The opportunity to open a good Zinfandel always lowers the odds for a delightful dining experience. Opening four of them is almost as much fun as winning a lottery. And when the wines come from Sonoma County's Dry Creek Valley, under the label of Dry Creek Vineyards, they can be opened with confidence.
A recent tasting allowed, as my college professors used to say, the opportunity to "compare and contrast" a 2008 Zin and three from 2007. Being a year younger than the others hurts the '08 Heritage Sonoma County Zinfandel (about $19) when tasted against the others, though its price, $10-$15 less than the '07s, gives it some appeal. Tasty, yes. Smooth and charming, yes. But it lacks the finish, the power, the complexity that the others possess. Perhaps a year or so more age will help; it's a blend of 82 percent Zin and 18 percent Petite Sirah, and it spent 10 months in French and American oak. The wine, with aromas of cherry and flavor notes of blueberry, is a tasty companion to meat-sauced pasta dishes.
The other three, all with a Dry Creek Valley appellation, are Beeson Ranch, from 100-year-old vines, 97 percent Zin, 3 percent Petite Sirah ($34); Somers Ranch, 100 percent Zinfandel ($34) and Old Vine Zinfandel, from vines averaging 85 years of age, 82 percent Zin and 18 percent Petite Sirah ($28).
My favorite was the wine from Somers Ranch, with Beeson Ranch a close second. Both are outstanding wines, and it will come down to personal flavor preference. The 2007 crop was one of the best ever, say the folks at Dry Creek, who have been making first-rate wine since David Stare founded it in 1972. They talk about perfect weather and fine growing conditions for the entire season.
This means it's up to Bill Knuttel, the executive winemaker, not to screw things up . And he didn't.
Both wines will benefit from being decanted and left to sit on the dining table 45-60 minutes after opening. Somers, 100 percent Zin, has an impressive blackberry aroma with hints of clove, and smooth, light tannin notes on the palate, providing structure and backbone for the black cherry and coffee notes. A terrific wine with a long finish. The Beeson grapes, from 100-year-old vines that yield less than one ton an acre, has pepper elements in the nose, black cherry and chocolate on the palate, a little tannin. Three percent Petite Sirah is added to the blend. The Beeson Ranch had a slightly (20-16 days) longer fermentation time, but both were aged for 17 months, the Beeson in French oak, 40 percent new, the Somers in a mixture of French, American and Hungarian wood, 50 percent new.
Both are delicious, bringing style to any table. A year or so more bottle age, if you have the patience, probably would improve them.
The Old Vine Zin, also tasty, is a little lighter than the single-ranch versions. All four, however, are winners, with the deep flavor that is a given with quality Zinfandel.
A delicious 2006 Merlot, with small amounts of Cabernet Franc (8 percent), Malbec (4) and Cabernet Sauvignon (1) to round out the blend, is a fine companion to a hearty roast.
White wine fans will be pleased with the Dry Creek Valley 2009 Sauvignon Blanc, a crisp, nicely acidic wine with melon and peach overtones. The winery's '09 Fume Blanc also is a charmer, with a gravelly, mineral quality that makes one think of Sancerre from France's Loire Valley.
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RECENT TASTINGS: Wines from many countries, many vineyards, many styles have brightened my palate through the winter. These are my opinions, though I realize full well that many things can affect a wine-drinker's judgment. There are days when the palate is more sensitive, days when an external event or mood can make a wine taste better, or not as good. Here goes, divided by wines. . . .
MERLOT: Folie a Deux has an excellent '08 from Napa ($18), with 14 percent Cabernet Sauvignon in the blend. Excellent balance, deep plum notes. . . Clos du Bois' offering, from the North Coast ($15), offers 91 percent Merlot, with touches of Cab, Malbec and Syrah and overtones of dark cherries leading to a long, happy finish. . . . Bogle' 2008 vintage is a good value at $8.
SYRAH: J. Lohr's '07 from Paso Robles ($15) uses both French and American clones to emphasize blackberry traits, superior balance. . . Napa Cellars has released a splendid, rich '07 Syrah ($28) with light tannin and big flavor.
CHARDONNAY: Folie a Deux scores again with an '09 from Napa ($18) that is crisper and cleaner than many California rivals, with a lovely note of green apple along the way. . . Cupcake Vineyards, with Central Coast grapes ($14) but a flat affect and a too-short finish. . .
SAUVIGNON BLANC: Cupcake Vineyards' import from New Zealand ($14) is a delightful, crisp, very lemony and with a touch of pineapple in the finish; an excellent offering from the Marlborough area of the South Island. . .
PINOT NOIR: Bogle, always an excellent value, shows an $11 wine that uses Pinot Noir grapes from the Russian River Valley, Monterey and Santa Barbara to create a first-rate wine with fine body and a surprisingly long finish. . . J Vineyards' 2007 Russian River Valley ($29) wine is outstanding, with all the lean, well-muscled flavor of the classic Burgundy.