Adventures in my wine cellar: old California zinfandel

Zinfandel lost me somewhere along the line. I once loved it and bought a lot of zinfandel. (My cellar can attest to that.) But as zin’s ripeness – and alcohol – levels climbed, I found myself turning to other grape varieties. I just had no interest in drinking a jammy table wine with 16 percent alcohol and some residual sugar.

Although some zins are still on the ripe, alcoholic, sweet end of the spectrum, there’s a significant trend toward wines with more finesse. Alcohol levels are often a little higher than they were in the old days, but the wines aren’t just in-your-face fruit bombs. They’re considerably more interesting than that.

I have no idea whether a 16 percent alcohol zinfandel will survive for more than a few years, but I do know that a number of the more nuanced wines from 25 years ago have aged nicely. I know this because I’ve recently been rummaging in my cellar to revisit a few of them.

The three wines that follow top out at 14.5 percent alcohol (or, at least, that’s what the labels say). I doubt that the winemakers behind them had it in mind to make a zinfandel that would age nicely for 25 years or more. But they managed to achieve just that.

The youngest of the trio was the 1993 V. Sattui Howell Mountain Zinfandel, which was also the lowest in stated alcohol, at 13 percent. The wine displays lively berry, hints of smoke, meat and pepper, and a smooth, silky finish. I actually have several bottles of this wine in my cellar, and I have seen some bottle variation. But except for one bottle that was a little too earthy and leathery for my taste, all have been quite enjoyable.

Next up, the 1992 Quivira Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel, at 13.5 percent alcohol. The wine was very smooth, with lively red berry and a tobacco note. It shows some age, but it’s still vibrant.

Finally, the 1991 Lytton Springs Sonoma County Zinfandel, at 14.5 percent. The wine, obviously, showed some age, but it also offered ample sweet berry fruit with nice freshness and a smooth finish. Ridge Vineyards, which has been making wine from Lytton Springs since 1972, bought the winery and vineyard in Dry Creek Valley in 1991. I’ve tasted older Ridge zins from Lytton Springs that have also aged nicely.