As it turned out, it’s also about clonal distinctions in Zinfandel.
My third and most recent example of wines that stop conversation was the Hendry Vineyards estate 2003 Block 28 Zinfandel ($35). I was hosting visitors from Montreal, Canada, just one year ago (2012), and tucked a bottle of this wine under my arm as we left my house for dinner in downtown Napa.
While we were looking over the menu, our waitperson opened the bottle and decanted it. Once we had placed our orders, he poured out the wine. While checking the aroma and trying a little sip to be sure the wine wasn’t “corked,” I became aware that a silence had fallen over our table. I glanced up and saw looks of bliss on the faces of my companions. “It’s pretty good,” I said. “It’s at peak bottle age.” My companions only looked at me, seeming to have lost their power of speech. Finally, one of them exclaimed, “This is incredible, exactly as I always thought a Zinfandel should taste. It’s just amazing.” Then more silence. I, too, was struck by how luscious and beautiful this wine was. It had a deep ruby purple color, aromas of dark plums and blackberries, hints of chocolate, something like allspice and fragrant earth and more, was velvety in the mouth, and had a lingering finish. It was impossible to describe in words the sensory experience of this wine without rendering it simply prosaic. Once again, silence best expressed what was happening—simply a brush with the mystery and magic of a wine, in this case Zinfandel, at its finest—what happens when a well-chosen clonal selection of budwood is propagated in a piece of earth best suited to it, and the winemaking is done in harmony with these two factors.
Block 28 Zinfandel was propagated in 1995 from a field selection of budwood taken from the historic Brandlin Vineyard, situated on Mount Veeder a few miles above Hendry Vineyard.
Established on St. George rootstock in exactly the same way and at the same time as was Block 22 from UC Davis clone # 2 in an adjoining block, Hendry had done this to discover if the budwood (clonal) source would make any noticeable difference in the wines from these side-by-side blocks, or would terroir prevail and even them out. The Zinfandel that Hendry had produced in past years from the Brandlin Vineyard was remarkably different from the Zinfandel from Block 7 (UC Davis clone #2).
The first vintage from these two new vineyards was the 1997, when the vines were in their first crop year. Fortunate to be present as this uncorking, I was in great anticipation to see what distinctions these young wines, which had been harvested on the same day and vinified in the exactly same way, would reveal. I wasn’t left to wonder for long. Even as the wines were being poured, distinctions were obvious. The Block 22 was closed, yielding up only hints of delicate red berries and aromas of vanilla. The Block 28 had dramatic aromatics of dark spicy chocolate and briary earthy notes. The flavors were of dark berry fruits that seemed a mere suggestion of the potential awaiting the consumer who was patient enough to allow the wine a few additional years in the cellar.
“The Block 28 distinguished itself immediately in the aromatics during fermentation. I was not ready for such dramatic difference as exists between this first vintage of the Brandlin and UC Davis Clone #2. I could not have imagined it” said Hendry.
Nor was this a one-off phenomenon from very young vines. This clonal distinction has held, and while Hendry’s Block 22 is consistently a beautiful and elegant wine (as is his older Block 7 from the same UCD clone), it is still the Block 28 Zinfandel that is, for me, the stand-out Zinfandel between those two wines. And it still stops conversation when given sufficient time in the cellar to fully develop its luscious and dramatic potential.
(For the complete story on Hendry Zinfandel, please see my book, A Zinfandel Odyssey. San Rafael. PWV Inc., 2001)