Ancient Vine Zinfandel: What Does It Mean and What Does It Taste Like?

ZinFest is Lodi’s annual celebration of wine, food and fun that takes place at Lodi Lake. This year’s ZinFest Grand Tasting took place on May 18. As a prelude to ZinFest, a blind tasting of ancient vine Zinfandel was organized on May 17 by the Lodi Winegrape Commission. The tasting was held in the Ballroom at Wine & Roses in Lodi. I was invited to attended the tasting and am pleased to share my impressions of the tasting with you.

Blind Tasting Ancient Vine Zinfandel

The tasting included 12 ancient vine Zinfandels from Sonoma County, Napa Valley, Paso Robles, Contra Costa, Amador County and Lodi. We tasted the wines in three rounds of four wines. Two of the wines in each flight were from Lodi and the other two were not. All wines were tasted blind so we could objectively evaluate each wine.

Our task was to try and identify aromas and flavors specific to ancient vine Zinfandel from Lodi, and to identify those two wines in each round. Randy noted that the point of this tasting wasn’t to choose a favorite, but that is exactly what we all did anyway.

Let’s taste ancient vine Zinfandel!

All of us in the audience, which included wine enthusiasts as well as winemakers and winery personnel, tasted each round of wines at the same time as a panel of wine experts. The panel included Mike Dunne, who until his recent retirement wrote a column, “Dunne on Wine,” for The Sacramento Bee, Steve Eliot, editor of Connoisseurs’ Guide to California Wine and Catherine Fallis Master Sommelier (aka Grape Goddess®) who writes on her blog, Planet Grape®, and is the author of the book 10 Grapes to Know.

The panel was moderated by Randy Caparoso, editor for lodiwine.com and The SOMM Journal, with assistance from Stephanie Bolton, Ph.D., Director of Grower Communications & Sustainable Winegrowing for the Lodi Winegrape Commission.

Randy Caparoso (L), Steve Eliot next to Randy, Catherine Fallis MS (center), Mike Dunne (far right) with winemakers

We all made our own tasting notes and at the end of each round Randy Caparoso asked each panel member to share their “sensory perceptions” of the wines. Randy also solicited impressions and opinions from the audience and, after the wines for each round were revealed, individual winemakers or winery representatives had the opportunity to comment on their wine.

So, the learning opportunities at this tasting came from the panel of experts, the winemakers and winery representatives and my own tasting experience. All contributed to my understanding of ancient vine Zinfandel. 

What Does Ancient Vine Mean Anyway?

The short answer, Randy explained, is nothing. The term is not regulated by federal or state wine law. In a recent article he noted old vine has been used to label wines made from vineyards that are only 25 or 30 years old. He goes on to encourage Lodi and other viticultural areas in California to agree upon standardized definitions for vine age. He proposed the following:

  • Old Vine – 50 years or older
  • Heritage Vine – 65 years or older
  • Ancient Vine – 80 years or older
  • Historic Vine – 100 years or older

Along with standardized definitions for the age of a vineyard comes a consideration of how much of the original planting must  remain to fit any categorization. Over time vines die and must be replaced, therefore a vineyard is not entirely comprised of the oldest vines.

But does vine age translate to better wine in the bottle? After this tasting of ancient vine Zinfandel I have an opinion on that and, according to Randy, winemakers certainly believe this to be true. As an example he explained that at Turley Wine Cellars, where they make up to 35 wines from specific sites, winemakers always vinify grapes from young, middle and old vine Zinfandel separately for this reason. 

The 12 vineyards represented in this tasting were planted between 1869 and the 1920s. That puts all of these vineyards in at least the ancient vine category as defined above. 

Let’s Taste Ancient Vine Zinfandel

Round One

Zinfandel A: very light ruby in the glass with lifted red and black berry flavors, earth and berry bramble along with juicy acidity and well integrated tannins. This was my favorite wine in this round. I love its bright, energetic qualities. This was my favorite wine in round one. 2014 Vine Noceto OGP (The Original Grandpère Vineyard) Zinfandel, Amador County. 14.1% abv. $38.

The OGP vineyard was planted in 1869 and only about 12 acres remain of the original 30-acre planting. This vineyard is probably the oldest Zinfandel planting in California. 

Fermentation in stainless steel was followed by aging in French oak, 20-30% new.

Zinfandel B: light ruby in the glass with berry fruit flavors, dusty minerality, dried oat hay and hints of leather. Well integrated tannins and nice acidity make for a sophisticated wine. 2014 Fields Family Stampede Vineyard Zinfandel, Lodi. 14.2% abv. $28

This own-rooted Zinfandel vineyard was planted in the 1920s and 1940s making it the youngest in this tasting. As is typical in older vineyards, this is a field planting that includes 2% Mission, Mourvèdre and Cinsaut. 

