For the keeper of the (wine) cellar key—the family’s designated holiday somm—the silver lining in a smaller Thanksgiving gathering this year is that the job will be easy. No need to supply the disparate wine tastes of a sprawling cast of relatives. It’s the year for a deep dive into one wine of your own choice. And there’s no better wine to explore this Thanksgiving than Zinfandel from some of California’s oldest vineyards.
Nothing comes as close to being an American wine than this red. Sure, Zin’s roots (so to speak) might be traced to Croatia (and they have been). But the dark-skinned variety cornerstoned many of the vineyards planted by immigrants to California in the late 1800s, often interplanted with other grapes in field blends dubbed “mixed blacks.” And more deft-handed winemakers than ever are committed to shepherding these legacy vineyards (which don’t have to be centurions) with vine-by-vine farming and taking as much care raising the wines in the cellar as they would a top-flight Cabernet.
Beyond its credentials as the most American of wines, Zinfandel offers a great deal as a foil for the traditional spread on our Thanksgiving tables. Turkey itself is rather a blank slate, but what we load it up with and pile around it tends to be fruity (cranberry sauce, apple slaw), spicy (hot Italian sausage in the dressing), and herbal (sage butter under the skin). Old vine Zin checks all those boxes itself, with layers of berry flavors, baking spices, and savory herbs throwing bridges to more of the meal than most other wines can handle.
Bob Biale—proprietor of his family’s namesake winery, which produces more than 15 Zinfandels, many designated from old vineyards rescued and revitalized—explains why he’s willing to preserve Zinfandel in the likes of R.W. Moore Vineyard in Napa’s cool Coombsville AVA, where he could easily get twice as much for a bottle of Cab. “These legacy Zinfandel vineyards are extraordinary, consistent and unique. They’ve stood the test of time and have become famous for their proven ability to perform at the highest level. The wines offer unforgettable impressions.” (Then, too, there was some advice from Robert Mondavi in 1984 to Bob’s father, about the Zin in the R.W. Moore Vineyard—Save it!)
Biale would argue that old vine Zinfandel harbors the best expression of California terroir possible. Thin-skinned like Pinot Noir, Zin is a lens that magnifies the distinctive, identifiable characteristics of each site. A tasting trip through a few of these legacy bottles is a fascinating treatise on California regions themselves.
Benovia Winery 2017 Zinfandel Sonoma County
This intense but bright Benovia Zin comes from their Cohn estate vineyard, planted in 1970 on a steep, rocky slope and dry-farmed. It offers concentrated aromas that evolve from spicy, dark berries with hints of dark chocolate and pepper into beautiful floral notes. Delicious fruit flavors hit all the berry notes—black raspberry, mulberry—and, along with dark cherry, join warm spices through a finish brightened with orange zest.
Carlisle 2018 Piner-Olivet Ranches Zinfandel Russian River Valley, Sonoma County
This is a three-vineyard blend from Zinfandel master Mike Officer, owner and winemaker at Carlisle, planted in 1922, 1927 and 1934. As to how much of the fruit in this wine is actually the “mixed blacks” grapes often interplanted with Zin in those days? Officer can’t exactly say—“I’d put it at about 7 percent,” he estimates. Warm baking spices open, along with red berry/cherry aromas, dark chocolate, forest and florals. A juicy core of berry fruit is intense and long, finishing with an orange peel kick.
Hamel Family Wines 2018 Armor Plate Vineyard Red Sonoma Valley
Dubbed just “Red Wine,” this Hamel Family Zin comes from a vineyard dating back to the 1890s, planted in the old field-blend tradition (although Zinfandel dominates). George Hamel, Sr., apparently rode a horse named Armor Plate in the US Army Cavalry at the beginning of WWII. The 2018 from its namesake vineyard leads with lovely florals intermingled with crushed rock, cracked pepper and an edge of savory herbs. Tart red fruit—pomegranate, cranberry and cherry—carries a concentrated palate over a textural tannin backbone.
Hartford 2018 Dina’s Vineyard Old Vine Zinfandel Russian River Valley
Only about 10 acres of gnarly, dry-farmed vines remain of this vineyard planted more than 100 years ago by Italian immigrants (with the original 8-by-8 spacing to allow horses to plow in both directions through the rows). Lovely high-toned violet and spice aromas wrap around a nose of dark berries, white pepper and cocoa. The flavors are concentrated, intense and lush, yet bright at the same time, with juicy black raspberry and cherry layered with exotic spices, a little red licorice and a firm backbone of tannins (think of aging this one, for a Thanksgiving down the road).
Inglenook 2017 Edizione Pennino Zinfandel Rutherford Napa Valley
When the Coppolas purchased the old Inglenook Estate in 1975, they were advised to pull out the Zinfandel (the oldest variety planted on the property). But Francis Ford Coppola liked Zin, so the vineyards remained, with the first Edizione Pennino—named for his maternal grandmother—produced in 1988. The 2017 leads with a floral character, followed by briary berry aromas, espresso and pepper. Intense fruit flavors lean into spicy territory, with hints of red licorice and a stately tannin structure.
