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Zinfandel: The big, red Valentine wine

Hearty, fruit-packed zin should be a perfect match for romance. Jon Bonné hunts for some worthy bottles.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

It is big, deep red, packed with fruit, hearty and soft-edged and meant for sheer pleasure. Zinfandel should be the perfect Valentine’s wine.

“Should,” you ask?

In theory, zin is custom-tailored not only for a day devoted to romance, but one in the midst of a chilly, dark month that begs for warmth and heat. (Mind you, we’re talking about the red stuff. White zin has its place, but pink and indecisively sweet is the sort of Valentine’s Day we left behind in first grade, along with those oddly inappropriate A-Team “Be Mine” cards and flimsy construction-paper mailboxes.)

Yet finding good zinfandel is more of a challenge than it should be. Our recent tasting of over 40 California zinfandels yielded few worthy contenders, and too many wines that smelled alcoholic, lifeless or just plain faulty.

Some of this may be the result of a $25 price cap, though as one friend recently quipped, “Shouldn’t all zins be under $25?” For a Valentine wine, zinfandel seems to have a cruel side. Whether that's ironically appropriate, I leave to you.

By its nature, zinfandel embraces traits that kill other wines. It revels in big, hearty gobs of fruit flavor, chiseled with earthy tones; my Platonic zin template is the aroma of ripe plums rolled in fine, dry dust.

While most other wines can be beaten into submission by high alcohol levels, zinfandel grapes burst with natural sugar. A 14 percent zin is almost a baseline; while 15 percent frequently signals a wine out of balance, the top zinfandel in our recent tasting clocked in at a head-spinning 15.6 percent. (Hence a side effect for Valentine’s Day: One bottle shared between a happy couple, and your intended could well be tipsy.) While I'd normally champion a red wine at 13.5 percent, the zins we tried at that level were mostly wimpy and watery, like fruit punch for a child who's being punished.

That wasn't all. Too many wines had notable faults, as confirmed by pained looks on the faces of my tasters as they slogged through one after another hot, imbalanced bottle — including several with hints of volatile acidity (a smell approximating nail-polish remover) and the lean, pungent scents that indicate incomplete winemaking. These are not the smells to kick off a Valentine’s interlude.

Still others were just plain boring, showing basic fruit flavors but little else to make themselves shine.

Prices gone wildWhat's up? I have one theory. While zinfandel is perhaps the closest thing America has to a native, unhybridized grape variety — even if it's essentially an identical twin of Europe's primitivo grape — its pedigree has been rising in recent years. That California has nurtured the market for $75 cult zins is a credit to marketing savvy, if not taste. While some of the best zinfandel makers in the country, including Ridge, Rosenblum and Robert Biale, have kept top prices under $50, it has become harder than it should to find good, enjoyable zin under $15.

After all, zin is meant to be a populist wine — a guilt-free element in a romantic evening of good eating and meaningful looks. To achieve that, you’re going to need a trustworthy wine merchant and a few good recommendations.

We generally found our happiest results in some of California zinfandel’s less known corners — the Sierra Foothills and San Francisco Bay in particular — though good specimens were found from Lodi, Paso Robles and Dry Creek. Napa managed just one spot on our final list, perhaps a reminder that it's not prime zin territory.

I have a soft spot in my heart for zinfandel, and I'll look for any excuse to relieve it from its well-worn Thanksgiving duties and assign it to a more appropriate holiday. So I’ll stand by my Valentine recommendation. 

Just be sure to choose wisely, and keep a bottle of bubbly on hand to lighten the mood amid all that sultry, heavy red wine.

TASTING NOTESDigging through all the puns and Z jokes, we found winners under $25 that you can proudly uncork come Feb. 14. While many major names in zinfandel failed to impress, several upstarts shone through. Some are in limited release, so if you can't buy direct, ask your local shop or look for other bottlings from the same vintners. Rosenblum, for instance, makes a non-vintage table zin that's widely available.

Rosenblum 2004 Appellation Series San Francisco Bay ($18): Best of our tasting. Kent Rosenblum and winemaker Jeff Cohn with grapes from Contra Costa County, east of the bay. Smoky and robust, with syrah-like brine notes and dusty overtones that lead into a chewy finish. A near-perfect execution of what this grape should be. We also enjoyed Rosenblum's 2004 Paso Robles and North Coast zins, also from the Appellation Series.

Dashe 2003 Dry Creek ($22): Highly perfumed, filled with blackberry and currant. Slightly hot at the beginning, but finishes with dusty, dry tannins. The grapes are from Sonoma, but the wine is made in Alameda, Calif., by husband-and-wife team Michael and Anne Dashe. A romantic wine, indeed.

Eberle Winery 2004 Remo Belli Vineyard ($24): Plummy and dark, filled with hearty charcoal and dust notes. This Paso Robles contender is equally dark on the finish, with a big whack of tannins, yet the whole wine is well-built and pleasing.

Sobon Estate 2003 Paul's Vineyard “ReZerve” ($24): From an organic winery owned by former Silicon Valley scientist Leon Sobon, near the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada. Punchy and peppery, with stewed strawberry and currant, plus violets and cocoa. The taste is bright, with a bite in the back and a zingy note at the end.

Michael and David Phillips “7 Deadly Zins” 2004 Lodi ($17): A friendly, happy wine, which several tasters praised as a great everyday pick for the dinner table. Blended with grapes from seven growers in Lodi — whose reputation for uncommonly good zin is struggling to escape the shadow of some big corporate wineries (Woodbridge, notably). Dried herbs, licorice and blue plum, with good balance and a bright finish that hinges on fine, soft tannins.

Sausal Winery 2002 Alexander Valley “Family” ($18): From a small Sonoma producer, we found this a bit punchy, but fun as well, with pleasing black pepper and dried herbs superceding the fruit. One taster praised it as the “most delicate” of the bunch.

Quivira 2003 Dry Creek ($20): Another Dry Creek entry from a biodynamic winery that specializes in the appellation's grapes. It's fresh and berryish, with a sharp perfumed note and pleasing minerality in its core.

Robert Green Cellars 2003 Napa Valley ($18): Good concentration of plum and blackberry, with dusty, peppery notes in back. Silky and full, without being heavy (it's a relative baby at just 14.3 percent), though the finish was a bit harsh.