Single-vineyard Zins bolster Ravenswood’s portfolio

Michael Muckian, Contributing writer

If there is a flagship grape for the California wine industry, it is probably the scrappy, jammy Zinfandel.

Grape geneticists may have traced the grape’s roots to southern Italy and Croatia, but California has embraced this European immigrant as its own.

Vintners especially celebrate “old vine” Zinfandel grapes, recognizing that old vines’ lower yield often results in richer, more flavorful wines.

Sonoma Valley’s Ravenswood Winery takes the delineation a step further with the release of three Vineyard Designate Zins — two of which come from vines planted in the 1880s. The added influence of the right terroir makes each wine a unique statement.

But there’s even more to the story, says Gary Sitton, Ravenswood’s director of winemaking.

WiG: What constitutes a particular wine’s terroir and which elements are the most important in shaping the wine’s character?

Gary Sitton: Many people limit their definition of terroir to the physical environment in which the grapes are grown, but they forget the microflora that grows in each vineyard. Recent studies at University of California-Davis have verified that individual vineyards have a unique microbiological fingerprint.

Then there’s the human aspect of terroir. The manner in which a farmer manages his vineyard can affect the expression of the fruit. So, too, the decisions a winemaker makes will impact the wine and, to a great degree, the expression of the terroir. If I were to inoculate our fermentations with a commercial yeast strain, the yeast I selected would yield a different wine than a fermentation carried out by the yeast indigenous to the field from which the fruit came.

At Ravenswood, we feel the best way to express a vineyard’s terroir is to ferment it with indigenous yeast, in small, open-top fermenters, punched down by hand. After pressing, our wines are aged in small French oak barrels for almost two years, with a modest level of new oak so as to not overpower the unique characteristics derived from each site.

The three Zinfandels in question — Old Hill ($60), Dickerson ($35) and Big River ($35) — come from unique vineyard environments. Can you describe the impact each location has on the wine it produces?

Big River Vineyard is one of the few Ravenswood Vineyard Designates that is 100 percent Zinfandel. The vineyard sits at an elevation of almost 500 feet, in a bend of the Russian River behind Fitch Mountain. All this translates into a warm, sheltered site that sits above the river fog. The grapes ripen early and typically show jammy red fruit characters with supple tannins, all of which are directly attributable to the site.

Dickerson Vineyard is our lone Napa Valley Vineyard Designate Zinfandel. Planted in 100 percent Zinfandel, the vineyard is located on Zinfandel Lane near St. Helena, roughly at sea level, with Bale clay loam soils. This is a very warm site and you might expect a big jammy Zinfandel. But the opposite is true. Dickerson is perhaps our most elegant Zinfandel due to the fact that these old vines have a high degree of virus that tends to delay ripening, keeping acid levels high. The adjacent field features some eucalyptus trees that impart a hint of fresh mint and/or eucalyptus to the aroma and flavor profile.

Old Hill Vineyard is located in the heart of Sonoma Valley in an area that some refer to as the “Banana Belt,” because the fog intrusion from San Pablo Bay and Carneros to the south and from the Annadel Gap to north never quite reaches this mid-valley location. Still, the site is cooler than Big River and Dickerson.

This vineyard is a true field blend, with as many as 30 different grape varietals planted in it, including Zinfandel, Carignane, Petite Sirah, Alicante Bouschet, Grenache, Tempranillo and more.

For me there is always a high-toned Grenache note that shines through in the wine’s aroma profile. The cooler growing site, coupled with the mixture of varieties give Old Hill its fruit profile and its excellent aging potential.

Do Zinfandel grapes fare better than other types in producing fine wines from old vines planted in specific vineyard locations?

Zinfandel grapes are unique in that they mature more variably from berry to berry within a single grape cluster. In addition to the ripe berries, with fresh fruit characters, you will have a small portion of unripe berries with brighter red fruit characters, higher acidity and firmer tannins, along with some dehydrated, raisined berries with jammy fruit characters and more supple texture.

The result, when made well, is a wine that has naturally brighter acidity and tremendous balance, both of which lead to longevity in a wine. Had these grapes been Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, they would often have lower acidity and therefore might not hold up as long.

Each wine is different, as you have said, but is there an overall commonality among the three?

There is a common Ravenswood thread across them that I attribute to the oaking. They are toasty, with some mocha and coffee notes.

Aside from slightly varied percentages of new oak, we use the same French oak barrels across these wines so that any differences you see will be attributable to the vineyards terroir, not due to the winemaking.

Dickerson is elegant, with perfumed red fruit and hint of mint. Big River is jammier red fruit with a fuller mouthfeel and supple tannins. Old Hill is nuanced and complex, with aromas of raspberries, bramble spice and licorice and firm linear tannin structure that adds amazing length.