Kokomo 2018 Pauline’s Vineyard Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma County
There are two rows of Petite Sirah in the block of Zinfandel Kokomo gets from Pauline’s Vineyard across the street from the winery. They’re picked and co-fermented with the Zin (adding up to about 2 percent), lending power and spice. The wine opens with a core of bright mulberry and cherry, layered with anise, cocoa and violet aromas. Juicy, mouth-filling flavors load the palate and build—anchored by berries, from black to red, seasoned with warm spices. This one’s a steal.
Louis M. Martini 2017 Monte Rosso Vineyard Gnarly Vine Zinfandel Sonoma Valley
Known quite literally for its red earth, Monte Rosso Vineyard—dating back to the 1880s—is a coveted source of fruit across multiple varieties, including memorable Cabernet. Both the vineyard and the Louis M. Martini brand (the legendary Louis Martini bought Monte Rosso in 1938) are now owned by E. & J. Gallo, who by all reports continues to farm the heritage site on a vine-by-vine basis. The 2017 Zin shows off the vineyard’s ability to produce lush, ripe reds (read high-ish alcohol) that are also bright and balanced by juicy acidity. Classic Monte Rosso spice mingles with an orange peel kick, lifting plush and concentrated berry and plum flavors—with a cherry liqueur character and impressive structure—into vibrant territory.
Peachy Canyon 2018 D Block Zinfandel Adelaida District, Paso Robles
The “D Block” that Peachy Canyon sources for this bright, concentrated Zin is a single acre at Mustang Springs Ranch planted with 18 clones of the variety, picked and fermented together in new French oak barrels. Warm spice and red fruit open on the nose, wrapped in subtle florals and layered with red earth. Vivid raspberry and cherry follow, in a high flavor to low alcohol ratio.
Ridge 2018 Lytton Springs Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma County
This field blend of 72 percent Zinfandel, 18 percent Petite Sirah, 8 percent Carignane and 2 percent Mataro (Mourvèdre) includes fruit from blocks of Captain William Litton’s original vineyard planted in the early 1900s (the spelling was later changed to Lytton). The 2018 Ridge is herbal and minerally, perfumed with fresh mint and anise, with lovely tension across the palate carrying juicy raspberry and blackberry flavors, interesting spices, savory notes and earth through a long finish.
Robert Biale Vineyards 2018 R.W. Moore Vineyard Zinfandel Coombsville, Napa Valley
Planted in 1905, the R.W. Moore Vineyard—the oldest in Coombsville and the AVA’s only Zinfandel—was resuscitated in 1984 on the advice of Robert Mondavi, who knew the performative value of those old Zin vines in the cool region (and many of the original vines still exist in the vineyard). The 2018 Robert Biale offers a classic nose, with exotic spice laced through beautiful dark fruit, floral notes, pepper and freshly crushed herbs. The silky palate is richly textured, with berry and plum flavors edged with a savory side and juicy acidity.
Rock Wall Wine Company 2018 Kent’s Legacy Heritage Blend Sonoma County
This Legacy Blend from Rock Wall winemaker Shauna Rosenblum is a tribute to her late father, Kent Rosenblum, founder of his eponymous brand that became one of the “Three R’s” of the Zinfandel world (the others being Ridge and Ravenswood). The younger Rosenblum chooses the best barrels from three of Sonoma’s legacy vineyards—St. Peter’s Church, Monte Rosso and Maggie’s—all dating back to the 1880s and planted with a field blend that even includes whites like Sémillon, Muscadelle and Palomino. They show in this 2018 in its gorgeous aromas—lavender and rose petals swirling with red berry, plum, pepper and mocha—leading to fruit galore on the palate. Raspberry, strawberry and stone fruit unfold in complex layers, with impressive tannins lingering on the finish.
Rombauer Vineyards 2018 Twin Rivers Vineyard Zinfandel El Dorado
This historic Sierra Foothills Vineyard lies not far from where gold was first discovered in El Dorado County. Leaning toward the lush and ripe end of the spectrum, the 2018 Rombauer Zin opens with lovely floral perfume, swirling around blueberries and spice, vanilla and cocoa butter. Sweet fruit pops on the palate, with intense black and blueberry flavors edged with intriguing apricot.
Seghesio Family Vineyards 2017 Montafi Old Vine Zinfandel Russian River Valley
Zinfandel mastermind Seghesio, with 125 years in the business, purchased the Montafi Vineyard—planted in 1926—in 2012. The 2017 from those old vines, which includes 10 percent Alicante Bouschet, is juicy, concentrated and complex. Dusty blue and blackberries are joined by plums in a fruit compote mixture spiced with hints of licorice and cracked pepper. Supple textures coat the palate, backed by a firm tannin structure.
Turley 2018 Hayne Vineyard Zinfandel Napa Valley
More than 25 years ago now, Larry Turley launched a chase for high scores with much praise from Robert Parker for his Zinfandels. Now, Turley Wine Cellars makes 47 wines from more than 50 vineyards, most of them Zins and Petite Sirahs from historic old vines. Zinfandel in the Hayne Vineyard, on the west side of St. Helena (which Turley has worked with for more than a quarter of a century), was planted in 1902 and 1903. The 2018 is polished and expressive, leading with elegant florals, espresso and red berries. A firm structure backs red cherry fruit, in perfect balance with acidity.