We started our Thanksgiving shopping this weekend. The November feast at our table traditionally includes a bottle of zinfandel, most often from the vineyards of the Sierra foothills, the focus of our weekend outing.
In our periodic visits to the Shenandoah Valley of Amador County we hadn't concentrated almost solely on zinfandel for some time, and this excursion was a revelation. Amador long has been celebrated largely for bruiser zinfandels - saturated color, ripe fruit flavors, high alcohol - but most of those we tasted and liked were lighter, brighter and more refreshing, but without sacrificing the varietal's raspberry and blackberry highlights. They showed that zinfandel doesn't have to be inky to be characteristically fruity, and that the varietal can be balanced, spirited and even elegant.
Here are some of the better buys we found:
- The Amador Foothill Winery 2004 Shendoah Valley Esola Vineyard Zifnandel ($17) has 15 percent alcohol, but don't hold that against it. The Esola was the most expressive and complex zinfandel we tasted all day, as well as the best buy.
- At Sobon Estate, my favorite vineyard-designated zinfandel seems to shift from vintage to vintage. One year it's Cougar Hill, the next Rocky Top. We tasted the 2005s from both, with the nod this time going to Cougar Hill ($18) for its structure and its dash of white pepper on its bowl full of blackberries and raspberries.
- Dick Cooper's "Due Cugini" zinfandel - that's Italian for "two cousins" - is another perennial favorite, and the Cooper Vineyards 2005 Amador County Due Cugini Zinfandel ($23) doesn't disappoint. The sweetness and juiciness of its raspberry and blackerry flavors make it downright delicious.
- The Renwood Winery 2004 Jack Rabbit Flat Zinfandel ($30) is a nicely cleaned up version of classic foothill zinfandel. It comes in at 16 percent alcohol but the heat doesn't overwhelm the wine's lively and spicy flavors.
- The Vino Noceto 2004 Ferrero Ranch Zinfandel ($20) shows that zinfandel, just like pinot noir, need not be densely colored to deliver zingy fruit flavors.
- Karly Wines was pouring four zinfandels, but the 2004 Warrior Fires ($26) was our favorite for its lush and persistent blackberry flavor.
- The Charles Spinetta Winery 2004 Amador County Zinfandel ($18) is a throwback to the area's early way with the varietal in that it is broad and burly, but at the same time it has its manners down, with the fruit ripe yet fresh and its alcohol coming in at a modest 13.8 percent.
- The C.G. Di Arie 2005 Amador County Zinfandel ($18) provided the day's spunkiest flavors and most silken texture. A lot is going on with this wine, with its juicy berry flavor accentuated with oak, herbs and a touch of licorice.
Despite all that, I'm still not sure which one will end up on the Thanksgiving table. We may need to do more research.