Welcome in winter: California zinfandel


February is a time of year for hearty, warming foods - stews, roasts, game and pasta dishes.

That also makes it a time for zinfandel, California's own red wine. Its full-bodied, intense flavors complement such foods, and the high alcohol levels of the ripest zinfandels are an asset in winter that they wouldn't be in July.

Wine enthusiasts have an especially strong motivation for sampling some zinfandels this month because the vintage dominating retail shelves, 2001, is one of the best of the past decade. It also represents a rebound from 2000, one of the most inconsistent.

(It should be stated here that we're dealing with the red wines made from the zinfandel grape, not the white zinfandel made from the same grape.)

Zinfandel is no longer the bargain it once was. There are still good inexpensive ones on the market, but the best producers have been discovered and elevated to wine-industry stardom. It's not rare to find zinfandels that cost $30 or more.

My sampling of 2001 zinfandels from California showed an overall high level of quality - with one caveat: Some 2001s show high enough levels of tannin to mask any charm they might have.

Although cabernet sauvignon with high tanins will often come around with years of cellaring, in my experience, that happens rarely with zinfandel. Generally, harsh tannins in a zinfandel persist until the fruit is gone.

That's why it was especially distressing to find that problem crop up with Ravenswood, one of California's best zinfandel producers and a personal favorite. The Sonoma winery produced some great zinfandels in 2001 but also some that were barely drinkable because of their raspy tannin levels.

Ravenswood specializes in concentrated, distinctive old-vines zinfandels from top vineyards around the state. Unfortunately, three of its Sonoma Valley vineyards - Monte Rosso, Barricia and Old Hill - produced 2001s with hard, bitter tannins that dominated the fruit. Another, the Big River zinfandel from Alexander Valley, was drinkable but fell short of the winery's standards.

Curiously, three other Ravenswood 2001 zinfandels were wonderful. The 2001 Belloni from the Russian River Valley was intense and full-bodied, with lush blackberry and black-cherry flavors and nuances of chocolate. The huge 15.2 percent alcohol is not at all intrusive, and all is in balance.

The 2001 Teldeschi from the Dry Creek Valley is even more impressive. It's a big, spicy wine with wild berry flavors and hints of black pepper and smoked meat.

The Dickerson Vineyard from the Napa Valley is simply a world-class red-wine vineyard. Its 2001 zinfandel is Ravenswood at its best, with elegant and persistent flavors of cassis and black raspberry. This classic wine is reminiscent of a fine Cote Rotie from the northern Rhone.

The Ravenswood wines are all $30, except Old Hill, which is $60.

Ridge Vineyards, from south of the San Francisco Bay near San Jose, is also one of California's great zinfandel producers. I did not have the chance to taste its flagship Geyserville or Lytton Springs bottlings, but two of its 2001 zinfandels showed impressively.

The 2001 Dusi Ranch ($27) from Paso Robles is an example of a zinfandel where the tannin puts up a fight but the fruit wins. It could stand a little time to mellow, but its black cherry and blackberry fruit is up to the task, and its herbal and black-pepper flavors add complexity.

Ridge's 2001 Sonoma Station zinfandel ($22) from Sonoma County is a particularly spicy wine but not a blockbuster. There's a certain rustic elegance to it, like a well-furnished country cabin. It should match up very well with foods - even some, like roast chicken, that might be overwhelmed by other zins.

Rosenblum vineyards is frequently mentioned as the third of the "three Rs" of California zinfandel. A consistent top producer, it too seeks out top vineyards from around the state.

Its 2001 Continente Vineyard zinfandel ($23) from the rarely seen San Francisco Bay region is a plump, plummy wine with flavors of black cherry, anise and black pepper. This wine would be particularly well-suited to go with venison or lamb stew.

Several other producers gave us 2001 zinfandels of the highest quality. They include:

2001 Kenwood Sonoma Valley Zinfandel, Jack London Vineyard ($23) ranks up there with the best from Ravenswood. Its lush black-cherry, spice and chocolate flavors are exceptionally gripping and complex. For the price, it's excellent.

2001 Cline Ancient Vines Zinfandel ($17). Plums, chocolate and herb flavors are all to be found in this complex, intense zinfandel that resembles a vintage port without the sweetness.

2001 Edizione Pennino Rutherford Zinfandel, Napa Valley ($35). Typical of the Napa Valley, this wine from Francis Ford Coppola shows the elegant side of zinfandel. There's a lot of spicy blackberry flavor here and a long, impressive finish.

2001 Dry Creek Vineyard Heritage Clone Zinfandel, Sonoma County ($16). Chocolate, black-pepper and blackberry flavors dominate this lush, spicy, well-balanced zinfandel from an underrated producer.

A step down the price ladder are some uncomplicated, medium-bodied but useful zinfandels for less-special occasions. They include the 2001 Cline ($11), Karly Pokerville ($11.59) and Peachy Canyon ($12). All offer good value and pleasant drinking with a wide range of foods from hamburger to roast poultry.

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