It is unique for another reason: it’s planted in Lodi’s Clements Hills AVA rather than the Mokelumne River AVA that is home to most of the oldest Zinfandel vineyards in Lodi. Clements Hills is better known for its rolling hills and gravelly soils, though this vineyard is planted close to the Mokelumne River in sandy loam soil.

Zinanfdel C: ruby in the glass with generous flavors and aromas of dark fruit and berries, cedar and loamy earth. Nice tannins and riper fruit flavors make for an interesting Zinfandel. 2015 Mike & Molly Hendry R.W. Moore Vineyard Zinfandel, Coombsville, Napa Valley. 16% abv. $35

This vineyard was planted on St. George rootstock in 1905. The field blend in this Zinfandel vineyard includes 1% Petite Sirah, 1% Carignan, 1% Mourvèdre, 2% Mourtaou (Cabernet Pfeffer). The wine was aged in French and Hungarian oak.

Zinfandel Druby-garnet in the glass with perfumed aromas. Flavors include dried alfalfa, berry fruit, earth and a meaty quality. Tannins are a bit grippy. 2016 McCay Cellars Lodi Native Lot 13 Vineyard Zinfandel, Mokelumne River Lodi. 14.1% $35

This wine is part of the Lodi Native Project meaning it was made using native yeast fermentation with no additions (except for sulfur) or subtractions. Aging in neutral oak only.

The vineyard is located in the Victor Triange on Lodi’s east side. It was planted in 1915 and is own-rooted.

I thought Zinfandels A and C were from Lodi. The aromas in both smelled so familiar, and for that reason I thought they were Lodi Zinfandel. Wrong on both.

Round 2

Zinfandel E: medium ruby with lots of flavor and aromas of ripe boysenberries, blackberry compote, earth along with hints of vanilla. Tannins are smooth, but the texture is chewy and the wine is mouth filling2016 Precedent Wine Evangelho Vineyard Zinfandel, Contra Costa County. 14.5% abv. About $30.

This vineyard is also a field blend that includes Mataró, Carignan, Palomino and  Muscat Blanc in addition to Zinfandel. The vineyard is own-rooted and was planted in 1890 in soil described as Delhi sand.

All varieties were de-stemmed and co-fermented with native yeast in stainless steel. The dry wine was pressed off into neutral French oak. 

Zinfandel F: medium ruby with generous aromas and flavors of raspberries, boysenberries and cherries with an appealing earthy component. Tannins are well integrated. Juicy acidity is notable and keeps the complex flavors lively. This wine was my favorite wine in round two. 2016 Turley Wine Cellars Ueberroth Vineyard Zinfandel, Paso Robles Willow Creek. About $45

The Ueberroth Vineyard is located on a steep site in the Paso Robles Willow Creek AVA. Soils are rocky with limestone and have a high PH, resulting in grapes with lots of acidity in spite of very warm temperatures. The vineyard is own-rooted and was planted in 1885.

Winemaking included native yeast fermentation with 20% new French oak aging.

Zinfandel G: light ruby in the glass with tart aromas of red fruit. Flavors are lean and tend toward red fruit and a bit of earth and moderate tannins. It’s lean, but very appealing. This was my second favorite wine in this group. 2017 Alquimista Cellars Jessie’s Grove Vineyard Zinfandel, Mokelumne River Lodi. 14.7% abv. $52

This vineyard was planted in 1889 and is also a field blend that includes 10% Carignan, 4% Tokay, .5% Mission and .5% Black Prince. 

Partial carbonic maceration with native yeast fermentation was employed in winemaking. The influence is intentionally Burgundian in this Zinfandel.

Zinfandel H: ruby-garnet in the glass with generous berry fruit flavors and aromas. Ripe berry and other fruit flavors combine with damp earth and spice. The finish is warming with fruit and tannins. 2017 St. Amant Winery Lodi Native Marian’s Vineyard Zinfandel, Mokelumne River Lodi. 14.5% abv. $35

Marian’s Vineyard was planted on its own rootstock in 1901 and is farmed by Mohr-Fry Ranches. It is planted in west side Lodi Tokay sandy loam. 

Lodi Native protocol was followed as with the prior Lodi Native wine in this tasting.

The wines that tasted most familiar to me were Zinfandels E and H, so I thought they were from Lodi. Yay, I got one right! 

