USA: U.S. Zinfandel
What About US Zinfandel?
The last quarter century has seen the renaissance of a U.S. wine industry that was decimated by prohibition, and for most, the holy-grail has been Cabernet Sauvignon. In a rush to show the world that California could once again produce world class wines, winemakers looked to Europe for a measuring stick, and that stick was firmly planted in the great vineyards of Bordeaux. Meeting with critical acclaim, and more importantly consumer acceptance, vintners rushed to plant Cabernet, followed in short order by Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Merlot. Indeed, these are world class wines and well deserved of their growing international reputations, but they came at a price, and that price was often a very part of California's viticultural heritage. For the previous hundred years, Zinfandel had been the king of California reds. In 1884 it accounted for 40-percent of all the state's grapevines, but the grand old vineyards fell increasing victim to modern economics and changing trends. Replaced by more popular varietals, attacked by Phyloxera, or succumbing to senility and neglect, old Zinfandel vineyards have been under siege. Luckily, a small band of dedicated producers, coupled with a near fanatical cult following, have continued to hold out, and against all odds, the pendulum just might be poised to swing back.
So just what is it about these old vineyards that is helping to put Zinfandel back on the map? The consensus seems to be that a vineyard reaches a qualitative peak between 25- and 50-years of age. Because of Prohibition, there are relatively few old vineyards in California. Of the state's 350,000 acres of Vinifera, fewer than three-percent are over 50-years of age. The vast majority of these are devoted to Zinfandel. While the percentage of Cabernet vineyards exceeding even 25-years of age is minute, it is quite possible to sample the fruits of a fully mature Zinfandel vineyard, often at half the price.
In addition, old vineyards inherently produce less fruit. This factor provides a natural limit on the vine's tendency to overproduce. Though a problem if quantity is the ultimate goal, it is an essential factor in the production of high quality wines. Since the price of Cabernet has risen so precipitously in the last few years, it has once again become economical for vintners to produce wine from shy-yielding old Zinfandel vineyards, and winemakers are scouring the state looking for the odd parcel of vines. Also, vintners have learned how well some of the old methods of pruning and farming these vineyards have worked, and are seeking to apply these principles to more and more new plantings.
When it comes to the appeal of Zinfandel, Paul Draper, winemaker and C.E.O. of Ridge Vineyards, has summed it up best. He says "From day one, Zinfandel has so much forward fruit that it's sensual to drink right away. Its appeal is immediate, whereas Cabernet needs time to develop. You can have a very sensual experience with Cabernet, but you can have a comparable experience with young Zinfandel, which is why, in a restaurant, I'd be more likely to order a Zinfandel than a Cabernet."
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