Spicy, jammy, foodloving ZINFANDEL

There were no bad wines when Zinfandel Advocates and Producers served up their Zins at ZAP's Zinfandel Grand Tasting at the Tower Club in Dallas Thursday, May 14th, 2009.

We think Zin is pure pleasure, made for food. Nearly all the wines we sampled, from everyday to elegant, were recognizably Zinfandel: medium- to big-bodied, vividly berryish or jammy, with allspice or pepper and more (cherry, rose petal, cocoa, clove...), and as uniquely enjoyable as their makers' personalities.

Keeping Zinfandel weird is fun, and tasting is a must as regions, sub-appellations and vineyards proliferate and winemaker styles evolve. Many wineries are still family owned and operated, and offer small production wines.

Seven to know
1. 2007 Artezin Mendocino County Zinfandel winemaker Randle Johnson sees people turning to heritage varietals and says they're taking on new meaning. Johnson has been around the heirloom blocks: field mixes of Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Alicante Bouschet and Carignan traditionally planted by California's Italian farmers for their red blends. Winemakers still use these for blending, but because they ripen differently - Zin first, then Carignan, then Alicante Bouschet, then Petite Sirah, they're not picked at the same time, and some, nurtured to a precise berry size, are being made into single varietal wines. Smooth and elegant, the 2006 Artezin Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel is a blend of Zinfandel from three Dry Creek growers, plus small amounts of Petite Sirah and Carignan. Artezin, based in Napa, CA, is part of The Hess Group.

2. Carol Shelton Wines Wild Thing Old Vine Zinfandel balances big fruit, spicy black pepper, smoky oak, and smooth, well-integrated alcohol. Shelton purchases organic grapes from Cox Vineyard in Mendocino County and named the wine in part for the wild yeasts she uses. Wild Thing accounts for about 1500 cases of Shelton's acclaimed production of 5000 cases a year. Her 2006 Monga Zin from grapes grown in Lopez Vineyard in Cucamonga Valley evokes Moroccan spice blends. Shelton's reserve wine is the elegant 2006 Rocky Reserve Zinfandel from Florence Vineyard in Rockpile, Dry Creek Valley.

3. Duane Dappen poured 4 of his distinctive D-Cubed Cellars wines: 2005 Napa Valley, 2006 St. Helena, 2005 Howell Mountain and 2005 Brown Vineyardsz: unique alternatives for those looking for something different in Zinfandel.

4. Ravenswood Wines (No Wimpy Wines) sent three vineyard designates: Teldeschi Vineyard (Dry Creek Valley), Belloni Vineyard (Russian River Valley) and Big River Vineyard (Alexander Valley, planted 1893), poured by Cathleen Francisco, "the Zinderella of Zinfomania."

5. Another Rockpile Zin we favored: Rosenblum Cellars' rich 2006 Rockpile Road Vineyard.

6. Storrs Winery & Vineyards: Stephen Storrs, winemaker/viticulturist based in Santa Cruz, CA, brought his Santa Clara County Zins and Ali Smith helped pour: Rusty Ridge and Lion Oaks Vineyard. Lion Oaks' vines are proudly dry farmed, head-trained and cane pruned.

7. Deep Purple Winery makes Zin, not war, calling its 2007 Lodi Zinfandel a hedonistic fruit bomb with aromas of blackberry, cherry and plum with a sprinkling of cloves. The label flashes back to Fillmore West era poster art.

Woodenhead Vintners winemaker Nikolai Stez wasn't in Dallas, but his Braccialini Vineyard (Alexander Valley) Zinfandel is available at The Grape, Stephan Pyles, Grace, Nana and Veritas.

Makes us thirsty for ZAP's San Francisco, CA, 19th Annual Zinfandel Festival, January 27-30, 2010.

- DallasWine.com, May 2009