Round 3

Zinfandel I: ripe berry compote, ripe boysenberries and rich fruity flavors. Tannins are a bit grippy, the finish is warming. The flavors are ripe, but without too much oak influence. 2016 Ironstone Vineyards Rous Vineyard 107 Reserve Zinfandel, Lodi. 15% abv. $35

The Rous Vineyard is located in the Victor Triangle in Tokay sandy loam soil and was planted in 1919 on St. George rootstock.

Fermentation took place in a rotary fermenter, which uses rotation rather than pumping over to extract fruit and color. Aging took place in neutral oak.

Zinfandel J: ruby-violet with dark fruit, berry and earthy aromas. Drying tannins linger on the finish with a bit of warmth. 2016 Robert Biale Vineyards Pagnani Ranch Zinfandel, Sonoma County. 14.6% $52

Once again this vineyard is a field blend of Alicante Bouschet, Lenoir, Petite Sirah, Grand Noir, Mataró, Palomino, Carignan, Sauvignon Vert and Muscadelle in addition to Zinfandel. It was planted in the 1900s on St. George rootstock. 

All varieties were co-fermented, except for the Alicante Bouschet, in open-top fermenters before being aged in 25% new French oak.  

Zinfandel K: ruby-garnet in the glass with mature aromas of dried fruit and tobacco along with dark fruit. Tannins are smooth and well integrated2016 m2 Wines Lodi Native Soucie Vineyard Zinfandel, Mokelumne River Lodi. 15.2 $35

Sousie Vineyard is planted 1916 on Lodi’s west side – very close to Interstate 5. The soil is Acampo sandy loam and this is one of winemaker Layne Montgomery’s favorite vineyards.

The Lodi Native protocol was followed in making this wine.

Zinfandel L: ruby color in the glass with aromas and flavors of blackberries and other dark fruit. A significant, earthy component along with dried hay and drying tannins makes for an interesting wine. 2016 Jeff Cohn Cellars St. Peter’s Church Vineyard Zinfandel, Alexander Valley, Sonoma County. 15.5% $45

The vineyard site is flat and the Zinfandel is ringed by a circle of “mixed black varieties” to protect the Zinfandel within. The oldest vines were planted in the 1880s and the youngest in the 1990s.

Until his untimely death last September, Ulises Valdez farmed this Zinfandel vineyard. His family continues to farm this vineyard that Jeff Cohn describes as having a magical feel.

Winemaking included whole berry and whole cluster  fermentation with foot-stomping five times per day. Aging in 30% new French oak followed for 18 months.

I didn’t choose a favorite wine from this round of Zinfandel. Maybe it was because this group was the most similar, and the ripest, or maybe my palate was fatigued by this point. Zinfandel L certainly has the most compelling story behind it. 

Zinfandels I and L tasted the most familiar to me, so I thought they were from Lodi. I was correct on I.

What Did I Learn?

  • The complexity and individual qualities of ancient vine Zinfandel are easiest to appreciate in less-ripe wines with little new oak influence. The riper the wine, the more similar they taste.
  • Signature flavors include perfume, blackberries, boysenberries and earth.
  • While I definitely know what I like in a Zinfandel, and I can taste the differences among them, identifying a signature aroma and flavor profile for Lodi ancient vine Zinfandel is not a skill I possess.
  • No two people taste the same thing in a wine. I particularly enjoyed hearing the diverse opinions from members of the panel and audience of the same wine.
  • There is a style of ancient vine Zinfandel for every palate.
  • A standardized definition of vine age should be established.
  • Not all vines in an ancient vine Zinfandel vineyard are the same age. Over time, vines die and are replaced. 
  • It is common for ancient vine Zinfandel vineyards to be planted to a field blend including other varieties. This was the advice given to farmers back in the day as a hedge against Zinfandel’s unpredictability.
  • The list of vineyards in this tasting is a useful guide to finding interesting wine made using truly ancient vine (or older) Zinfandel.
  • Drink ancient vine Zinfandel to save ancient vine Zinfandel vineyards. These vineyards are not particularly high-yielding and there is pressure to remove them and plant something more productive. 

To learn more about the effort to document and save California’s oldest vineyards visit the Historic Vineyard Society’s website. Use this as a resource to identify truly old/heritage/ancient/historic vineyards.

For comprehensive tasting notes and comments from the panel and attendees, please see Randy Caparoso’s article on the Lodi Wines website.

For several years the Lodi Winegrape Commission has organized a tasting before the ZinFest celebration. Be sure to look for one before next year’s celebration and save the date!

Save the date for ZinFest 2020

Thanks to the Lodi Winegrape Commission for this learn opportunity.

Cheers!

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