DRINKING A 2005 BENSON FERRY OLD VINE ZINFANDEL WITH A LITTLE BIT OF BACKGROUND

You either love it or you hate it. You either know of it or associate with a blush. Is it related to Primitivo or not? Where does it come from and why is it so popular and plentiful in California and not so much everywhere else. Basically, What’s up with Zinfandel? Well, as with most viticultural history the story of this grape is very closely linked with the ebbs and flows of world history. Zinfandel today has achieved a sort of cult wine status in the US. People that know and love “Zin” enjoy wines that are quite high in alcohol percentages with tannin structures strong enough to make some pucker for days. The reason I say cult is because these powerful wines are an acquired taste. They can be almost impossible to pair with food sometimes overwhelming even the juiciest of steaks (but not always) and they usually have the highest alcohol percentages of almost all still wines out there in the world sometimes reaching upwards of sixteen percent (the average is about 13.5% in most wine). Heavy, stinky cheeses are popular with this wine. Protein naturally softens tannin so that is why steaks and cheeses go so well with these wines. These foods are high in protein so you get a “softer” mouth feel when you’re pairing the two and enjoying most of the fruit.
And then there is “White Zinfandel.” The blush, bled wine of the seventies accidentally invented by Bob Trinchero of Sutter Home. It became such a big hit that in time no one really knew that red Zin and White Zin are from the same grape. And to add to the craziness there is a grape in Southern Italy (Apulia, the heel of the boot that is Italy) by the name of Primitivo that everyone thought was a relative of Zinfandel. The wacky thing is that Primitivo is generally much lighter that Zinfandel. Even wackier…they are related…but how? And if Primitivo from Apulia is closely related to Zinfandel how did Zinfandel become so popular in California? Let me take you back to 1967 when a professor at UC Davis, Austin Goheen was visiting Italy and in Apulia had a wine called Primitivo by the locals that was very similar to the characteristics of Zinfandel which at the time was considered “America’s vine and wine.” After this discovery Primitivo was brought to California and after a couple of years of testing in 1972 ampelographers (botany scientists concerned with the identification and classification of grapevines) declared that Primitivo and Zinfandel were one and the same. In 1976 it was suggested to Goheen that Primitivo might be connected to a Croatian Varietal by the name of Plavac Mali. An investigation ensued and in 1982 Goheen confirmed through scientific research that there was a connection between the two. But they were not identical yet very similar.
This discovery fueled a bit of frenzy among Croatian winemakers who began to firmly believe that the two varietals were identical even though research had suggested otherwise. This led to the 1991 formation of ZAP (Zinfandel Advocates and Producers) formed primarily by Croatian-born California winemaker Mike Grgich who made his bones in the US wine industry by winning the top white wine honor in the 1976 “Judgment of Paris” with his 1973 Chardonnay (it wasn’t only red being judged). With the support of ZAP Carole Meredith of UC Davis credited with DNA fingerprinting that resulted in the fact that Primitivo and Zinfandel were not identical but two clones of the same variety traveled to Dalmatia in Croatia collaborating with the Agricultural department of the University of Zagreb (the oldest Croatian University) and collected over a hundred samples of this Plavac Mali grape.
From 1998 to 2001 the mystery of Zinfandel’s origin was somewhat revealed.
In 1998 Meredith and company realized that Plavac Mali was definitely not Zin but relatives with one of them being the parent. They kept at it and in 2000 it was discovered that The Zinfandel/Primitivo strain was a parent of Plavac Mali. I know this is intense but bare with me and it will all come together. The other parent of this strain was found off the Dalmatian coast on an Island called Solta. The ancient grape’s name was and is Dobricic. All that was left was to find the origin of the one parent that started this whole process. If Plavac Mali is the progeny of Dobricic and The Zinfandel/Primitivo strain and we know where the first two are from generally then where is the is Zinfandel from? In 2001 the answer came from a vine sample taken from one of a group of towns in the Dalmatian-Split County called Kastela where seven towns make up the population with each town name starting with the word Kastel. And in Kastel Novi (one of the seven towns) the origin of Zinfandel was found. In Kastel Novi they call the grape Crljenak Kastelanski, which means Kastela Red.
Okay, so now we know where the grape came from but how did it get all the way to California? We can see how Zin’s Primitivo clone made it to Italy because Dalmatia is just across the Adriatic and Apulia is a lengthy coastal region (It was actually thought at one time and among some today that Primitivo came across the Atlantic from California to Italy. But with the Dalmatia discovery this theory is not as solid but still refuted). It makes sense…but Cali? Well we have the Imperial Nursery in Vienna to thank as well as a Long Island horticulturist by the name of George Gibbs.
It is believed that Crljenak Kastelanski was brought to the Imperial Nursery during the Austrian Habsburg monarchy. This simple action somewhere in the mid to late eightieth century started the History of Zin in America. Fast forward to Long Island 1829. Gibbs would occasionally receive shipments of grapes from around Europe for his studies and one particular shipment in the afore mentioned year contained what would soon be called “Zenfendal.” This word is a corruption of a Hungarian word derived from a German grape Zierflander. But Zierflander (the Austrian name) or Spatrot (the German name) is a white wine. So it is believed there was label confusion along the way. Interesting how the name of a wine came by an accident of some sailor or merchant. Cool. Anyway, around 1830 Mr. Gibbs visited Boston and must have left some vines there because within the next year grapes called Zenfendal began being sold all over Boston. Then about five years later the leading Nurseryman in Boston (Does New York have a leading Nurseryman or woman?) Charles M. Hovey began to recommend Zinfindal as a nice table grape (not meant for wine). Notice how the name keeps changing subtly throughout time. This introduced the heated greenhouse to New England and Zinfindal became the table grape of the time. But by the 1850’s people figured out that the concord grape could stand up to the annual climate and people had since given up trying to make wine out of vitis vinifera grapes for the time being. And so Concords came in and heated green houses went away and our Zin moved out of the Northeast and headed west with the Gold Rush.
