Wine lovers taste their way around Europe by the grape varieties established in each region. In France, they sample the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay that grow in Burgundy. They savor the Cabernet Sauvignon in Bordeaux, the Sauvignon Blanc in the upper Loire, and so on. In Italy, Sangiovese is the taste of Tuscany and Nebbiolo of Piedmont, to choose two among hundreds of examples.
In California, wine lovers need only one grape to find their way around. They can navigate with Zinfandel, experiencing the different aromas, flavors and textures in combinations that are directly tied to regional soils and climates.
Zinfandel wines, you see, reflect their place of origin and the conditions there to an extraordinary degree.
These differences are even more discernible because of Zinfandel's history, popularity and range. It was the grape variety embraced most enthusiastically by early California vintners. In fact, it was the most widely planted red variety in the state until the 1990s, when it was overtaken by massive new plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon. So several generations of growers and winemakers have not only learned where Zin grows best, but also selected the most choice bud wood from old vines to plant new vineyards.
They've also learned how to handle the specific personalities of their particular grapes in the winery -- when to back off the tannins, for example, or cajole a spicier perfume by using more new oak.
Each area has its own soil composition, exposure to the sun and nuances of local climate. The combination of such influences in each region puts a stamp on the sensory profile of the wines.
While there are hundreds of good examples to choose among, Zins from Dry Creek Valley, Redwood Valley, Napa, Lodi, Paso Robles, the Sierra foothills -- all also from the excellent 2000 vintage -- can provide a whirlwind tour that may inspire more leisurely and detailed exploration.
It's hard to find a poor bottle of Zinfandel these days, thanks to the combination of the grape's long history in the state and the passion of its producers. So don't hesitate to grab a few bottles from different appellations and hit the sensory road with these among your stops:
Dry Creek Valley: The '00 Fritz Winery "Old Vines" is a classic from here. It's ripe and rich yet also bright with the dark spice undertones and firm structure that typify the fine heat and lean volcanic soils in this tributary arm of the Russian River Valley.
The '00 De Loach O.F.S. is all about slow ripening in the alluvial soils and fog-tempered heat of the big valley itself.
This opulent Zin shows why a few very old vineyards have survived in warmer parts of the otherwise cool Russian River Valley -- its luscious sun-warmed berry flavors and supple texture move majestically across the palate like a lazy river meandering through redwood glades.
Redwood Valley: If you're looking for a wine that typifies this Zin stronghold in the southern Mendocino County, try the '00 Fife "Redhead Vineyard." It's a bold wine with the complex flavors of long-cooked berry jam, especially a piercing black cherry note, along with succulent acidity and fine tannins and the lingering smack of red volcanic soil.
The key to such dramatic character is a hard temperature swing between day and night -- as much as 35 degrees. That comes from the same marine influence experienced by all the coastal valleys, but while the Russian River and Napa valleys get theirs in the form of fog, Redwood Valley receives cold air straight from the Pacific via gaps in the Coast Range.
Napa: We tend to think of Napa Valley in terms of Cabernet -- and with good reason -- yet it's one of the places where Zinfandel was first planted in the 1850s. For the past two decades, Ravenswood has made a good case for Napa Valley Zin with its Dickerson Vineyard bottlings.
These old vines near St. Helena consistently yield a sinewy, elegant Zin with bright raspberry and spice flavors; the '00 is particularly ripe yet characteristically elegant, with a striking incense-like perfume. A similar elegance distinguishes the rich yet firm and pinpoint-balanced '00 Koves-Newlan from century-old vines in the same part of the valley.
Lodi: Zins from this historic district have a notably more voluptuous character. Named after a biblical vineyard region, Lodi is in the coolest part of the San Joaquin Valley where the heat is tempered by cold air flowing up the Sacramento River from San Francisco Bay. Spenker Winery produces Zin from a plot of gnarly dry-farmed vines growing in deep, sandy soil. The Spenker '00 is pure Lodi: a big, juice-gushing mouthful of warm, ripe berry compote and thick, soft tannin.
Sierra foothills: Beyond the Central Valley is the most storied Zin district of all -- the Gold Rush country of the Sierra foothills. Is it the gold dust in the soil that gives Zins from Amador, Placer and El Dorado counties their special savor? More likely it's just the altitude (most vineyards are well beyond 1,000 feet above sea level) and the well-drained granitic soils with occasional volcanic veins. In any case, this is one of the spiritual homes of Zinfandel.
Sierra foothill Zins tend toward massive fruit and chewable tannin. The Lava Cap Reserve, from Amador County, is a good example. At 2,500 feet, this is one of the few California vineyards that sees snow every year. When the vines wake up, they pour their new energy into making densely concentrated grapes. The long 2000 growing season yielded this classically powerful, heroically proportioned Zin, which should soften over a couple of years into a magnificent wine.
The '00 Karly "Warrior Fires" (also from Amador) is equally powerful but a little more approachable at this point, with a glinting core of clear red fruit in its muscular depths.
Paso Robles: This area, where the air seems to glow on a summer night and echo with the shouts of long-gone vaqueros, yields remarkably delicious Zins with a distinctively juicy quality. The '00 Four Vines Winery is a good example in the way its vibrant fruit delivers wave after wave of berry flavor that seems at once dense and light, like the ocean breeze that cools the vines most afternoons. Brochelle Vineyards is bigger and richer but just as buoyant, with a long, radiant finish. The superb '00 Adelaida Cellars, from old vines high on the rocky slopes of the Santa Lucia Mountains, has a black pepper accent in its luscious black fruit flavors.