Just in time for the holiday season, today we celebrate that quintessential California wine, Zinfandel, on Zinfandel Day which is held the third Wednesday of each November.
The fifth most popular wine in the U.S., Zinfandel places around fourth in California in terms of production of fruit.
So says Mike Brown, winemaker and co-cowner of Cantara Cellars which uses primarly Lodi fruit in the wines they make in their Camarillo facility — and the wines we chose to toast on Zinfandel Day and to discuss below! Learn more about Cantara here in my interview with co-owner Chris.
There are a huge number of Zinfandel clones grown in California, says Mike, so many that seldom are they taken into consideration. If a grape grower was planting a particular vineyard, they would simply take clippings from specific vineyards that they knew and start their own specific vineyards.
While growers can also get specific clones, if you are looking for particular flavors in zin, you should look more for the year of planting for that the vineyard because Zinfandel is famous for how the varietal changes over time as the roots go deeper and deeper seeking nutrients and water.
Vines have been known to regularly go 40′ down into the earth! The skin on older grape vines is much lighter. Color comes from the skin, so generally old vine zin will have a lighter color, and old vine zin grapes are gnarled and produce very little fruit.
The Lodi wines we are writing about first are all from Cantara Cellars; many are library wines or barrel samples with alcohol content in the mid 14%. As the wine ages there is some concentration that goes on in the barrel so the color can concentrate as it barrel ages; this will happen to the flavor compounds as well.
For the Cantara Wine Club, Mike led a vertical tasting of his zinfandel in the barrel and in the bottle. Here are some of our edited notes from that tasting plus two wines from the tasting room just in time for Zinfandel Day as well as Thanksgiving —
because in my opinion, Zinfandel is THE best wine to take to a Thanksgiving meal!
Because you may not be able to get these wines in time, or perhaps they are beyond your budget, we’re including in this post notes about Cline’s OV Zinfandel from Lodi. All wines are samples for my review consideration, all opinions are my own with notes taken by Sue and input form Kathy; no monetary compensation was involved.
Lodi’s Mohr-Fry Ranch Vineyard sits about 50 feet from the Mukolumne river. There is irrigation available but rarely used because the roots are able to tap into the ground water that is readily available in the loamy soil. The vines are old and ancient — dating back over 100 years.
Below are our notes from a three year vertical tasting of the same vineyard with the same winemaker using the same techniques, but with different point in development.
Mohr-Fry Vineyard 817 2015 – This wine is in the barrel and has not yet been bottled.
This wine is all about the bright fresh fruit, not as oak forward. 70% French and 30% American; 50% new oak. Nose has alcohol on this wine and funky barnyard characteristics. Pretty color, bright fruit notes, raspberry. Sue’s favorite.
Mohr-Fry Vineyard 817 2014 – This wine is in the barrel and has not yet been bottled
Kathy and I loved this one best. Spicy richness lends itself to rich meats and BBQ’s — a bold wine that can stand up to a bold meal. Full bodied and rich, a bit of oak forward, that will mellow with time but will remain a super spicy wine with notes of sulphur and graphite characteristic on the nose, very complex.
Mohr-Fry Vineyard 817 2013 – This wine is in the barrel and has not yet been bottled
Prunes and ripe fruit, oak, coral color, lacks the luster in the wine that the other vintages had.
Mohr-Fry Vineyard 817 2012 – SOLD OUT
Lovely floral nose with rose, perfume, carnation, violets. Very palatable, and easy to drink, this wine would be lovely to enjoy at a Thanksgiving meal.
Mohr-Fry Vineyard 817 2011 – SOLD OUT
Anise on the nose and palate, with the sweetness of fresh fennel. Smooth and mild with a lovely texture and mouth feel. This has a very earthy profile, flint and mineral is predominate.
Mohr-Fry Ranch Vineyard 817 2010 – Sold out – library wine
Beautiful color, deep and rich. As the wine ages, the fruit recedes, the oak integrates and the spice becomes predominate. 2010 was one of Sue’s favorite vintages in general and Mohr-Fry Ranch Vineyard Zinfandels in particular. It has a beautiful richness with minerals but not predominate; oak is integrated and mellow, not at the forefront of the wine. This vintage seems like it is holding up very nicely and will continue to lay down.
Mohr-Fry Ranch Vineyard 817 2009 – Sold out – library wine
A jammy profile, fruit forward, drink now. Brownish coral hue. Starting to take on a sherry or medicinal quality.
Lodi’s Griffina Vineyard is a bigger bolder zinfandel. Zin from this vineyard is very robust and pairs well with a good turkey burger with blue cheese. It does not have the delicate fruit notes of the OVZ from Mohr-Fry. You can throw a big robust meal with these zinfandels. Graffinia Ranch planted in 1978, so not considered old vines yet. The vineyard is owned by family friends of the winemaker and is located two miles north of the Molculme river and two miles east. An irrigated vineyard on a grafted root stock.
Graffina Vineyard – 2010, Library wine, not available
Fruitier than other vintages, great with salami and sharp cheeses.
