Why Red Zinfandel Shines in Summertime

It seemed like a long winter, which is why I am especially appreciating this 82-degree spring day in Philadelphia. I love cooking and pairing wine with food. In the summertime, I enjoy the outdoors and constantly use my barbecue. And when I pair food on the barbecue my attention turns to red zinfandel.

One of my favorite appellations for especially delicious zinfandel is from Sonoma’s Dry Creek Valley. You can find great value zinfandel in the Dry Creek Valley and there are some tasty — but pricy — single vineyard wines when customers want to splurge.

Zinfandel is as uniquely American as apple pie and baseball.

It traces its DNA to Italian Primitivo and an ancient Croatian varietal. It is believed that it came to California from Croatia during the Gold Rush in the 1860s. In fact, in the late nineteenth Century it was the most widely grown grape in the state. Since it’s been in America for over 150 years, it doesn’t taste at all like its Croatian heritage and has taken on its own unique terroir and distinctive flavors.

Zinfandel has not quite captured the American imagination like cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir and chardonnay. But when retailers stock their shelves for the warm weather months, it’s natural to have staff recommend zinfandel as the prefect accompaniment to meats on the grill. It pairs so nicely with baby back ribs, spicy barbecued chicken, hamburgers, shredded pork and brisket sandwiches.

There are some very expensive, full-bodied, high-alcohol zinfandels and there are more elegant wines that are not overpowering and better for pairing with food. The key is to compliment food and not have the wine overwhelm the experience.  It’s important to sample with your suppliers, review the alcohol percentage on the label and choose wines that have a nice fruit profile and just the right amount of zesty spice.

Part of the reason that zinfandel is not as popular as it should be is there is a lot of confusion in the marketplace.

When wine lovers pop the cork, there is a very wide range of taste profiles in zinfandel and it can be an intimidating experience to pick just the right wine for dinner. Wines with depth of concentration, but with more elegance, style and just the right amount of pepper and spice are what will capture the imagination of the summer zin drinker.

One of the most reliable regions to find good quality zinfandel is from Sonoma’s Dry Creek Valley.

It’s a relatively small appellation — just 16 miles long and two miles wide. But there are over 2,400 acres planted to zinfandel and more than 60 wineries in this small sub-appellation of Sonoma Valley.

Since the 1970s this area has developed a reputation as the perfect place for zinfandel, growing in prominence each year. There are some especially interesting old vine zinfandels — 40 to 80 years old — that are unique special occasion wines. 

I recently met with Clay Mauritson and Jim Pedroncelli in the Valley and tasted their wonderful portfolio of zinfandels. Mauritson, whose family has been in the Valley since 1868, has an allocated portfolio of pricey zinfandels that are worth splurging on, including his famed Rockpile Zinfandel. Jim Pedroncelli’s family has been making wine in the Dry Creek Valley since before Prohibition, and the wines are quite delicious and represent tremendous value.

Optima’s Mike Duffy trained under Andre Tchelistcheff and his wines are well-made, small-batch wines that over-deliver for the price.

The great thing about zinfandel is that while it’s a fun wine for the summer, it’s an all-year wine, giving you flexibility in purchasing for a select season.  If you understand your consumer’s taste profile and make the right recommendation, you are going to have some very happy customers.

As former chairman of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, Jonathan Newman was the nation’s largest wine buyer and brought a number of popular innovations to bear, including the Chairman’s Selection program and opening of local stores for Sunday sales. Follow him on Twitter at @NewmanWine and visit his website newmanwine.com

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