I once believed that people drank Zinfandel at Thanksgiving just for its theoretical charm; though it didn't originate here, it's often touted as the 'All-American' grape because it's such a popular varietal to grow in California. Zin's berrylicious flavor is approachable and its rich, glycerin-like texture is attractive to New World-winelovers who like big, luscious wines.
But count me among the converted. Having only tasted hugely alcoholic, jammy Zinfandel wines, I was missing out on some of the best of them, which are earthy and sophisticated, with deep baked-blueberry notes but also enough tannin and acid to come into balance. Not all California Zins are monster wines, and many of them are worthy of your attention.
When I tasted these Zinfandels with turkey and stuffing, I stopped in my tracks. It's a killer combination.
Which bottles to try?
The Dashe Cellars 2009 Les Enfants Terribles Heart Arrow Ranch Zinfandel clocks in at just 13.6% ABV, and quickly made its way to my "new favorites" list. This Mendocino County-sourced wine is made from organic- and biodynamically-grown fruit, fermented with native yeast, unfined and unfiltered. It's bright and smooth with a brambly raspberry/black cherry character and hints of fennel, cinnamon, and black slate. It's fresh-fruit-forward with fantastic acidity, like a spoonful of tart cranberry sauce. The wine aged in older, neutral oak, so this is a remarkably pure-tasting, even delicate that makes a strikingly good partner for turkey and stuffing. If you doubt you could ever like Zinfandel, seek this one out. (Around $25, find this wine here or here.)
Dry Creek Vineyards Sonoma County Heritage Zinfandel is a deeper purple color, with more deep black fruit flavor than the Dashe Zin we tried. It's really rich and smooth despite its reasonable 13.5% ABV, with flavors that reminded us of chocolate covered blueberries sprinkled with cinnamon and cloves. "I think you could pour this over pancakes," remarked one taster, but this wine has some fresh raspberry-like tart acids and a hint of black earthiness, too. This aromatic wine should be served with a light chill on it—stick it in the fridge for 15 minutes before serving. (Around $15, find this wine.)
Quivira's 2008 Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel is higher in alcohol—it's 14.8% ABV—but it's not harsh or heavy. Sturdy tealike tannins and bright acidity balance the fruit. It's a bold wine, but not jammy, dense with tart cran-blueberry flavors, hints of rosemary and cedar, baking spices and brambles. It's a little earthier and more brooding than the others, and nicely focused. This wine would pair beautifully with a grilled steak, but it's a worthy choice for your Thanksgiving table, too. (Around $20, find this wine.)
Another good choice from Dry Creek Valley is from Nalle Vineyards. Their Zinfandel is full of dense fruit, layered with suede, eucalyptus, milk chocolate, black earth, and pepper. Cranberries and raspberries bloom on the palate; this is a silky, elegant, mineral-rich wine with good structure and drinkability. It's the kind of wine you'll pour yourself a second glass of, and think, "Why don't I drink Zinfandel more often?" (Around $30, find this wine.)
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