Few grapes have traveled so jagged an up-and-down journey as zinfandel. It has oscillated wildly in both style and popularity.
Twenty years ago, at the height of California’s embrace of powerfully fruity, potently alcoholic red wines, zinfandels reached a peak of esteem as the dominant critics of the time pushed wines that rose to head-splitting levels of 16 and 17 percent alcohol.
The grape, which had a brash, democratically American image compared with the noble European heritage of chardonnay or cabernet sauvignon, gained a rabid following fueled by cult producers like Turley Cellars and Outpost.
Nowadays, many producers have pulled back on the ripeness throttle, making wines aimed at some degree of finesse rather than steroidal brawn. As with most types of California wine, the selection today is far more diverse, with wines of every style available. Perhaps as a consequence, the demand for zinfandel seems to have fallen.
California still grows plenty of it. Zinfandel remains the third-most-planted red wine grape, as it was 20 years ago, though pinot noir has displaced merlot as No. 2 after cabernet sauvignon. But esteem and demand appear to have dropped. Tribeca Grill, one of New York’s longest-running wine destinations, has just six bottles of red zinfandel on its list, down from more than 80 in 2002.
I never had much use for the blockbuster zins, finding them simply too intense and alcoholic. But I have always loved the more restrained versions, and have been curious about the current state of the wines.
Recently, I went shopping for zinfandels and zinfandel blends in New York shops. I found 10 bottles that I particularly liked and recommend. Some are from longtime zinfandel advocates like Ridge Vineyards and Bedrock, a fresher label that comes from a lineage of zinfandel specialists. Others are from newer producers who are trying their hands with the grape or with historic zinfandel vineyards.
Sadly, I was unable to find some zinfandels that I like. But I highly recommend zins from Broc Cellars, of the newer wave, and from more established producers, A. Rafanelli, Brown Estate and Carlisle. And if you find wines from Turley, Outpost or Robert Biale, producers who are still highly popular, check them out and see what you think.
Unlike pinot noir, say, which is traditionally a 100 percent varietal wine, zinfandel is often part of a blend. Historically, zinfandel was a key component of field blends.
Wise growers, before the modern industrial practice of adding bags of acid or tannins in the cellar to compensate for missing components in a wine, hedged their bets by growing different sorts of grapes together, some deeper in color, some more acidic and others more tannic or fruity. Fermented together as a field blend, they would produce a complete wine.
One of my favorite things about zinfandel is that growers in California have preserved many of these heritage vineyards, some 150 years old, and make wonderful wines from them. You can still taste these old field blends as the original growers intended, although some producers now ferment different varieties separately and then put them together.
Here are the 10 zinfandels I recommend, from least to most expensive.
Bedrock California Old Vine Zinfandel 2021, 14.5 percent, $25
Morgan Twain-Peterson has old-vine zinfandel in his blood. His father, Joel Peterson, founded Ravenswood, once one of California’s leading zinfandel producers, and now runs Once & Future, a solid zinfandel producer. Mr. Twain-Peterson not only makes great zinfandel at Bedrock, but has also been instrumental in helping to preserve California’s heritage vineyards. This bottle, Bedrock’s entry-level zin, comes from an assortment of vineyards. It’s savory, graceful (even at 14.5 percent alcohol), understated and immediately enjoyable.
Marietta Cellars North Coast Román Zinfandel 2020, 14.6 percent, $27
I know Marietta best for its Old Vine Red, a zinfandel-dominant blend of grapes and different vintages that’s always a great value for around $15. This zinfandel, with a little petite sirah and barbera in the mix, comes from a variety of sites in Sonoma and Mendocino counties. It’s delicious and a pretty good value as well, rich yet balanced, with lively acidity and savory, saline fruit. Román is named for Román Cisneros, Marietta’s longtime cellarmaster.
Las Jaras Mendocino County Glou Glou Red Wine 2021, 13 percent, $29
Glou Glou, the onomatopoeic French term for a wine that goes down easily, is an apt name for this easygoing blend of 50 percent zinfandel, 19 percent carignan, 15 percent petite sirah, 6 percent of both mourvèdre and chardonnay, and 4 percent cabernet sauvignon. It’s light-bodied, spicy and would benefit from a light chill. Las Jaras — Eric Wareheim, the actor and comedian, is an owner — recommends this wine as a perfect counterpart to pizza and burgers.
