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California zinfandel can be exciting, especially old-vine field blends that include other grapes such as petite sirah, mataro (mourvedre) and alicante bouschet. The blend is not always explained on the label, but if a wine is truly “old vines” (and there is no specified definition of old), it most likely is not entirely zinfandel. Here are five zins that stood out in my recent tastings, from around California. There’s a variety of price ranges, too. Unfortunately, the top zins have become expensive; that’s because of the rarity of these vineyards and the intensity and quality of the wines they produce.
Napa Valley, Calif., $49
During Prohibition, when customers of the Biale farm ordered produce over the unsecure telephone party line, “black chicken” was code for a jug of zinfandel. Or so says the back label. Biale today makes several vineyard-designate zins that are amazingly expressive and elegant. The Black Chicken is a blend of several Napa Valley vineyards that captures the intensity of zin with a New World, flout-the-conventions flair. Alcohol by volume: 14.8 percent.
Distributed by Country Vintner: Available in the District at MacArthur Beverages, Pearson’s, Rodman’s, Schneider’s of Capitol Hill; on the list at Capital Grille, Casa Luca, Charlie Palmer Steak, DC Prime, Fiola, I Ricchi, Prime Rib, Proof. Available in Maryland at Decanter Fine Wines and Iron Bridge Wine Co. in Columbia, Harbour Wine & Spirits in Severna Park, the Perfect Pour in Elkridge, Pine Orchard Liquors in Ellicott City, Total Discount Liquors in Eldersburg, Wine Loft in Pikesville, Wine Source in Baltimore. Available in Virginia at Dominion Wine and Beer in Falls Church, Oakton Wine Shop in Oakton, Total Wine & More (Arlington, Springfield, Sterling), Wegmans (Fairfax, Leesburg, Woodbridge), Wine Cabinet in Reston.
Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma County, Calif., $46
Ridge is one of the foremost zinfandel producers, featuring single-vineyard bottlings since the 1970s that emphasize expression of place. This wine is not labeled as a zinfandel because zin makes up 74 percent of the blend, while varietal labeling requires 75 percent. I’ve always wondered whether the math could be so precise, or if the winemakers didn’t want to feature the vineyard and its blend, which (according to the label) includes 16 percent petite sirah, 8 percent carignane and 2 percent mataro (mourvedre). It is deep and savory, with impeccable balance and a long finish. ABV: 14.5 percent.
Distributed by Country Vintner: Available in Maryland at Balducci’s in Bethesda, Dawson’s Liquors in Severna Park, Downtown Crown Wine and Beer in Gaithersburg, Eastport Liquors in Annapolis, Pine Orchard Liquors in Ellicott City, Safeway (Olney), Wine Cellars of Annapolis, Wine Merchant in Lutherville, World Gourmet Wine & Beer in Potomac; on the list at Addie’s in Potomac, Aida Bistro in Columbia, Black’s Bar & Kitchen in Bethesda, Bo Brooks in Baltimore, Pascal’s Chophouse in Severna Park, Ruth’s Chris (Bethesda, Gaithersburg), Vin 909 in Annapolis. Available in Virginia at Arrowine and Cheese in Arlington, the Fresh Market in Vienna, Oakton Wine Shop in Oakton, Total Wine & More (Alexandria, Chantilly, Leesburg, McLean); on the list at Eddie Merlot’s in Ashburn, Eddie V’s in Tysons, Evening Star Cafe in Alexandria, Grand Cru Wine Bar & Bistro and Liberty Tavern in Arlington, Ruth’s Chris (Arlington, Fairfax, Tysons).
Lodi, Calif., $20
Lodi is a warm growing climate, so the wines tend to be powerful, even on the already-powerful zinfandel scale. The Boneshaker handles the heft and heat, with loads of spicy cranberry and blackberry fruit and a nice texture that helps carry the alcohol. ABV: 15 percent.
Distributed by Country Vintner in the District and Maryland, Virginia Imports in Virginia: Available in the District at Rodman’s; on the list at the Heights. Available in Maryland at Bradley Food & Beverage and Cork 57 Beer and Wine in Bethesda, Franklin Liquors in Ijamsville, Hampden Parks Liquors in Baltimore, Hops & Vines in Odenton, New Town Wine & Spirits in Owings Mills, Pine Orchard Liquors in Ellicott City, Festival Wine & Spirits in Annapolis, Telegraph Liquors in Severn; on the list at Roy’s in Baltimore. Available in Virginia at Earth Fare in Fairfax; on the list at Swirl & Sip in Falls Church, Wildfire in Tysons.
Mendocino County, Calif., $22
This zesty wine is indeed a bit wild and incoherent at first, but its message comes through with a lovely, spicy core of raspberry, cranberry and pepper flavors. ABV: 14.5 percent.
Distributed by Country Vintner: Available in the District at DCanter, Rodman’s; on the list at Lincoln, Matchbox (various locations). Available in Maryland at Beer, Wine & Co. and Bethesda Market in Bethesda, Frederick Wine House, Orion Wine & Spirits and Riverside Liquors in Frederick, Petite Cellars and Pine Orchard Liquors in Ellicott City, Roland Park Wines & Liquors in Baltimore, Total Discount Liquors in Eldersburg; on the list at Black’s Bar & Kitchen in Bethesda, Red Horse in Frederick, Tsunami in Annapolis. Available in Virginia at Crystal City Wine Shop in Arlington, the Organic Butcher in McLean; on the list at Tuscarora Mill in Leesburg.
This is an introductory level wine from a top zinfandel producer in Paso Robles. At first taste, it seemed a little green, but within 30 minutes or so it developed nice cherry and boysenberry flavors and a lovely texture that carried across a long, minty finish. The restrained alcohol is a bonus. ABV: 13.8 percent.
Distributed by Country Vintner: Available in the District at Rodman’s; on the list at Barrel, Lebanese Taverna. Available in Maryland at Bay Ridge Wine & Spirits and Wine Cellars of Annapolis, the Bottle Shop in Potomac, Calvert Wine & Spirits in Hunt Valley, Crescent Beer & Wine in Bowie, Fishpaws Marketplace in Arnold, the Perfect Pour in Elkridge, UpCounty Fine Wine & Beer in Clarksburg, Urban Cellars in Baltimore; on the list at Bin 909 in Annapolis, Lebanese Taverna (Baltimore, Bethesda). Available in Virginia at Society Fair in Alexandria, Total Wine & More (Alexandria, Arlington, Chantilly, Gainesville, McLean), Wegmans (Alexandria, Dulles, Fairfax, Fredericksburg, Lake Manassas); on the list at Lebanese Taverna (Arlington, Pentagon City, Tysons), Monty’s Steakhouse in Springfield, Taj of India in Arlington.
Availability information is based on distributor records. Wines might not be in stock at every listed store and might be sold at additional stores. Prices are approximate. Check Winesearcher.com to verify availability, or ask a favorite wine store to order through a distributor.