“Old Vine” Zinfandels aren’t for the faint of heart

Think Zinfandels come from white grapes? Au contraire, mon frère.

By Dr. Mike Rosenberg

A friend recently asked me, “So, is Old Vine Zinfandel better than regular Zinfandel?” A good question. After all, if there’s “old vine” wine, why isn’t there “young vine” wine? Let’s explore.

Growing grapes is a long-term endeavor. Once planted, a grape vine needs a couple of years to get its roots down in the poor soil in which it’s planted. Yes, I said, “poor.” The best grape-producing vines generally struggle for sustenance (one reason our local region’s wine tends to be so-so). A vine typically takes 2-4 years to start
producing grapes.

Even after fruiting, a vine still to produce grapes with a high enough sugar level so the juice can be sustainably fermented. Winemakers often do a “green harvest” (cutting some unripened clusters) on young vines to reduce the overall production, allowing remaining grapes to store more sugar and juice. After around 10 years, vines really start producing quality grapes.

Some particularly hardy vines chug along for decades, producing smaller and smaller yields as time passes. After 40 years or so, a vine produces a fraction of its top yield. The juice from those vines, however, it much higher in quality. The resulting wines typically are more complex.

Back to the initial question. Zinfandels are usually rich, powerful, chewy, spicy wines. Until the early 1990’s, most Zinfandel was used for blending or in white zin. Zinfandel producers, especially in Sonoma County, started a push to put these big reds in the public consciousness. Wine drinkers, tired of merlot and cabernet, started snapping up these wines. I fell in love with Zinfandel on the first trip to Sonoma I made with the SPinC (Sweet Partner in Crime). Zinfandel (A Dark Horse 2003 Zinfandel, specifically) was the first wine that ever made my eyes pop.

Increased demand for these wines meant increased production and, in the case of the old vine zins, a “Californizing” of the wine style. Much as large producers of California chards produced ultra-buttery or ultra-oaky wines, many large Zin producers focused on one particular aspect. Inexpensive zins became either unremarkable syrupy fruit bombs or thick, peppery alcoholic stews. Some had more in common with jug wine than with their Sonoma forebears. Thankfully, that era passed. Even wines at lower price points now show more balance.

There’s no actual guideline for what constitutes an “old” grapevine. The general rule of thumb is “older then 45 years.” Since there’s nothing cast in stone, the term can be applied quite loosely for marketing reasons. Winemakers usually turn to Justice Potter Stewart for direction—they know it when they taste it.

Many winemakers with access to old vines chose to produce a “regular” Zinfandel, which tend to be fruitier and straightforward, and an “old vine” version with higher alcohol levels and fruit concentration that still has more balance and more nuance. For a side-by-side comparison of these two styles, we tried a couple of zinfandels from well-known producer Cline.

The Cline 2014 Zinfandel ($12) certainly fits the “straightforward” category. The nose is initially straight up vanilla that eases into some spiciness and cherry after some air. The body here was approachable and tasted like vanilla covered cherries and blackberries. The finish is somewhat tannic, drifting towards coffee at the end.

The Cline 2014 “Ancient Vines” Zinfandel ($16), produced from some of Cline’s 100-year-old vines, had a more balanced and, personally, more interesting nose of cinnamon and clove and a lighter cherry note. The flavors had more “structure,” meaning the flavors emerged more gradually, almost “sequentially,” rather than vanillacherrysmoketannin all at once. The peppery notes typical of good Zinfandel also presented themselves strongly. The finish wrapped the back of my tongue with sour cherries before yielding to a strong, coffeeish taste. With some two-bite brownies, the “Young Vines” Cline was actually better. The immediacy of the wine’s flavors took care of the cocoa more handily. In general, especially if I were having a Zin craving for dinner, I’d probably spend the extra four bucks and go with the old vine version.

One semi-tangential note: On the evening when we were trying the Cline wines, I was feeling lazy and the SPinC didn’t want to finish her glass. I just poured them together for fun and immediately tried to replicate it. I was able to do it fairly easily — about a 60/40 blend of new vine/old vine. The whole turned out to be better than the sum of the parts. The two wines merged into a very approachable, somewhat fruity, very drinkable “cuvee” which seemed to have a better flavor balance than either of the
individual wines.

“It’s like a black and tan!” said the SPinC. Who knew?

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Reach DCP freelance writer Mike Rosenberg at MikeRosenberg@DaytonCityPaper.com or visit his blog at TheNakedVine.net.

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