July 7 2010 12:00 AM

Savor the many flavors of this summertime wine

In 1975, Sutter Home’s White Zinfandel experienced a "stuck fermentation," a problem that occurs when the yeast dies out before consuming all of the sugar. This problem juice was set aside. Some weeks later, the winemaker tasted it and preferred this accidental result, which was a sweet pink wine.

This is the style that became popular and today is known as White Zinfandel. The demand for White Zinfandel resulted in extended commercial viability of old vine Zinfandel vineyards, which saved them from being ripped out. When the fine wine boom started in the 1980s, demand for red Zinfandel picked up considerably and these vineyards became prized for the low yields from century-old vines. (Source:Wikipedia.org)

Zinfandel is a chameleon-like grape that can present itself in many styles, depending upon the winemaker and the growing region. It thrives in hot climates where the grapes benefit if the heat of the day is balanced by acidity-enhancing cool nights.

Zinfandel can range from cash cow, mass-production “White Zin” (something of a misnomer — all Zinfandel grapes are red, but Zinfandel juice is virtually colorless until left in contact with crushed skins during winemaking) to tannic monsters produced from fruit raised on century-old mountain vineyards.

And Zinfandel can be everything in between. A recent Greater Lansing Vintner’s Club blind tasting of current release Zinfandel wines, held at the Kellogg Center, provided a reference point for Zinfandel available in the local market. At the time of the tasting, all wines were available on the State Room wine list and most of them should be available at local fine wine shops. Prices, where referenced, are recent prices at Goodrich’s.

The wines ran the gamut of different California appellations and included 2005 Renwood Fiddletown (Amador County), 2006 Storybook Eastern Exposure Estate (Napa Valley), 2006 Venge Scout’s Honor (Napa County), 2007 Francis Ford Coppola Director’s Cut Dry Creek Valley (Sonoma County), 2007 SideJob Cellar C 5 Stefani Vineyard Dry Creek Valley (Sonoma County), 2006 Cline Bridgehead (Contra Costa County), 2007 Four Vines Biker (Paso Robles), 2006 Lolonis Redwood Valley (Mendocino), and 2007 Three Evangelho Vineyard (Contra Costa County).

As evaluated by the 45 or so assembled tasters, there were several clear favorites and several clear least favorites. A number of wines, surprisingly, garnered votes both as favorite wine of the night and least favorite wine of the night. That, of course, is a testament to the subjectivity of wine tasting and the individuality of palate preference. There was a virtual dead heat for favorite Zinfandel, with 2006 Venge Scout’s Honor garnering 14 of 46 votes and 2007 Four Vines Biker, a new wine to many folks, garnering 13 votes as favorite.

Scout’s Honor ($44.49) was a typical, well-made Venge wine. Dark ruby with an intense nose, good concentration, and overtones of cherry, it is complex, perhaps supplemented by the inclusion of Petite Sirah and Charbono in the final blend. Drink now, or put several in the cellar.

Four Vines Biker ($25.79) was a real eye-opener. This Wine Spectator “Top 100” wine is designated as a “smart buy.” A peppery nose was followed by a broad, sweet fruit palate, smooth mouth feel, and a long, lingering finish. These two were among my top three, the third being the Storybook. Medium ruby color, with round cherry flavors, moderate tannins, and a long finish, Storybook Eastern Exposure is all about balance and luscious Zinfandel flavors.

Lolonis Redwood Valley ($15.99) was an enigma. It was the favorite wine of several tasters, and least favorite of slightly more. Fans appreciated the musky overtones and red berry fruit. Others found it too restrained, preferring big, in-your-face Zins. A common thread: Italian wine fans tended to like this wine for its balance, clean presentation and food friendliness. If you fancy Chianti, you’ll probably like this wine.

The Coppola ($19.49), SideJob ($23.89) and Renwood ($28.39) each found a few supporters as favorite wine. The Coppola had a sweet fruit nose and similar palate presentation, with medium concentration and a bit of spice. SideJob is a dry wine with very sweet fruit (demonstrating ripe fruit, not sugar) and rich, broad flavors that included a nice hit of sweet French oak. Renwood Fiddletown, a longtime Sierra Foothills favorite, showed a bit of menthol and cedar in the nose, a dose of red fruit on the palate, great balance and a lingering finish.

Cline Bridgehead ($27.99), traditionally a good value/high-quality wine, had an off night with the taste testers, garnering the most “least favorite” votes and only a single “most favorite.” It was round on the palate but seemed to lack depth of flavor and presented with somewhat drying, but not dominant, tannins. It is more Cabernetlike than some of the other wines, and not as fruit-forward, which may account for the downgrade.

And then there was Three Evangelho Vineyard ($26.99), featuring fruit from a century-old, low-yield, dry-farmed vineyard, with Petite Sirah and Alicante Bouschet added for complexity. Only 369 cases were produced. Earthy, with dark fruit, a bit of pepper and even a bit of green pepper, it is still young and tight, with tannins at the forefront. I would lay this down for a year or two.

Summer is a great time for Zinfandel. Although they are typically high-octane wines, they are very versatile with a wide range of barbecued and grilled foods, and stand up to spicy sauces and full flavored meats. Pull a cork next to the grill!

In Vino Veritas,

(Michael Brenton is president of the Greater Lansing Vintners Club. His column appears monthly.)