The New England Nurserymen at the time went west to join the gold rush. Out there they set up camp in the Central Valley of California. This gets a bit hazy but Zin makes it some miles north to Napa where the first Zinfandel is produced. This wine was much praised. It even garnered a positive comparison to French claret by French immigrants. This sent the popularity of the grape into a tizzy and in the last years of the nineteenth century Zin was the most widespread variety in California. There are a lot of old vines still living in the Central valley and they are highly revered. There would have been more if it weren’t for prohibition. Farmers ripped up a lot of the vines prematurely, fearing the worst. But shortly after the Act was put into place house made wine for personal consumption was legalized. Zin went back into the ground and the market briefly resurged until the depression hit in the1930’s.
From this time on Zinfandel went into obscurity. It was still being made though and something wired happened in 1975. Bob Trinchero a winemaker from Sutter Home ran into a major problem. His Zin had experienced something called “stuck fermentation.” Yeast is introduced into grape juice for fermentation. And fermentation is when the yeast eats the natural sugars of the juice and coverts those sugars into alcohol…essentially. During this process something called maceration is also occurring. This is where the juice is extracting the pigments from the grape skins. So if the yeast dies before it has converted the right amount of sugars into alcohol what happens? Stuck Fermentation happens. The sugar content remains at higher-than-usual levels and the maceration process is not finished so you have a sweet, pinkish, slightly fizzy wine that is not red and not white but “blush.” Bob decided to run with this stuck fermentation result and sell it as “White Zinfandel” and need I say more. White Zin was highly criticized as an insipid watered down sweet version of Zin but regardless was immensely popular throughout the late seventies and eighties.
Now White Zin is a national joke by most people. It is the box wine of today and not taken very seriously. It is technically a wine but doesn’t possess the complexities that most wine, red or white, shine with. But one thing this fad did do (and I’m sure the Zin lovers out there can appreciate this) is that it pretty much saved a lot of vines from going away forever. The fashion of white Zin was so huge that people were taking good care of their vines and planting new ones in premium spots. After the fad was over red Zinfandel came back into fashion as a cult wine. Which brings us to where we are today.
At Alphabet City Wine Co. we have two Zins in our inventory. They tend to be quite expensive (thirty bucks or more) but every once in awhile one will come along at a valued price with the quality of a big’n. And we found one. We just got it in and it’s pretty exciting for us. We are constantly trying wines and looking for that right balance to help people get into a wine they might not know but want to explore. The Zin I want to talk about today is the 2005 Benson Ferry Old Vine Zinfandel from the Lodi AVA (American Viticultural Area) in Lodi California. This is where the state first saw zinfandel so what we have here is a wine that reflects the past. The Stokes family has been in the area for three generations sourcing grapes to wineries throughout California. In 2001 the third generation in the form of two brothers Bill and Mike Stokes formed the Benson Ferry label to start making their own wines out of their fifty-year-old vines.
Yes Zin is an acquired taste but if you want to know what all the hype is about but don’t want to spend an arm and a leg for it…check this out. The Benson Ferry is only sixteen bucks. For a good Zin to be at this price is a very cool thing. When you pop the bottle and pour you initial sip you will se that the wine is not totally opaque. There is actually light at the end of the tunnel meaning nice acidity. Do not let this fool you though. This wine is powerful. The nose rushes at you with a major waft of alcohol but it will burn off quickly with a couple of swirls. The wall of the glass will not be completely coated despite the fullness of the wine because of the alcohol. Maybe have some strong cheeses laid out for this.
The nose has a lot going on there are dark berry aromas such as blackberry and raspberry but then as it opens you get a little saw dust or cedar as well which melds into a chocolate and coffee melody. The first sip is a little intense for those who have never had a Zin but believe me this is one of the softer ones. The aromas on the nose carry through to the palate because of the acidity. It breaks up all those deep tannins and allows the wine to open up into a sort of dark smoothness. This wine doesn’t go down quickly and that is a good thing. Zins are meant to sip and hold, sip and hold. That is what the cheese is for. Also it is a great wine for the bitter cold that you just came in from or about to go into. When you come back to the wine after a break you will find everything coming together into a nice thick blanket of all of the above converging and coating your palate.
Zinfandel is not for the faint of heart but you never know after trying one you may induct yourself into the cult wine craze that is Zin. And if it’s not for you this wine will at least be a smooth version that will have some lasting memories. By the way ZAP is still going strong. So come on in and try the Benson Ferry 2005 Old Vine Zinfandel and enjoy the history while enjoying the wine. Cheers!

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One response to this post.

  1. Posted by morshaldock on August 12, 2008 at 4:02 am

    This is very cool, just a bunch of like-minded foodies hanging out, talking shop.
    ********************************
    morshaldock
    ferry to france

    Reply

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