Birichino Central Coast Saint Georges Zinfandel 2021, 13.5 percent, $30
Birichino is a small operation that’s been making terrific, moderately priced wines from the Central Coast for a decade or so. This spicy, medium-bodied, refreshing zinfandel comes from dry-farmed vines planted in the 1920s in Santa Clara County. It’s well-focused and understated, with a pleasing note of licorice.
Ashanta Sierra Foothills Zinfandel Zazen 2020, 14 percent, $36
This natural zinfandel is pure, bright, spicy and almost in your face with juicy, unmediated fruit, as it is made without the addition of sulfur dioxide, used as a stabilizer in all but the most militant natural wines. Ashanta, which released its first commercial vintage in 2020, is a joint venture of Chenoa Ashton-Lewis, whose family owned a vineyard, and Will Basanta, a cinematographer, who are also life partners. It is committed to making wines with nothing added and nothing taken away.
Scar of the Sea Cucamonga Valley Zinfandel Lopez Vineyard 2022, 13.5 percent, $40
I’ve followed Scar of the Sea, a husband-and-wife operation owned by Mikey and Gina Giugni, over the last few years and have become a big fan of their precise, focused wines. This zinfandel, from an old, dry-farmed, organic vineyard in the Cucamonga Valley in San Bernardino County, is no exception. It’s beautifully balanced, savory, almost saline and altogether delightful.
Sandlands Lodi Red Table Wine 2021, 13.3 percent, $40
Tegan Passalaqua, the proprietor of Sandlands, is also the director of winemaking at Turley Cellars, which earned its fame in the 1990s time with brawny, much-desired zinfandels. Sandlands takes a different approach, making restrained, lively reds from old outlier vineyards planted primarily on granite sand. You can’t really call this bottle a zinfandel. It’s equal parts zinfandel, carignan and cinsault, an old-school California blend. But the zin shines through, its spiciness well complemented by the fruit of the carignan and the breezy, herbal cinsault.
Ridge Vineyards Sonoma Valley Zinfandel Pagani Ranch 2020, 13.8 percent, $49
The 2020 vintage was difficult for red wines in Northern California. Destructive wildfires right around harvest time left many grapes that were still on the vine (though not all by any means) tainted by smoke. Yet this excellent zinfandel emerged, brisk and racy with peppery, savory fruit and enough of a tannic structure to warrant aging, though you can enjoy it right now. It’s 90 percent zinfandel, 6 percent petite sirah and 4 percent Alicante bouschet, all from Pagani Ranch, where many of the vines are more than 100 years old.
Bedrock Sonoma Valley Bedrock Vineyard Heritage 2021, 14.5 percent, $58
This single-vineyard blend, made from vines more than 130 years old, makes a fascinating contrast to Bedrock’s easygoing Old Vine bottle. It’s more concentrated and complex, with a tannic structure that will need a few years to relax. But it shares the family traits of savory grace. It’s an old-fashioned field blend of 22 varieties, though zinfandel is the dominant grape, making up more than half of the mix. Historical curiosity: The vineyard was planted in the 1850s by Joseph Hooker, who was financed by William Tecumseh Sherman; both men would play prominent roles as Union generals in the Civil War.
Scythian Wine Company Cucamonga Valley the Scythians 2022, 13 percent, $60
Scythian Wine Company is a new collaboration between Rajat Parr, the sommelier turned farmer and winemaker who, truthfully, juggles more projects than I can keep straight, and Abe Schoener of Scholium Project. For Scythian, Mr. Parr seeks out old vineyards with grapes like palomino and mission that speak to the viticultural heritage of the Los Angeles County area. This cuvée, the Scythians, comes from three old, dry-farmed vineyards. It’s a blend of 50 percent zinfandel along with 30 percent Alicante bouschet and 10 percent each of mission and grenache. It’s lovely, graceful and complex.