Eleven years ago, when I first joined the tasting panel of “Wine Enthusiast” magazine, I was given the assignment to do an annual review of zinfandels.
For weeks I would receive case upon case of zins, from as many as 100 different producers. They were made all over California, from Santa Barbara in the south to the northern reaches of Mendocino county. And my annual “zin-a-thon” as I called it, consumed a full week of tasting – an event that I happily shared with many friends and colleagues.
What was missing was obvious – any sign of a zinfandel from Washington. OK, Thurston Wolfe had one, and Sineann down in Oregon was making one from a vineyard called The Pines, but they were the exceptions that proved the rule. The story I always heard when I asked winemakers and growers why there were no local zins was that it couldn’t ripen in this state.
That myth, like so many others, has been thoroughly disproved.
Marie-Eve Gilla, who founded Forgeron Cellars in 2001, has been making zinfandel since her first vintage, especially surprising since she’s a native of France, where no zinfandel exists. Last year, at a retrospective of her first six zin vintages, I asked her how she got started with the grape, and she confessed that “when we started with zinfandel the directors (of the winery) did not want us to do it; now they have a lot more faith in me. When I came in I was a younger woman, I wasn’t from America; and it was hard for them. Now I have a lot more freedom to do what I want to do.”
Forgeron’s current zinfandel release is the 2005 ($30), with grapes from Alder Ridge, Clifton and Les Collines. For the first time it’s made as a pure varietal and the mix of vineyard sources, from the Horse Heaven Hills, Wahluke Slope, and Walla Walla Valley AVAs, shows just how much interest there now is in growing the grape. The 2006, which I tasted out of the barrel, is even better.
Barnard Griffin’s new Columbia Gorge project includes a zinfandel vineyard, and Rob Griffin has already been making some excellent, though limited, bottlings from grapes purchased nearby. Also in the Gorge, Maryhill makes both a regular and a reserve zinfandel; for me the regular is not only the better of the two, but the winery’s best red overall.
Other Washington zins have been released by Chelan’s Hard Row to Hoe winery; their 2006 zinfandel ($35), sourced from Wahluke Slope grapes, is syrupy and dense, with super-ripe blackberry fruit, mocha and butterscotch. What sets it apart from similar California efforts is that it retains natural acids and some lovely herbal highlights, so it’s not just a hot, heavy, alcoholic date.
Walla Walla’s Trio Vintners made a splash with its deliciously high octane 2006 zin, which quickly sold out. Their 2007 Pheasant vineyard zinfandel ($26) is just as good, but swings less of a hammer. The alcohol is down a notch or two, without sacrificing the concentrated essence of raspberries and cherries, also lifted with all-natural acids.
Patit Creek has also jumped on the zinfandel bandwagon, with a 2007 from the Les Collines vineyard ($28). Spicy and bright, it brings in ripe strawberry, wild cherry and sweet raspberry fruit, enhanced with orange peel and made in a forward, brambly, fruit-powered style.
The other popular, brawny red grape that is particular to California is petite sirah, which is neither petite, nor is it syrah. It is the same as the French grape Durif (named after a French amateur botanist, Dr. François Durif, who discovered it in 1880). Though roughly 500 wineries make a varietal petite sirah in California, Washington versions have been few and far between.
Once again, Wade Wolfe at Thurston Wolfe has led the way, making varietal petite sirah at least as far back as 2002. He’s also inspired Jarrod Boyle, with whom he worked at Hogue years ago, and Boyle’s estate vineyard, Destiny Ridge, is one of the few in Washington growing petite sirah.
Due out next month is Boyle’s own take on the grape – Alexandria Nicole Cellars 2007 Mr. Big Petite Sirah ($42). Just 67 cases were made of this wine. Very dark and concentrated, it wraps its fruit-powered flavors in sweet baking spices. Big and brawny as it is, it does not seem aggressively tannic, and the sweet barrel flavors – vanilla, cinnamon, brown sugar – cut through and surround the round, ripe fruit. It will be the featured wine at a winery Harvest Party in late September. Details are on the winery Web site, www.alexandria nicolecellars.com.