Graffina Vineyard – 2007 Library wine, not available
Lots of fruit on the nose, such a vibrant nose for an older vintage. On the palate, almost like a vanilla custard tart with a graham cracker crust with fruit on top, Vanilla creme with berries on top, NOT PUDDING, more like a fresh fruit custard tart. Very nice all around, finish on it is like candied caramel apples with lots of vanilla. There is so much life in this vintage. It is bright, vibrant, juicy. Nice berry flavor without going jammy. If you are going to open this wine you probably need to open it and drink it right away.
2006 – Zinfandel – Lodi – blend, library wine, not available
This wine was surprisingly wonderful for a Zinfandel that has been cellared for so long: wonderful fruit characteristics, with great minerality, sulphur undertones. Wow.
What’s amazing is that you CAN buy older wines from Cantara Cellars which have been cellared impeccably. Most of the time, if we want to drink older wines, we must cellar them ourselves! The Browns have been busy with their new brewery which is now OPEN so for the past few years they have somewhat put the winery on the back burner — they didn’t have the room — so they haven’t bottled much of the wine they have in barrel and I don’t think they’ve purchased any grapes the past two years. Now that the brewery is up and running, they should able to get back to the business of bottling the wines in the barrel and making more wine from the 2019 vintage.
Visit Cantara Cellars in Camarillo! The tasting room in located just off the 101 freeway on the north end of Camarillo. Or, Cantara wines can be shipped to you direct from the winery; get online to Cantaracellars.com to see all available wines and pricing. Hint: Mike is a masterful blender!
Some time after the tasting described above, we met at Sue’s for appetizers and lasagne. Because I love ham and zinfandel, I fried up a ham steak which we enjoyed with the cheese and salami. Sue also prepared a green salad and green beans.
2012 Cantara Zinfandel – 52% Mohr Fry Ranch Old Vine Zinfandel, 48% Graiffina Zinfandel – 14.2% SRP $38 238 cases produced
sample provided for my review consideration
Color: Copper ring, cherry cola
Nose: Earthy musk, dusty rose, like when you are walking in the field and the dust kicks up. An underlying plummy note with cherry, lots of dark stone fruit, right off the bat. Like river moss and graphite. As it opens more, rose petals and carnations with butterscotch.
Palate: Smooth and mellow, bright fruit, raspberries, nice acidity, black licorice on the finish with almost a silkiness. The texture is beautiful.
Pairing: Mellows out with creamy cambozola. It would be great with a turkey burger topped with blue cheese. Great with the salad, it liked the arugula and balsamic vinegarette. Nice with the lasagne, but this older vintage is a bit too mild to tackle the big rich flavors of the lasagne. The green beans were really good.
2012 – Cantara Cellars – Zinfandel – Griffina Vineyard- 14% alcohol SRP $38
sample provided for my review consideration
Color: Dense cherry cola, plum, coral rim
Nose: Leather, gunmetal, tobacco, it is hard to distinguish any fruit on the nose of this older vintage.
Palate: Great texture, very silky, nice acidity, cranberry, evergreen, reminds me of Christmas.
Pairing: Nice with thinly sliced parmesan cheese, and espresso toscana. Sue did not think it was fantastic with the Cambozola, but fantastic with the salami with black pepper. The Griffina can handle the lasagne, Sue also liked the Griffina with the salad, but just okay with the green beans. Loves the fresh crushed pepper in the salad.
2017 – Cline Family Cellars – Old Vine Zinfandel – 14.0% alcohol SRP $12
This wine is widely available; sample provided for my review consideration.
Founded by Fred and Nancy Cline in 1982, Cline Family Cellars has long been recognized as a leading producer of Old Vine Zinfandel according to press materials. Some of the vines used to grow Cline’s Old Vine Lodi Zinfandel date back to 1942. The core of the wine comes from 12 vineyards located in Lodi’s prized Mokelumne River AVA, which is cooled by its close proximity to the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. Vineyards include the Fowler Ranch dating back to 1942, Hubert and Harney vineyards planted in 1962 and Alpine vineyard planted in 1968. The grapevines are largely head-pruned, planted in sandy soil, develop slowly, and deliver low yields with distinctive character.
Color: Pretty ruby pink with a bright pink rim.
Nose: This wine needs to open up a bit before serving; give it at least 30 minutes for it to shine. Clean, floral, carnation, incense cedar, frankincense, myrrh, pine resin, amber; after it’s been open while, fruit starts to show up: plum and strawberry jam.
Palate: Super fruit forward with red stone fruit leading with plum, very accessible and easy to enjoy, nice acidity and medium body
everything you would want out of a $12 bottle of wine and more;
red licorice, a woody quality. The finish is disappointing, sort of chalky, but overall the wine is very worthwhile: great value for the price — over delivers.
Pairing: It works well with ham. Sue did not think the wine was that great with the toscana espresso cheese, but it was stellar with the salami. This is definitely a pizza wine, it is yearning for red sauce and favorite toppings. As the Cline opens up, it did not have the pizzaz that the Cantara wines brought forth, this is not a complex aging wine either, it was a completely different ball game from the Cantara boutique wines. The wine was so fruity with the meal.
So happy ZINFANDEL DAY everyone! Enjoy your Thanksgiving! And remember, when in doubt about what wine to bring or open to pair with Thanksgiving, go for ZINFANDEL!