All-American zinfandels for an all-American Fourth of July

Wine of the Week is a weekly column from wine expert Scott Greenberg. 

WASHINGTON — Celebrating the birth of our nation in our nation’s capital is about as patriotic of an experience as one can have.

Between the National Symphony Orchestra playing on the lawn of the Capitol and the amazing fireworks display on the Mall, it’s enough to want to jump up and give the Washington Monument a big ol’ hug.

So it’s only natural that the wine we should drink this weekend to commemorate the founding of our country is the one grape that America lays claim to as its own: zinfandel.

But while zinfandel has long been considered to be the all-American grape, recent DNA fingerprint analysis shows that it may have its so-called roots in Europe. According to the Wine Institute’s website, “Studies indicate that the grape used for making California zinfandel probably originated in Croatia. Historians believe that in the 1820s, a nursery owner (George Gibbs) brought zinfandel cuttings (that were Croatian in origin) to the United States from an Austrian collection. The zinfandel name, however, is truly American.”

Regardless of where it came from, zinfandel found a way to hitch its wagon and headed west during the Gold Rush where it gained popularity among Italian farmers for the vine’s ability to grow free-standing, making it easy to care for and harvest. A few of these original “gold rush vines” still exist and have earned the title “old vines” (loosely defined as vines that have been in active use for at least 40 years).

Zinfandel wines traditionally offer a range of dark and red fruit flavors, but the most common tend to proffer cherry and berry notes, hints of black pepper, Asian spices and even melted black licorice. This combination provides plenty of pairing power for a wide variety of grilled and barbecued fare.

Paso Robles, in the heart of California’s central coast, has gained a well-deserved reputation as a major wine-producing region, particularly for Rhone varietals and zinfandel. The 2016 Opolo Summit Creek Zinfandel exhibits the traditional trademark notes of spicy earth and black pepper on both the nose and the palate. Additional flavors of dark cherry, black raspberry and cocoa skate across the tongue with charm and complexity. The notes of cracked black pepper on the smooth finish make this a tempting choice to pair with smoked ribs or charcoal grilled steak. $19

Stubborn survivors, zinfandel vines love a good drought and are known for producing fruit decades longer than typical for other varieties. The vines become gnarled and twisted as they age, producing smaller crops of inky, luscious and mouthwatering ripe fruit. The 2015 Chateau Montelena Calistoga Zinfandel from Napa Valley, California is a perfect example of this characteristic. Crafted from a blend of old vine fruit and newer vines, the nose shines with warm aromas of baked blackberry cobbler and dark chocolate. In the mouth, brambly characteristics are kept company by ripe flavors of Bing cherry, red plum and raspberry on the full-bodied frame. Charismatic hints of licorice, thyme and dried sage slide in on the lengthy finish and would work wonders with dry-rub barbecue ribs. $39

Italian immigrants who settled in the Dry Creek Valley, located in the northern most portion of Sonoma County, in the latter part of the 19th century reserved the fertile valley floor for cash crops, such as wheat, apricots and prunes, and relegated the rocky slopes of the hillsides to the zinfandel grapevines, which they vinified for personal use. The rich and spicy wines quickly gained popularity and a new industry was born. Dry Creek Vineyards carries on that tradition with its 2015 Dry Creek Vineyards Beeson Ranch Zinfandel. Perry Beeson farmed his 5-acre vineyard for more than four decades. Originally planted in the 1890s, this head-pruned and dry-farmed vineyard lives on with each new vintage of this single-vineyard zinfandel. The wine exhibits an abundance of ripe cherry notes, intermixed with sweet cassis, black licorice, and blueberry flavors in an expressive personality. It has a supple, full-bodied mouthfeel, and a long layered finish that just begs for burgers or chili. $45

Chocolate and the right zinfandel can be a delicious end to a meal, and the 2015 Mounts Family Winery Old Vine Zinfandel from the Dry Creek Valley in Sonoma, California is definitely the right zinfandel. It boasts a beautiful, deep purple color and aromas of cocoa and blueberry pie. Luscious flavors of ripe black cherries, baked plums and black licorice jump on the front of the palate, while highlights of dark chocolate fan out over the back of the tongue on the long, beautiful finish. $40

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