19 Feb 2013

In praise of (some) older wines, of accessible pricing, and of Zinfandel

The world of wine seems increasingly turned towards a double polarity in the organisation of taste, media coverage, prices and even producers' discourse. At one end of the scale we have usually inexpensive wines that are made to an increasingly high technical standard but which can come from just about anywhere. These wines sell for, let’s say, between 3 and 10 euros mainly in supermarkets around the world. They use grape variety (or appellation) as their essential selling point, apart from price. At the opposite end of the scale we have very expensive wines that claim to be more « authentic »; in any event which are clearly signed by a producer who usually has high media profile in connoisseur circles. These wines are often (but not always) the object of considerable speculation on the part of intermediaries and thus end up in markets at prices than can and often do exceed 100 euros per bottle, and sometimes much more. The gap between these two price extremes, which can be situated at 1 to 1000, has never been so great, but it has also never been so hard to measure in terms of perceived quality. Such is the folly of man, his appetite for things that other men cannot possess, and the distortions of levels of personal wealth throughout most countries in the world. 

Of course this considerably simplifies the reality of wine, its diversity as well as its markets, but I find that the discourse on wine is becoming increasingly polarised, rightly or wrongly, between these two extremes. The whole debate on the role and impact of « terroir » on the flavour of a wine is just a part of this. For those who defend the role of the environment on a wine as the be-all and end-all of quality and interest, the natural tendancy seems to shift towards various forms of elitism within whatever the respective price range may be. And, by the same token, these same people tend to condemn wines that are made to suit markets and price points as indifferent, indeed unworthy examples of the vinous offering.

Another factor in the contemporary wine scene that strikes me as an impingement on diversity is the gradual but significant shift in taste from mature wines (one can read « old » for « mature » if one likes to) to young wines. More and more consumers never taste older wine (ie wines that are over 10 years old), including in the upper echelons of the rapidly stretching price scale. Indeed, as their palates are formed to the tastes of young wines, as soon as they step outside this taste frame they tend to reject the type of smells, flavours and textures that are the necessary result of a wine’s ageing process. Yet the joys and surprises that can be supplied by older wines was brought home resoundingly to me recently when tasting a bottle that had been lying around in my cellar for some time.

Apart from California, where it is widely planted and, in some circles, very well regarded,, Zinfandel is not a grape variety that is well known elsewhere in the world, with the exception of Puglia in Italy, where it is known as Primitivo. In particular, it is not often considered as a variety that ages well, probably on account of its relatively light tanninc structure and high alcohol levels. Apart from the two aforementioned regions of the world, Zinfandel has rarely been planted elsewhere. It has been proven by DNA analysis that it is identical to the Italian Primitivo, and that it originated, in all probability, along the Dalmatian coastline of Croatia, where one can still find fairly rare plantings of its synonyms, Crljenak ou Tribidrag. Croatian origin of this cultivar is not now disputed amongst most experts and would tend to be confirmed by a synonym found in Puglia: Zagarese, meaning « from Zagreb ». The oldest name for the variety is Tribidrag, and can be found  mentioned as from the 15th century in the region of Split. Interestingly, this fits both the sense of the Italian name Primitivo and the Croatian Tribidrag, which derives from the Greek πρωι καρποζ, and which signifies « early ripening ».

So what was the wine that I tasted and which released all this flow of thought?

Blaauwklippen Zinfandel 1996, Stellenbosch, South Africa 

This bottle was given to me by a journalist colleague in South Africa during a trip there several years ago and, I am ashamed to say, has been severely mistreated since by being first stored for years in my garage (too hot in the summer and sometimes too cold in the winter) before finally, for the past few years, gaining a more appropriate place in my electrical wine-cellar that has constant temperature.

I openened this bottle recently at lunchtime, just out of curiosity and expecting to find a thin weedy, acidic and totally oxidised wine. In fact I had brought another wine to the table as a backup, fully expecting to open it. Yet sharing this 17 year-old South African Zinfandel with my colleague Sébastien Durand-Viel was a source of immense pleasure for both of us, as the wine was well alive, vibrant and still full of fruit, showing its age with grace and having developped the level of complexity and subtlety for which one hopes in an older member of this world (vinous or human). We did not open the other bottle!

Blaauwklippen (meaning blue rocks, I believe) is one of Stellebosch’s historic estates, having been founded in 1682. They still produce a Zinfandel and current vintages on the market (2006 or 2007) retail in Europe for around 17 euros a bottle. I am not aware of other Zinfandels produced in South Africa. In Australia, which also has several regions with the mediterranean-type climate that suits this variety, I only know of Cape Mentelle, in Margaret River, that produces some. There are of course many very great Zinfandels from various parts of California (Lodi, Sonoma, Napa) and some, such as the admirable blended versions from Ridge (Lytton Springs and Geyserville) have proven their capacity to age very well. I have also tasted one from France’s Languedoc region, from Domaine de l’Arjolle, although curiously the variety was not officially authorized in France until very recently, so the producer just called it « Z ».

Here are my tasting notes on this wine:

The colour shows considerable evolution with brownish, brick-red edges. Perhaps normal given the above history. The nose is rich and complex, with cooked fruit and leather as the dominant tendancies. Plum pudding also comes to mind. These aromas are born and lifted by considerable freshness, probably quite volatile. This vivaciousness is equally apparent on the palate, but the fruit is still sufficuently dense and smooth to balance the acidity. This wine feels succulent and rich without being overpowering. Its refinement and silky texture makes me wonder just why we tolerate drinking so many wines whose youth tends to produce adolescent agression from most angles. This wine provided sheer pleasure and we easily finished the bottle between us and worked well afterwards all afternoon and a lot of the evening!