Perhaps no grape is more strongly identified with California and the Old West frontier than Zinfandel. It arrived in the mid-19th century and quickly found a home in many nooks and crannies around the state. Although the variety still thrives in many California regions, the most concentrated population of Old Vine Zinfandel is found in Sonoma County's diverse Alexander, Dry Creek, Russian River and Sonoma valleys.

David Gates, vice president of vineyard management at Ridge Vineyards, declares: "Sonoma County is the sweet spot in the world for Zinfandel. The soils and weather are perfect here. Every year you always have interesting wines because it's never too cold or warm."

Pioneers planted the region's first Zinfandel vines. They have produced fruit through Prohibition, two attacks of phylloxera and waning consumer interest. "I love the heritage of Old Vine Zinfandel in Sonoma County," says Zinfandel specialist and winemaker at XYZin Ondine Chattan. "The wines appeal to a wide range of consumers and are very food friendly. They can be enjoyed with everything from pizza to fine cuisine."

How old is old? Although there is no official, legal qualification, winemakers generally agree that Zinfandel needs to survive 50 years before it has obtained Old Vine status. Pedroncelli Winery has a small planting that goes back to 1904, while Valley of the Moon's almost 10 acres were planted in 1941. According to Ravenswood's founder and winemaker Joel Peterson, "Old Vines are 50 to 80 years old. When they're more than 80, they're ancient!"

What's its secret? To begin with, Zinfandel tends to be a vigorous, disease-resistant vine. The gnarled plant is a reliable fruit producer and seems to get wiser with age, turning out more evenly ripened clusters with every year. By the time a vine is an Old Vine it requires no irrigation. It can live on its own, but it does like wide spacing and head pruning. With advanced age, the Old Vine produces less fruit but concentrates its energy on its grapes, resulting in intense flavors.

What flavors does it bring? Fruit, herbs and spices are most often mentioned in winemakers' notes. Words like raspberry, blackberry, boysenberry, cranberry and black cherry, along with briar, licorice, cinnamon and black pepper seem to capture its flavors best. The term "jammy" is constantly used. "There are things you can do in the vineyard to manipulate the style," says Valley of the Moon Winemaker Greg Winter, "but there are also characteristics within the grapes. I like a jammy, briary, spicy quality." Greg points out that Sonoma County's Old Vine Zin flavors vary. "Sonoma Valley in general gives a bit more structure in Zinfandel, as opposed to Dry Creek, which has more spiciness," he explains.

When is it ready to drink? According to Ravenswood's Joel Peterson, drinking aged wines is a personal decision. "I like the complexity, the difference, the layering that you get with old wines. If you do too, then it's worth it to put away your wines." But Zinfandel can easily be enjoyed in its youth, and wineries often recommend consumption within three to five years of the vintage.

Joel adds, "Old Vine Zinfandel is recognized as a significant part of the history of winemaking in Sonoma County. Each year brings another year of age to these old vineyards, some of which have been sadly neglected. Renewed interest in these vines, improved quality of winemaking and increasing prices for these special bottlings mean that our heritage vineyards will be preserved and well cared for in the future."

Zinfandel Pairings

  • Barbecue ribs
  • Beef stew
  • Beef tenderloin
  • Blue cheese
  • Chili
  • Gouda cheese
  • Grilled steak
  • Grilled vegetables
  • Hamburgers
  • Meat loaf
  • Red pepper pesto
  • Roast duck
  • Roast pork loin
  • Sausage
  • Spaghetti with meatballs
  • Tacos
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