Mike Dunne's Wine of the Week: 2009 Lodi Old Vine "Serious" Zinfandel
At commercial wine competitions, entries customarily are arranged into classes by varietal or style, and occasionally by residual sugar, alcohol level, price niche and region of origin.
The El Dorado County Fair wine competition this spring, however, was the first to my knowledge to create a class specifically for "old vine" zinfandels.
"Old vine" is a murky term within the wine trade, with no longstanding or official definition. Winemakers are free to use it on their labels to mean most anything, from designating a wine actually made with grapes from vines more or less a century old to a wine made in the style commonly associated with old vines concentrated and heavy regardless of age.
Federal authorities who oversee the nation's wine industry are looking into a fixed definition of "old vine," but at this writing no proposal has emerged from the chambers and cubicles of Washington, D.C.
Thus, I looked forward to the definition of "old vine" that officials of the El Dorado County Fair had come up with in creating a class of zinfandel based on old vines. Shucks, they didn't. They simply went by whether vintners had claimed on their label that a zinfandel was "old vine." Fair enough.
We faced 11 of them. By and large, the group wasn't exactly enthralling. For the most part, the wines were inky, earthy, sweet and tannic, with off notes that ran from linoleum that needed a good cleaning to well-worn engine gaskets.
Nonetheless, three of them not only were clean, sleek and refined, they possessed the jammy berry fruit for which zinfandel is recognized when it is handled respectfully.
We had no problem singling out one as our best of class. It was one of our rare unanimous gold-medal wines the entire day. During both that first round of judging and in later voting to elect the day's best red, wine judges knew it only as wine "24-B-3."
It was one of 24 wines nominated for best red, which would have qualified it for sweepstakes consideration. To my dismay, it didn't win best-red honors, possibly because it was competing with three other nominated zinfandels, thus splitting the vote among partisans of the varietal.
(The field also included five syrahs and syrah-based wines, two barberas and a petite sirah, the latter of which was elected the best red wine in the competition.)
When results were announced, the zinfandel that so impressed me was the Macchia Wines 2009 Lodi Old Vine "Serious" Zinfandel.
My notes as I first smelled and tasted the wine simply say, "Wow! Spicy, inviting, jammy fruit; generous yet balanced."
In re-evaluating it during the best-red round, I added, "Black pepper; definitive; jammy sweet fruit; long."
The liveliness and freshness of the fruit, the wine's persistence and its dose of black pepper enough to trigger a sneezing jag for anyone not forewarned are what won me over.
When I learned it was by Macchia Wines, I was surprised. Macchia does well on the competition circuit because its wines tend to stand out for their brashness and ballast. The "Serious" also is forward and hefty, but it has a youthfulness, symmetry and freshness I haven't always found in the brand, and really like, as I may have already indicated.
Tim Holdener had been a land surveyor and home winemaker when he and his wife, Lani, agreed to go commercial with Macchia Wines in 2001. To round out his winemaking education, he put in stints in the cellars of Madroña Vineyards in El Dorado County and Villa Toscana in Amador County.
Today the Holdeners are making 12,000 cases a year under the Macchia label. In addition to their substantial wines, they are recognized for giving their releases proprietary names that convey the nature of the wine and a story behind it. Other zinfandels in their lineup, for example, include "Adventurous," "Outrageous" and "Oblivious." They give $100 in "Macchia bucks" to anyone who suggests a name they ultimately use.
"Serious" was chosen for this zinfandel because the Holdeners were keen on showing that Lodi is capable of producing a high-end interpretation of the varietal. For anyone who doesn't get the message in the name, the $50 price makes it clear.
"We think it's the best zinfandel out there," says Lani Holdener.
For the "Serious," Tim Holdener tastes through his extensive lineup of zinfandel in barrels and then selects the seven to 10 that stand out. They could come from a different vineyard each vintage, but the grapes for the 2009 are from a 17-acre parcel in the Mokelumne River appellation just west of Lodi. The vines range from 75 to 100 years old. Their grapes are unusually spicy by Lodi standards, he says.
"My mountain zins usually have more of that peppery character, but even walking through that (Lodi) vineyard, you can taste a lot of spice in the fruit. It's unique for down here."
To punctuate that distinctive spiciness, he blended into the 2009 about 10 percent petite sirah.
The Holdeners are so smitten with the vineyard that they've arranged with the grower to let them have a hand in his farming practices, with the intent of reducing yields so the resulting zinfandel will be even more concentrated.
Though the "Serious" didn't win best red wine at the El Dorado County Fair, the Holdeners weren't too disappointed. Another one of their wines did, the firm, floral and fruity Macchia 2009 Lodi "Rebellious" Petite Sirah ($24). (The name "Rebellious" was given the wine to indicate that it is contrary to Lodi's reputation for producing rather standard takes on the varietal.)
Macchia Wines 2009 Lodi Old Vine "Serious" Zinfandel
By the numbers: 15 percent alcohol, 210 cases, $50
Context: The Holdeners like "Serious" with homemade lasagna and rib-eye steaks, the juicier the better. "Macchia," incidentally, is Italian for "the spot."
Availability: "Serious" is sold only at the winery, and it can be ordered online.
Location and hours: Macchia's tasting room, a converted century-old farmhouse at 7099 E. Peltier Road, Acampo, just east of Highway 99, is open 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Thursday through Monday.
Information: (209) 333-2600, www.macchiawines.com