked nicely with a cigar.
If you aren’t much of a wine connoisseur, this post probably sounds incredibly pretentious. As it should. But tasting good wines side by side for comparison, with a good guide to explain the wines’ history and context, as well as with food, brings out so many wonderful aromas, flavors, viscocities (basically the thickness/heaviness of the wine). Each bite of a different food pairing changes the flavor of the wine immensely. Cheese might bring out the sweetness of a heavy red wine; a dried fig or apricot might unleash new fruit flavors (really the aromas). Chocolate might soften the bitterness of the tannins and bite of the oak barrel. Almonds or other tree nuts might highlight the minerals or citrus aromas in a dry white wine.
I experienced every one of the above changes during my recent tasting at Martinelli. Lest I shortchange Martinelli’s other varietals, the winery makes nice, not too buttery Chardonnays (I’m not a Chardonnay fan), subtle, low acidity Pinot noirs, and peppery Syrahs.
Martinelli’s wines aren’t cheap; most bottles range from about US $55-$65, exclusive of taxes. I don’t generally splurge that much for a bottle of wine, since many good wines are readily available for under $20, but a truly great one like Martinelli is a wonderful experience to share with a couple of friends that appreciate a good wine.
Stay tuned for more exploration of California’s wine country in The Culinary Diplomat. Do you have a favorite wine or tasting experience to share? We welcome wine ambassadors from around the world to comment and guest post!