I used to love Zinfandel. While its progenitors go back to Europe, it has morphed into a uniquely American variety. At its best, it is a robust, brambleberry-flavored wine that's just the thing for backyard barbecues. At its worst, it is an over-the-top, high-alcohol monster with flavors of raisins and baked jam. The problem is you never know what you are going to get. Zin went through a high-alcohol, liquid Smucker's phase in the '70s. It almost spelled the death knell for the variety—consumers stayed away in droves. Sadly, the recent trend among wineries is for that previously doomed style, but this time around, we have the Wine Spectators and the Bobby Parkers of the world to tell us how good it is. Fortunately, if you look hard enough you can still find Zins that show some restraint. That's what our panel did locking on these three favorites:
2005 Howling Wolf Old Vine Zinfandel, $10.99
A winery that has been around for just a few years and bottles only Pinot Noir, Pinot Grigio and Zinfandel. If their other wines are as good as this one, it's cause for celebration. The Howling Wolf has it all, starting with beautiful berry aromas with an intriguing meaty quality. Well-structured with impeccable balance on the palate, it offers fresh berry and creamy mocha flavors with hints of anise and spice. It finishes with silky soft tannins and crisp acidity that begs for food, and all at a bargain price.
2005 Peachy Canyon Westside Zinfandel, $17.99
Opens with intense plum and dark berry fruit aromas, rich and ripe enough to make you worry that this going to be one of those over-the-top Zins. But while the flavors are undeniably big, they are exceptionally well-balanced with a backbone of fine tannins and sharp acidity to keep things in line. It's all bright raspberry and cherry fruit in the mouth with supple spice, coffee and white pepper in the background. The finish is long and smooth and pushes the envelope but not too far.
2004 Starry Nights Old Vine Zinfandel, Tom Feeney Ranch, $23
A blend of grapes from three dry-farmed vineyards with plantings dating back to the '20s, '30s, and '40s. The result is a wine surprisingly refined on the nose with notes of blueberry, raspberry and herb. Deep dark flavors explode on the palate—rich red berry, cherry and creamy cassis. Very soft tannins and smooth oak come through on the finish, along with light touches of licorice and spice. Bring on the barbecued ribs.
This week's panel: David Kirkpatrick; Karen McMillin, Young's Market; Michael Molinengo, Idaho Wine Merchant; Dave Faulk, Porterhouse Meats; Kevin Settles, Bardenay.