Zinfandel and grilled meat are natural domestic partners. Zin’s bold fruit and spiciness complement the smoky meat and barbecue sauces that are often slightly sweet.
I used to love zinfandel, but the relationship over the years has been strained by wines that were excessively pruney and alcoholic. But I shouldn’t have dismissed zinfandel out of hand. As the recent Zin Challenge demonstrated, there are still zinfandels that can find a place in my heart.
The Zin Challenge is a competition that was held in conjunction with the Alameda County Fair’s commercial wine competition. It’s open to all U.S. wineries producing zinfandel, and the top wines showed a lot of geographic diversity (though strictly California).
The overall winner was the 2016 Rock Wall Monte Rosso Vineyard Zinfandel ($55), from a famous vineyard above Sonoma Valley. The wine is big and bold, with ripe, brambly berry fruit and a lot of spiciness. The alcohol checks in around 15 percent, which is reasonable for zin these days. The more off-putting number is the price.
Fortunately, there were some more affordable bottles that were quite tasty. For a good value from the Sierra Foothills, there was the 2014 C.G. di Arie “Break Away” Zinfandel ($20), which has ample “zinberry” fruit and a hint of tobacco leaf. The 2015 Bella Grace Old Vine Zinfandel ($28), made from 60-year-old vines in Amador County, displayed white pepper accents and firm but approachable tannins. Another delicious, juicy Amador County entrant was the 2015 Amador Cellars Zinfandel ($34).
The 2016 Dry Creek Heritage Vines Zinfandel ($24) from Sonoma County is another good value, with bright berry, a bit of jamminess and pleasant spicy notes. The 2015 Ledson Baldocchi Old Vine Zinfandel ($36) from the Russian River Valley is a little pricier and offers lots of lively, zinny fruit.
Finally, Ballentine Vineyards in the Napa Valley had a pair of very good zins: the brambly, spicy 2015 Ballentine Estate Zinfandel ($35) and the more tannic 2015 Reserve Zinfandel ($45).
Outside the competition, I’ve tasted a few good zins in recent months that I can recommend. The 2014 Seghesio Old Vine Zinfandel ($40) from Sonoma County is full-bodied and fairly tannic, with bright berry, spice and a hint of dried fruit. From Mendocino County, the 2016 Artezin Old Vine Zinfandel ($18) is bright, spicy and easy to drink, with medium weight and tannins. And it’s very affordable.
Ridge Vineyards is one of California’s best producers of zinfandel. One good example is the 2016 Ridge East Bench Zinfandel ($32), which is spicy and ripe but not over the top. The 2016 Ridge Geyserville ($44) is a zin-dominant blend from Alexander Valley that’s quite polished, with sweet berry fruit and plenty of spiciness.
Finally, a perennial bargain in zinfandel is the 2015 Bogle ($12), with its brambly berry and tobacco leaf. And you can find it in a lot of supermarkets.