Labor Day is often associated with the waning of summer, when the days are getting just a little shorter and the weather is starting to turn just a little cooler.
It also signals the last big weekend of the grilling season, when enthusiastic outdoor chefs across the country prepare to barbecue an assortment of meat, fish and vegetables. This auspicious occasion calls for wines that commemorate the final days of summertime.
Since the temperature is still warm and the humidity has not quite receded into distant memory, I think that the perfect red wine should be versatile, juicy and seasonally appropriate. Zinfandel checks all three boxes.
Zinfandel pairs well with just about anything you can throw on the grill. From steak to chicken to vegetables, zins can heighten the flavors of seasonal cooking. Best of all, they give you one last sentimental toast to summer before being relegated back to indoor dining for another year.
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Zinfandel has long been considered the All-American grape. According to zinfandel lore, a nursery owner from Boston, George Gibbs, brought the first vine cuttings back from Vienna, Austria, in the 1820s.
By 1832, the hearty red grape became popular throughout the Northeast. During the gold rush, zinfandel hitched its wagon and headed west, where it gained popularity among Italian farmers for the vine’s ability to grow free-standing, making it easy to care for and harvest. Some 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).
Today, there are over 50,000 acres of zinfandel planted in the United States. Most of the vineyards are in California, with more than 44,400 acres planted in the Golden State. But there are plantings scattered throughout the Pacific Northwest and the southwestern United States.
Zinfandel wines traditionally offer a range of dark and red fruit flavors, but the most common tend to proffer cherry and berry notes, with 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 barbecue fare.
Italian immigrants were the first to settle into the Dry Creek Valley — located in the northern most portion of Sonoma County, California — in the latter part of the 19th century. They 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.
However, the rustic-style wines quickly gained popularity and demand soon blossomed.
The 2015 Dry Creek Vineyards Old Vine Zinfandel, Sonoma County is a wonderful example of how vibrant old vine wines can be. The average vine age for the zinfandel is 90 years old and is blended in with a little petite sirah and a touch of Carignane to produce a complex and delicious wine with aromas of black fruit, chocolate and just a hint of cinnamon on the nose. The palate revels in a well-balanced combination of raspberries, cherries and red plums that coat the tongue. The touch of pepper on the long finish sings classic zinfandel. Find a rack of baby back ribs and enjoy. $33
The Frank Family Napa Valley Zinfandel is a perennial favorite in our home. The exceptional 2016 vintage provided ideal growing conditions for the grapes sourced from the Nichelini family in the Chiles Valley and others in Rutherford and Calistoga that goes into the 2016 Frank Family Zinfandel. Winemaker Todd Graff adds a very small percentage of petite sirah to the blend each year and eschews ripeness for balance, resulting in a very food friendly summer wine. The black cherry bouquet is accented by scents of cinnamon stick and clove. Flavors of ripe raspberry, spicy cherry and black pepper sing on the front of the tongue, while hints of savory Asian spices round out the long finish. Pair it with barbecued chicken or grilled vegetables. $40
The Cline Family is one of the largest holders of 100-plus-year-old vines in California and has worked hard to preserve these vines from aggressive urban development. The 2017 Cline Family Ancient Vines Zinfandel is definitely a labor of love, exhibiting traditional trademark notes of spicy earth on both the nose and the palate. Additional flavors of dark cherry, black raspberry and mocha glide across the tongue with charm and complexity. The notes of melted black licorice on the smooth finish make this a tempting choice to pair with a dense chocolate torte. $20