It is hard to think of California wine and not think of zinfandel.
The zenith of zin are “old vines.” Except “old vine” is an absolutely meaningless designation not governed by any rules.
The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) has a thick book addressing all manner of wine rules. An “old vine” definition is not in the book. The TTB looked into the issue in 2010 then gave up because no one could agree what an old vine was or how a vine’s age could reasonably be determined.
Which is not to say there are no old zinfandel vines in California. They did well in California beginning with the Gold Rush of the 1850s (some are still producing), survived Prohibition, and became the signature California grape. There is general agreement a zin vine qualifies as “old” between 50 and 100-plus years.
There also is no question that old vines are special. In youth, zin produces abundant fruit—thus its early popularity. With age, production decreases and quality goes up. Furthermore, the vines can produce for a century or more, a rare trait.
Lower yields increase the cost of production, which reflects in price. Because there are no rules, some unscrupulous makers cheat and pawn off younger vines as “old.” Some authentic old vine makers take pains to meticulously document each vine in their zin blocks. Others document vineyard age, but that is no guarantee all the vines are that old.
Young zin vines can produce wine you may love. If old vines are your favorite, Ravenswood is the self-proclaimed “most influential Zinfandel producer in the New World” and, although they do not grow all their grapes, they go to great pains to detail the age of vines from their source growers.
Strategy: sample to find style and maker you like. There is a good chance you will come up with more than one.
• St. Amant Marian’s Vineyard Old Vine Zinfandel 2015: Real deal in old vine zin (planted 1901); delicious, true to the varietal. $25 Link to my full review
• Ravenswood Single Vineyard Big River Zinfandel Alexander Valley 2015: Supple, refined, focused, almost jammy fruit; vineyard planted in 1893. $38 Link to my full review
• Chateau Montelena Calistoga Zinfandel 2015: Elegant, smooth, balanced, made to pair with food; old vines. $39 Link to my full review
• Ravenswood Single Vineyard Old Hill Zinfandel Sonoma Valley 2015: Silky, sophisticated, delicious, complex, concentrated from likely oldest vines in Sonoma—planted in 1870s. $50-60 Link to my full review
Last round: I tried to cook with wine, but after four glasses I forgot why I was in the kitchen.