Wine Under $20

Seeking the best value for the buck.

Our Search for the Best Zinfandel Under $20

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[Photographs: Robyn Lee]

My love story with Zinfandel started at a small winery in Healdsburg, California called A. Rafanelli. Their Zins are ripe, slightly spicy, and just plain delicious. The only problem was that I lived in New York, and so I've had to put a lot of effort into this long distance relationship. My first trip there, I took back 2 bottles, the next 4, and before I knew it, I was sacrificing extra underwear in my suitcase to make space for all the wine. (Totally kidding...underwear is one of the best shock absorbers to prevent breakage during transit.)

Zinfandel can get a little confusing, since there's a huge range of wine styles that can be produced from the same thin-skinned grape. From a rich, dry red wine to an inexpensive, pink jug wine, to a late harvest dessert wine—Zinfandel does it all. For this post, we focused on finding the good dry red Zinfandel for under $20.

One thing our tasters noticed is that many of the bottle labels include the phrase "Old Vines." This term isn't legally enforced, but it generally indicates that the grapes come from vines that are at least 40 years old. And in general, older vines result in smaller yields and consequently more concentrated fruit.

Where It's Produced

The vast majority of Zinfandel is made in California. The major regions you'll come across on bottle labels include Sonoma County (more specifically the Russian River and Dry Creek AVAs), Napa Valley, San Luis Obispo (particularly Paso Robles AVA), Mendocino County, and the Lodi AVA in the Central Valley. In addition to California, I should note that a fair amount of the other 49 states produce Zin as well.

Although grown in California, Zinfandel's roots are European. In the 70s, scientific analyses demonstrated that Zinfandel is genetically linked to the southern Italian Primitivo grape. Later it was discovered that Zinfandel and Primitivo are different clones of the same variety, which is thought to be the obscure Croatian grape Crljenak Kastelanski.

How to Serve Zin

Zin's a pretty easy wine to serve—throw it in the fridge 15 to 20 minutes before serving to get it just a little bit chilly. It usually doesn't need decanting. It's ready for drinking with food—try it with burgers, red meat, pasta, or pizza. (It's actually an awesome match for smoky beef jerky, too.)

We know Zinfandel can get quite expensive, but we've sought out a couple of affordable bottles to try. While some pricier bottles may get you more complexity and earthy flavor, we've tasted a few great Zins to enjoy at home for dinner or bring to a party.

Our Favorites

The Dry Creek Heritage Zinfandel Sonoma County 2009 ($15) had an enticing smell of cherry and candied ginger. This warm spice came through clearly—think cloves and nutmeg supporting ripe dark fruit flavors. The tannins were so smooth that this bottle was good on its own, but we'd happily drink this with pizza.

The St. Francis "Old Vines" Zinfandel Sonoma 2008 ($17) gave up scents of dried cherries and a little meatiness. The wine was smooth with a bit of smoke that reminded us of 100% cacao chocolate lifted by bright red raspberry acidity. Although this was one of the more expensive bottles of the lineup, most agreed they would happily pay the price to drink this again. Serve it at a dinner party with short ribs.

For a slightly juicier option, consider the Ancient Peaks Zinfandel Paso Robles 2009 ($15). This wine smelled like strawberry jam with a bit of tartness (like a fruit roll-up). The ripe cherry liquid had stronger tannins than some of the other bottles. Although this was easy to drink, the high alcohol (at around 15%) made you want a little food—hard cheese and charcuterie should do the trick.

Recommended with Hesitation

The affordable Bogle Vineyards Old Vine Zinfandel California 2009 ($9) had savory fleshy scents of steak and mushrooms, but was much sweeter than we expected. Black cherry, mellow tannins and black pepper spiciness came through on this juice. You'd definitely want some food with this wine, like a salty cheese to balance out the sweetness.

The Summit Lake Vineyards Zinfandel Howell Mountain Napa Valley 2003 ($20) smelled like dark chocolate covered raspberries, but was much drier than the other wines tried. The flavors were less fruity and more spicy and smoky. At a whopping 16.1% alcohol by volume, this was a little too much on its own, so reach for a fatty grilled steak or a meaty stew.

Skippable

The Kendall-Jackson Vintner's Reserve Zinfandel Mendocino County 2010 ($14) had a candied, almost waxy scent that reminded us of fruit-flavored Chapstick. Our tasters found this wine a bit over-oaked—the vanilla and maraschino cherry flavors overpowered the rest. This wine was quite sweet with a little alcoholic burn in the back of the throat.

Tell Us Your Top Zins!

Do you have a favorite Zinfandel for grilling season? A good bottle to serve with steaks or burgers? What are your top choices in affordable Zin? Let us know in the comments section.

About the author: Seema Gunda is an avid wine traveler, collector, and student with a background in chemistry and a day job in consulting.

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