The fruity flavor of red zinfandel has wine lovers everywhere getting acquainted with the California staple.


Zin-sational

Red zinfandels are all the rage, and California wineries are leading the renaissance.

Big, spicy, fruit forward, complex red zinfandels are emerging as America’s finest contribution to the wine world. Don’t look to Europe for benchmarks. California is the undisputed leader of zinfandel and is home to vineyards planted almost 150 years ago.

Although recent DNA testing has connected red zinfandel to a Croatian grape Crljenak and the Italian’s Primitivo, California is setting the standards today, particularly as a result of producers in Sonoma, Napa, and Mendocino counties, the Sierra Foothills, and several producers in the Central Coast and Southern California. Dry Creek Valley in Sonoma is one of the most popular.

The energy and momentum surrounding zinfandel stems from the freedom winemakers enjoy in creating an original wine without incessant comparisons to the old-world standards. California cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and Meritages have to stand up to French Bordeaux; chardonnay to Chablis; sparkling wine to champagne, and on and on. And honestly, it’s hard to argue when you’re comparing Italian Barolo to Californian Nebbiolo. They simply don’t compare.

With zinfandel, American winemakers have something to call their own, expressing the characteristics of American soil and gout de terroir. Zinfandel producers are pioneers and trailblazers. As a wine lover, you get to go along for the ride.

And what a ride. Winemakers are on it themselves - often breaking traditional rules of winemaking. You’ll notice the alcohol content can be much higher in a zinfandel (14 to16 percent) than a cabernet (13 to 14 percent). There is virtually no sugar content. But somehow the ripeness of the fruit carries it through gracefully.

Most bottles are priced between $15 and $30. Explore and try as many different producers as possible. Take notes and keep track of your favorites for next year’s vintage. Here are a few tips to help you on your zinfandel journey.

TASTING GUIDE

AROMA
Blackberry, raspberry, boysenberry, black pepper, anise, and herbs.

FLAVOR PROFILES
When made into a big red with high alcohol levels, black pepper is a common descriptor along with blackberry, black cherry, leather, and heavy brown spice. It will have a tannic mouth feel and will show a bright, rich ruby or garnet color. I like to let these biggies relax in a decanter for at least 30 minutes before diving in. Pay attention to the difference between spice and burn. While some zins can actually creep up to 16 percent alcohol and still be a pleasure to drink, if you feel the heat from the alcohol, chances are the wine is not balanced. The best thing is to just move on and try another.

Zinfandel can also be made into lighter, fruity reds similar to Beaujolais and sweet port-style wines. These are less popular, but white zinfandel, with its off-dry sweetness, is still one of the most popular wines to come out of California - despite its less than savory reputation.

LIFE SPAN
Don’t let the tannins fool you. Most zinfandels do not improve with years in a cellar. When winemakers release a zin, it’s ready to be enjoyed. You can keep it around for five years, but any longer than that, and it will likely start to yellow and age. There are exceptions to the rule. Turley makes a few that can stand up to 10 years on its side, but it’s rare.

FOOD PAIRINGS
Steak, burgers, hearty pasta, rich chicken dishes, and spicy Tex-Mex all work well red zinfandels. Also try it with chocolate.

SHOPPING LIST

Artezin 2003 ($15) - Laced with cassis and clove, the grapes are sourced from Napa, Amador, and Mendocino counties. www.hesscollection.com

S.E. Chase Family Cellars 2003 Centennial Harvest Hayne Vineyard ($40) - Old vines planted in 1903 give it a rich, earthy flavor. www.chasecellars.com

Chateau Souverain 2002 Dry Creek Valley ($18) - This is a jammy one with 14.5 percent alcohol. www.chateausouverain.com

Dynamite Vineyards 2003 ($17) - Look for this bright and spicy wine with touches of vanilla and oak. www.dynamitevineyards.com

Howell Mountain Vineyards 2002 Old Vine ($26.99) - The soft, silky mouth feel makes this classic zinfandel a fruit-forward luscious choice. Available at Central Market on Lovers Lane.

Norman Vineyards 2002 The Monster ($19.99) - This is an explosive big gun with robust flavors and lip-smacking tannins. Available at Central Market on Lovers Lane.

Rombauer Vineyards 2002 ($31.99) - A long finish allows you to enjoy the wine that much longer; look for cherry and boysenberry accents. Available at Central Market on Lovers Lane.

Rosenblum Cellars 2002 Harris Kratka Vineyard ($30) - The ripe black cherry is lightly accented by floral hints of violet and vanilla bean. www.rosenblumcellars.com

Seghesio Family Vineyards 2003 Old Vine ($29.99) - Intense black fruit opens but is followed by black spice and clove. Oldest vines are 90 years old. www.seghesio.com

Spelletich Cellars 2002 ($33) - Aged in American and French oak, this wine has complexity but is not overpowered by the high alcohol content. Available at Central Market on Lovers Lane.