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It is a long way from the sunny Dalmatian coast of Croatia to the wine country of California – 6,162 miles (with a slight detour to Italy) to be precise – but that is how far we are going to trace the travels of the wine grape properly known as Crljenak Kaštelanski but which we call Zinfandel.
At one time Zinfandel was thought of as a native American grape. But plant geneticists have determined that it is of far older origins, as we will explore at the Hilton on February 16th. We now know that the grape we know as Zinfandel started out as Crljenak Kaštelanski (Yes, I learned to pronounce that and we will have a brief lesson in Serbo-Croatian during the tasting.) on the Dalmatian coast of Croatia.
Our tasting begins with our “welcome” wine Old Black Peter, which is unavailable on the shelves of Pennsylvania’s “Fine Wines and Good Spirits” stores but a favorite of the Wall Street Journal Wine Club, about which I have written (and recommended) in a prior PWS blog post. Grown of fifty-year-old-plus vines, it comes in at 13.9% alcohol whereas many Zins come in at as much as 15%. It boasts multiple 90+ point ratings and gold medals, so we will be off to a good start.
Our first tasting wine, in keeping with the convention that one tastes white wines before red wines, will be a Rosé: Rosé of Primitivo Estate, 2022, deLorimier Winery, Alexander Valley, Sonoma. The so-called “white” Zinfandel outsells red Zinfandel six to one in the United States. Actually a blush or pink wine, white Zinfandel is usually sweet or at least semi-sweet. Why take a red grape and try to make it white? It all goes back to the 1970s. Americans demanded semi-sweet white wines and vintners with acres of old vine Zinfandel had a problem. They certainly didn’t want to plow over 100-year-old vines and plant white wine grapes. The solution was to make a rosé or so-called white Zinfandel. We managed to find a rare dry example.
Turning to the reds, we start in Croatia with a Crljenak Kaštelanski. Very little Crljenak Kaštelanski is exported to the United States – and as far as we can tell none is made available to Pennsylvanians through the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board.
Despite the scarcity, the Pennsylvania Wine Society has managed to obtain a few bottles of a very special Dubrovački Prodrumi Crljenak bottled in 2016. This eight-year-old 90-point red (Wine Spectator) is ready to go and will be the starting point for our exploration of the Crljenak Kaštelanski and its migrations. We will explore how technique and terroir create a different red from the Zinfandels we are used to. Having just tasted Old Saint Peter, we can compare the effects of terroir and winemaking style from both ends of the grape’s journey.
Crljenak Kaštelanski did not migrate directly to America from Croatia but made a stop in Italy, specifically the Puglia and Apulia regions of Southern Italy, aka “the boot” of Italy. There the peripatetic varietal changed its name to Primitivo. The name Primitivo does not mean “primitive,” as one might guess based on its similarity to the English word, but rather prime or “first to ripen” from the Latin “primativus”. (I know, Serbo-Croatian and Latin lessons are a bit much for a wine tasting, but bear with me.)
We will taste a 2021 Poggio Anima Lilith Primitivo and, again, will call upon all of you to determine how terroir and technique impact taste. Again, we can compare the effects of terroir and winemaking style.
Finally, we come to California. More than 100 years ago Italian immigrants moved to California and brought their grape vines with them. (One alternative version of the story has the vines starting out on the East Coast and then making their way to California during the California Gold Rush of 1848-1855.) For some reason, during the Atlantic and continental crossing, the name changed to Zinfandel (there are still a few California examples that go by the name Primitivo as we saw above). Appropriately, we will start with a wine that boasts that it is created from 100-year-old vines: Cline Family Cellars “Ancient Vines” 2021 Contra Costa. Since 2018 the vineyards and winery became Certified California Sustainable and Sonoma County Sustainable.
Having established Zinfandel’s origins and tasted the product of some 100-year-old vines, we will compare three modern bottlings:
7 Deadly Zins, Old Vine Zinfandel, 2020, Lodi, California (hint: one of my favorites). Crafted by a family with roots in Lodi since the 1850s, and grown using sustainable practices, this wine is blended with a small amount of Petite Syrah and coming in at a healthy 15% alcohol, which comes through on the finish.
Since we are tasting a Zin from Lodi we should mention here that Lodi calls itself “the Zinfandel capital of the world.” Briefly, why does Lodi make this boast? Located between San Francisco Bay and the Sierra Nevada mountains, at the end of the Sacramento River, Lodi features a classic Mediterranean climate and many of the very old Zinfandel vines we have discussed were planted there. Some date to 1888! These old vines produce small fruit in limited numbers, resulting in rich, bold, and complex wines.
Next up: The Federalist, Lodi, 2019. The name and the label are intended as an homage to George Washington, and the wine is crafted from grapes grown on the edge of Dry Creek, just a mile from the famed Russian River. I just have to show you the vineyard’s promo:
In the spirit of George Washington and our Founding Fathers, this wine offers bold and original expressions of this truly American grape. This wine connects the founding fathers love of wine, some of whom had vineyards of their own, with this historic appellation known for its old vine Zinfandel. The result is a revolutionary wine.
Clearly, whoever wrote that PR piece had been sampling The Federalist! We will see if George would approve.
When tasting our final wine, Joel Gott, 2018, St. Helena, Napa, see if you agree with one taster who described the flavor profile is “all in your face”. I’m not sure what that means, but I guess we will find out. The wine is aged in both new American and used French oak barrels.
As a final note, we plan to make this tasting a bit more interactive, asking you to tell us what you think in a more systematic fashion. Don’t worry, there are no wrong answers! “I like it,” is a perfectly acceptable response! In what will be a review for some, we will suggest a tasting methodology in which we look at color, legs, aroma, taste, and finish. Tasting scoring sheets will be provided to provide a framework for analysis and to help you remember which wines you like the best.
Hilton’s Master Chef has put together a hearty cheese plate to accompany our wine tasting. Please inform us of any food allergies well in advance in the notes section of your reservations or email the Treasurer with concerns.
Reservation deadline is Tuesday, February 13th!
For Reservations go to the Shoppe Page on the PWS website - https://pawinesociety.org/shoppe