Most American Zinfandels fall into two categories, explained to me recently by Doug Nalle, a Dry Creek Valley winemaker and a bit of a Zin Master in his own right. "There's BHT and AHT," he says: "Before Helen Turley, and after Helen Turley."
Turley is the American winemaker who famously amped up Zinfandels (made for her brother Larry's eponymous winery) to stratospheric levels of ripeness and alcohol levels, and was rewarded with stratospheric critical scores from the likes of Robert M. Parker, Jr., of the Wine Advocate.
In the BHT era, however, Zinfandel was often made in something called a 'claret' style, which was considerably lighter, more elegant, more structured, and built to age.
In youth, most Zinfandels are exuberantly fruity, dark and gloriously purple in the vein of plum and cassis. But if it's not taken past peak ripeness -- standard practice in the AHT era -- the clusters will have a modest number of immature berries, since Zin clusters are notoriously uneven in ripening. The result is a pleasing background spice -- as if the whole tank was steeped with a teabag laced with pine fronds. In an aged wine, that element moves effortlessly from pleasing to profound.
In next week's column I'll speak in more detail about Zinfandel and its myriad flavors -- in the grape and in the bottle. But this long preamble is here so I may share with you the underhanded profundity I experienced in a glass of 1999 Ridge Vineyards Lytton Springs Zinfandel. It's one of those wines that will make you forget Helen Turley was ever born.
The '99 Lytton Springs (blended with modest amounts of Petite Sirah, Carignane, and Mataro) pretty much defines the claret style -- elegant, linear, structured but lighter in texture than most Zinfandels today. Like a great Bordeaux it has dispensed with its fruit imprint and is now almost wholly given over to savory accents -- aromas of peat, consommé, black tea, cedar planks, tobacco, autumn leaves -- in fact to smell this wine is to come up against a burnished, autumnal quietude, like walking in a hushed woodland carpeted by fallen leaves -- nose to glass, you may never want to leave.
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The flavors are succulent and refined, decidedly savory, a bit more of that consommé/beef tea, mingled with hints of molasses, black mission fig, all underscored by a tremendous invigorating freshness that suggests -- again, like great Bordeaux -- that the wine will last another decade at least.
Forty years ago Paul Draper, Ridge's esteemed winemaker, tasted California Zinfandels made in the thirties, a 1937 Larkmead Zinfandel, and a 1939 Fountain Grove Zinfandel. Their astounding freshness and longevity he found in those wines pretty much sealed his fate; he vowed to devote himself to sustaining the grand tradition of claret-style Zinfandel. The '99 Lytton Springs assures us he's kept his promise.
Patrick Comiskey, our drinks columnist, blogs at patrickcomiskey.com and tweets at @patcisco. Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook.