Zinfandel from the higher elevation American Viticultural Areas (AVAs), notably the Sierra Foothills (above 2,000 feet) and Mendocino Ridge (the unconnected vineyards on the coastal ridges in the southwest corner of Mendocino County at elevations above 1200 feet), are among my favorites. Both regions get plentiful warm sunny days and cooler nights (known as “diurnal temperature shift”), which means more even ripening in this traditionally uneven ripening variety, and higher acids to balance the sugar content in the fully ripened fruit.
When visiting the 2013 ZAP event in SF this past February 02, I searched out Zins from these two Zinfandel regions. In the El Dorado County region of the Sierra Foothills AVA, Lava Cap has become one of my favorites. It produces two outstanding Zinfandels: The Reserve Estate and the Rocky Draw.
The soil in these vineyards, which sit at about 2800 feet, is a cobbly, reddish gravelly loam of volcanic origins (hence the winery’s name Lava Cap). The wines that come from them are beautifully balanced full bodied, full flavored specimens, luscious in the mouth, and with layers of blackberry, some hints of earthy herbs, a dusting of spices, and a layer of dark caramel swirling throughout. The Rocky Draw also has distinguishing notes of dark chocolate. Never over-oaked, both wines have been aged in 1/3 new French oak barrels for about 14 months, and come in just under 15% alcohol.
These wines are a pleasure to drink at release (2 – 3 years after vintage date); they also will benefit from a few additional years in your cellar. And because they are from the Sierra Foothills, they are a price point or two below comparable value from such prestigious north coast regions as Napa and Sonoma Valleys.
My other mountain vineyard favorite (and also that of my companion at the ZAP 2013 event–not that we tasted everything) was Edmeades Perli Zinfandel, from the Mendocino Ridge AVA. Perli Vineyards are grown in lily-pad like plantings high up on Fish Rock Road. The micro-climate of Mendocino Ridge AVA vineyards is remarkable in that the vineyards are above the fog line, and so benefit from the diurnal temperature shift from day to night. The days are warmer and the nights cooler than in Anderson Valley. There’s also something special about the light!
“The distinguishing component of the grapes from these vineyards is their high malic acid content,” said Van Williamson, winemaker from 1994 to 2011 for Edmeades. “It takes several months for these wines to complete malolactic fermentation, which leads to wines with a higher perceived acid content. This balances out the higher alcohol content that comes from full ripeness of the grapes and the accompanying luscious, big fruit component of these seductive monsters, and produces wines with long ageing potential.”
While these were my favorites among the Zinfandels tasted at this event, they are not my only Zinfandel favorites. More on some of my other favorite Zins in future posts.