Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Zintastic - Rancho Zabaco Sonoma Heritage Vines Zinfandel 2012

When the wife and I were first bitten by the wine bug, Zinfandel was a big part of our wine life. It's that way for a lot of neophytes even now, and back then there weren't a lot of wines that delivered the bold fruit and lush palate that zins did. Robert Parker often spoke of the three R's of Zinfandel - Ridge, Ravenswood and Rosenblum. I bought and cellared bottlings from all three, especially Ridge's Geyserville and Lytton Springs bottlings and Ravenswood's single vineyard bottlings. I also was high on Storybook Mountain, although their wines were leaner and less flattering in their youth.

Then came the 90's. My tastes evolved and my interests went elsewhere at the same time that many Zinfandel's were being bottled with ridiculously high alcohol levels in the 16 -17% range. Those examples drank more like port than a good table wine to be enjoyed with your dinner. It seemed the critics were more enamored of "concentration" than they were of balance, and those thicker zins were born of ever higher scores for highly concentrated wines from the experts.

Zinfandel has always been considered our one uniquely American grape, although in truth it is related to a Croatian varietal called Crijenak Kastelanski and to Italy's Primitivo. Clippings of one or the other were probably brought here in the 19th century.

Luckily, the wine pendulum has begun to swing back toward the production of more balanced wines, Zinfandel included. That excites me, for I still have a soft spot for the grape that was my first love. So, I went looking for one to try in the everyday price point that I inhabit. One thing I hate about everyday wine from California these days is the ever vague "California" designation of origin. California's Wine Institute lists 8 full pages of legal AVA's - or American Viticultural Areas. "California" is not on the list. A wine with the origin "California" tells me practically nothing about its pedigree. In fact, those wines may have been produced partially with grapes from the vast central valley, where the melons and tomatoes come from. No thanks.

So when I spied Rancho Zabaco's Sonoma "Heritage Vines" bottling at my local store for $15, I pounced. Most of the grapes for this bottling come from three well known Sonoma vineyards: Frei Ranch, Stefani Ranch and Chiotti Ranch. In truth, this wine is pretty high in alcohol. The winery's website says 14.8% and the bottle says 15.3% so it must be somewhere in that range. But, despite the fairly high alcohol, this wine doesn't smell or taste hot, in fact it's nicely balanced. It's got typical Zinfandel blackberry and blueberry aromas with notes of peppery spice, a lush, velvety mouth feel and bold berryish flavors. There's nothing baked about this wine at all and it finishes long and smooth. This lovely everyday zin is produced from 93% Zinfandel and 7% Petite Sirah. It paired wonderfully with some pasta and a good Bolognese. Cheers.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Animals in the Vineyard - Tablas Creek Patelin de Tablas

Tablas Creek is a winery I have seen much written about in very positive terms over the years but I have never had the opportunity to try any of their wines. They are one of the so-called "Rhone Rangers" of California, producing wines from grapes that are common in the Rhone Valley of southern France. Tablas Creek was started as a joint venture between the Perrin family of Chateauneuf du Pape super star Chateau de Beaucastel and Robert Haas, the owner of Vineyard Brands, which imports the famous winery. Tablas Creek is a winery I don't see much here in New Jersey, probably because most consumers do not step outside of their Cabernet, Merlot, Pinot Noir comfort zone very often - and usually not until someone puts something unusual in their hands. This makes wines like this a tough sell where there isn't knowledgeable staff on hand to promote it.

What led me to Tablas Creek though wasn't the burning desire to sample their wines, for in truth, they've never been at the forefront of my wine consciousness due to their lack of exposure. What got me on this kick was a tweet that someone in my feed put out there with a link to Tablas Creek's blog and a post mentioning Cline Cellars' use of Donkeys in their vineyard. A little investigation revealed that Tablas Creek also had a vineyard herd. We're animal friendly here in the rural western central part of Jersey and in fact we have a few of our own so this was fascinating to me. I emailed one of the viticulturists at Tablas Creek, Levi Glenn, and he was kind enough to answer a few questions for me.

A few years ago Tablas Creek began farming parts of their vineyards biodynamically, which strives to create a balanced farm ecosystem and thus generate health and fertility in the soil. The use of animals in the vineyard is part of that equation. As the herd eats the grass and weeds between the vines they fertilize the soil and help produce a natural balance that let's Tablas Creek keep their vineyards free of herbicides and pesticides. The herd consists of 60 sheep, a ram, 2 donkeys, 4 alpacas, and 1 llama. They also have two mobile chicken coops, each with 15-20 hens. The hens not only fertilize the soil but they eat bugs as well. The donkeys, alpacas and llama are there partly as protection for the sheep and chickens. Because they are an unfamiliar part of the local, natural environment, they keep the coyotes away. The Tablas Creek herd is in the vineyards from November through March and kept out during the growing season. They are outside 95% of the time and only brought in for events or when the ewes have given birth and the weather is foul.

Photograph courtesy of Tablas Creek Winery

I ordered one of each of Tablas Creek's entry level wines from my local store - the Patelin de Tablas 2011 and the Patelin de Tablas Blanc 2012. They are both produced with a blend of Rhone varietals from the Tablas Creek vineyards and from purchased fruit. The red is produced with Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre and the white with Grenache Blanc, Viognier, Roussanne and Marsanne. I really wanted to love these wines but I have to be honest, I was a bit disappointed. They're not bad, they're just okay - and I was expecting more. The white's somewhat stunted aromatics offered some white peach notes. There was good texture in the mouth but I kept wishing that there was more fruit. The red was better with nice light red berry aromatics and soft cherry and raspberry flavors but not much in the way of secondary elements. Tablas Creek deserves kudos for their environmentally sound farming practices and I'm sure that their upper echelon wines deserve all the great reviews that they receive. I'd just like to see them do more with their entry level red and white. Cheers.