My Love Affair With Zinfandel

Pictured: Rust Wine Co. Zinfandel 2014. Current vintage available to British Columbians here.

When I spend time around wine enthusiasts, either chatting, educating, serving, or just plain drinking, one of the most common questions I get is, "What's your all-time favourite wine?"

Like every answer to a wine-related question, there isn't one. At least not one that's clear, easy, and direct. It's the nature of the beast, and I think that mastering not all things technical about wine, but rather the acceptance of long, complicated, and muddy answers, is the greatest skill one can attain in improving their relationship and ability with the subject.

I've long maintained that your favourite wine, if you want to advance yourself quickly and joyously on the path to vinous nirvana, must inherently be the one in your glass. Blind and unfettered acceptance of each opportunity to taste, in my experience, leads to far more effective absorption and understanding as opposed to simply seeking confirmation of your personal, and inherently limited, preferences.

But, all of this is not to say that we aren't still human beings, that Biden didn't win the election, and that Steely Dan is not the greatest band of all time, and despite our attempts to be empirically objective and exacting in our efforts, we do have emotions and hormonal forces that drive us, and therefore, it is inevitable that we become particularly attached to certain wines. Certain bottles, regions, varietals, and styles become our personal sweethearts. And that's something to celebrate and enjoy.

Which brings me to the title of this article. I thought I'd just talk about my own sweetheart category of wines, many of which come from the Zinfandel varietal. My love affair runs quite deep with this one, and it begins with a personal connection relating to the heritage of the varietal. My grandparents on mama's side came to Canada in the 1950s, fleeing what the world map recognized at the time as Yugoslavia but what they always knew as Croatia. They come from the countryside, where little wine is grown or made, but where, somehow, it is still consumed. Such is the beauty of trade, and as I understand, goats and sheep were hot items at the markets of the day and available in enough abundance for my grand folks to cash in on some wine-related quid-pro-quo from time to time. Now, it is quite possible, that some of that wine may have been Zinfandel, or as Croatians call it, Crljenak Kastelanski, or as Croatians like to call it, Tribidrag. And I'm pretty sure they have other names for it.

For reasons political and due to scale, it appears that little was known of Croatian oenological practice in wine circles until relatively recently. Of course, most people know of Mike Grgich of Grgich Hills Estate and 1976 Judgement of Paris fame. But even in that situation, he was known for making top Chardonnay for Chateau Montelena. Little was ever mentioned about him recognizing Zinfandel in Sonoma County as an indigenous varietal from his native Croatia. Many people for some period of time believed that Zinfandel was either indigenous to the US or that it had been brought over from southern Italy, where it is known as Primitivo. It took years of research, some of it funded by Zinfandel authorities, Ridge Vineyards, to determine that Croatia, indeed, was the biological and spiritual home of this wonderful grape.

And so, I've always felt a distant-yet-special personal connection. Croatians are a small population around the world, but they are a proud people, and yes, half of the blood in my body comes from a lineage of them. So there's that.

What's interesting to me now is that the Croats, in many ways, have moved on from this varietal. Pfff. What gives? But seriously, they've cross-bred their Crljenak or Tribidrag or what-have-you with something else and something else again, perhaps, and come up with what's known as Plavac Mali, which, while growing on the Dalmatian coast might be akin to Nebbiolo in Piemonte or Sangiovese in Tuscany. It's the current source of many of the country's finest wines. It seems that, since that sunny, sloped, white-gravel-laden region has such a warm, temperate and ideal growing season, that the thin-skinned-Zin was just flat-out burning up and getting a little too ripe for some enlightened Cro's palate. Taste Zinfandel & Plavac Mali from the same area, made by the same producer, and it's apparent why they started experimenting and are favouring this Plavac (pronounced Pla-vats) character. On the whole, authentic Croatian Zinfandel reminds me much of those in the USA: supple, soft tannins, generous jam, spice, and enough alcohol to make 2 bottles feel like 3 and 3 bottles feel like, wait, I don't remember the third bottle...did we have 3 bottles? We did? Shit, wine flies when yer havin' fun, I guess.

And then there's the more modern (literally) and muscular Plavac Mali. The skins are thicker, which means the tannins are grippier. The grape ripens a little later and produces slightly less sugar (one of the reasons it was developed), which results in slightly less alcoholic wines, generally with a little more acidity, and therefore, overall structure. I'm hedonistic, so I was fine with good ol' Zinfandel, but I see how these Plavac Mali wines are really an exercise in changing with the times and perfecting one's craft. A great Plavac gives you that same, Christmas cake, baking spice, reduced, brambly fruit characteristic, but it's like it went through puberty and grew a beard. It sprouted muscles. It started reading William Blake. Then Hemingway. Then Burroughs. Then Stafford-Bow. Then it discovered alcohol, cynicism, Bruce Springsteen, and sex. And came away from it all, somehow, with love and optimism.

And it's delicious.

Ridge Vineyards, with facilities in Monterey & Geyserville, have initiated the first believed (read: legitimate?) plantings of Plavac Mali in the United States of America, as a result of their ongoing study of the Zinfandel family of grape varietals and its Croatian heritage. You can count me as a punter who plans on camping outside the bottle shop overnight to get a crack at the first of those puppies when they hit the shelves.

And then there are wines like the one pictured. Zinfandel from the Okanagan Valley, or in other words, my home region, as it were. There's not a whole bunch of Zinfandel planted to the Okanagan, and I've heard some interesting remarks about its viability and quality, from some dubious and less dubious sods. To me, it's very exciting. Rust's Zinfandel has all the hallmarks of a classic in my mind. It's somehow light enough to not leave ridiculously tannic, purple stains on the lips of those who imbibe, but the alcohol content is naturally high, and its generosity, character, and punch remind me exactly of, well, Zinfandel. See, it's hard for me to discuss this, because there just is no precedent for the varietal in this region. I believe that maybe 3-4 producers bottle a Zinfandel in the Okanagan, tops. And I've only tasted a few vintages of the one. But it's this kind of thing that gets my juices flowing and makes me feel like a beginner again. It's this kind of crazy, wacky, haywire idea that keeps wine exciting.

It feels like you're really drinking on the edge of your seat when you get a chance to taste wines like these.

I love the edge of my seat. And I love Zinfandel.

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