I can never quite decide. Is it Cabernet Sauvignon? Or is it Zinfandel? Which one of the red wine grapes is my true favorite? I drink a lot more Cabernet Sauvignon. But that has a lot to do with availability. For in San Miguel de Allende, there are a lot more Cabs to be found than Zins.
You can find Zinfandels in Mexico. Including Zins made where the grapes grow best. In Northern California. It just takes a little more looking, perhaps a little driving, or even the need to order online.
First, a few words about the Zinfandel grape. That means first forgetting about white Zinfandel, pink Zinfandel or blush. Yes, they’re made with the same black-skinned grape but they’re made for people who drink soda pop not serious wine.
The origins of the Zinfandel grape go back to Croatia where it has been genetically linked to an ancient grape called Crljenak Kastelansk (no, I can’t pronounce it). If you had heard instead that it came to the U.S. from Italy that is because it is also genetically identical to Primitivo, another grape based on Crljenak Kastelansk that travelled from Croatia to Italy in the late 1700’s.
Zinfandel the grape, along with its new name, arrived in California after first being planted in the Northeastern U.S. in the early 19th Century. By 1888, there were 34,000 acres of Zinfandel vines, making it California’s most planted wine grape. Today there are about 54,000 acres, making it California’s second most planted red wine grape after Cabernet Sauvignon.
What do I like so much about Zinfandel? Simply that it has more rich, red fruit flavor than any other grape. Depending on where the grapes are grown, how old the vines are, what other grapes are added to the mix and the winemaking style, the fruit can taste like blackberries, blackcurrants, raspberries, cherries, cranberries, plums or combinations of two or more of them in a richness that resembles a breakfast jam.
I have selected seven California Zinfandels. They are the seven I think that will give you almost the entire range of taste experiences from this wonderful grape. They are also seven that you should find easily in and around San Miguel de Allende. But don’t be surprised if any are out of stock or their prices have changed. That’s the way the San Miguel wine market is.
$615 Mercado de Vinos
Red Label is the low-end Zin offering from my once favorite film director’s winery. The grapes, from Paso Robles, Sonoma and Amador Counties are picked young to enhance the fruitiness of the wine. The addition of 5% Petite Syrah is probably responsible for the touch of blackcurrant that comes through with the raspberry and blackberry flavors. Twelve months in oak barrels enhances the vanilla and pepper nuances.
As much as I like this Zinfandel, particularly with a double cheese pizza, the price holds me back. If I head north across the border, I can buy it for about $12 U.S. a bottle. That’s a lot less than the $615 charged by Mercado de Vinos.
$528 La Europea
This is one of only two Zins available through the La Europea chain (but don’t necessarily expect to always find it in the San Miguel de Allende store) and the only one of the two made 100% with the Zinfandel grape. The aromas and flavors are more refined with less of a jammy taste than similarly priced Zins. There’s lots of raspberry and pepper on the nose and cherry and licorice in the mouth.
Decoy is well-priced compared to similar quality Zins, particularly considering that it scored a 90 in the magazine Wine Spectator. Scores starting with a 9 have a way of elevating prices.
Some of the earliest planted vines in the state grow in Mendocino County and are used for this 100% Zinfandel. Unlike other Zins that are aged in traditional oak barrels, 1000 Stories transfers the wine to barrels that previously held bourbon for its final aging. The result is a spicy note that suggests sage and rosemary along with vanilla and caramel.
There is still lots of plummy fruit and it’s a very enjoyable wine but the distinctive Zinfandel taste gets a tiny bit lost. It’s still a good choice though with a steak, especially if it has a little char on the outside.
$292 Mercado de Vinos/$295 La Europea
This was the very first Zinfandel I ever tasted over 30 years ago and Ravenswood is still the most well-known Zin producer in the world. “No Wimpy Wines” was the winery’s early slogan and it still holds true today.
Surprisingly (to me, anyway), Vintners Blend Old Vine is only 75% Zinfandel with 16% Petite Sirah, 6% Syrah and 3% other grape varieties.
Old Vine is a bit of an obscure term and even Joel Peterson, Ravenswood’s winemaker is somewhat non-commital about how old “old” is. They should average around 50 years he suggests to have the low yield that brings the richness of taste.Vintners Blend is aged for up to a year in French oak. Blackberries and cherries are the distinctive flavors. If you have never ever tasted Zinfandel, this is the one to try, particularly considering its very reasonable price.
$559 Mercado de Vinos/$557 La Comer
The grapes for Ghost Pines are sourced almost equally from two of the most heralded growing areas in California, Sonoma County on the Pacific coast and San Joaquim County further inland, east of San Francisco.
Ghost Pines is very representative of the traditional Zinfandel style with its jammy richness and ripe raspberry fruit flavor. It will work well with pork back ribs even with a spicy rub or bottled barbecue sauce.
$1620 Mercado de Vinos
This wine is well beyond my budget but I was blessed to be in its company recently when a friend opened a bottle (thank you again, Charlie).
Caymus is one of the most famous California Cab producers and this was the first time I even knew they made a Zin.
It was the most refined Zinfandel I had ever tasted with, not only the blackberry and blackcurrant that you expect in a Zin, but unexpected hints of fig, rhubarb and a little chocolate. Like many of the better Zinfandels, it has a splash of Petite Sirah to add structure and, at 17 months, it spends more time than most being aged in oak.
$245 Mercado de Vinos/$259 La Comer/$249 Costco
I hummed and hawed about including this wine. Because at less than 50% Zinfandel, it can’t really be called a Zin. But I drink more bottles of this wine than any other so just couldn’t leave it out. And the taste definitely says Zin.
When I wrote about the wine last year, I said, “Apothic Red is an absolute explosion of fruit. Cherries, blackberries, raspberries, plums. All punching you in the mouth. So jammy you’re tempted to drink it with toast. Sophisticated? Not at all. But who cares. This isn’t the wine in the little black cocktail dress. This is the wine in tight Levis and tank top.”
The grape composition of Apothic Red is 42% Zinfandel, 16% Syrah, 12% Merlot, 11% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Petite Sirah, 4% Petite Verdot, and 10% “other grape varieties”. Due to its popularity, it is also the easiest to find of all of the wines on the list. And I’ve even seen it on special for less than 200 pesos.
La Comer is located on the southeast corner of the glorieta, at Salida a Celaya and Libramiento Jose Manuel Zavala in La Lejona, San Miguel de Allende.