Monday, June 27, 2011

Zin...In Perfect Balance

By Corey McTaggart

Clouds and fog disappeared from sight in the rear view mirror as I rounded curves of highway into the Applegate Valley. Blue skies are typical in this hidden, yet wide-open microclimate of southern Oregon. Thirty-nine year-old Zinfandel vines are illuminated by sunlight which glows more than 300 days every vintage here.

Dick Troon pulled out a 1980 Zinfandel, dust thick on the bottle, from one of his vineyard’s first harvests. Thirty years later, the wine has continued to age beautifully. Troon, a true pioneer of Oregon wines, has believed in great Zinfandel grown in the Applegate Valley of Southern Oregon for decades. He began planting his vineyard in 1972; the original Troon Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon are now among the oldest vines in the state.

Troon’s history with Zinfandel began on a business trip to the Healdsburg area of California in the late 1960's. A private tour given by the proprietors of Simi Winery revealed how much vineyard selection, attention to detail, and a lot of TLC can do for the grape, and ultimately, the wine. Setting down roots in the Applegate, Troon noted the similarities in vegetation and “a better daylight factor” (sun on the vines an hour longer each day than regions further south), and decided, "if they can do it, we can do it better". Sourcing vines from UC Davis by way of Oregon State University, Troon's methods included dropping enough fruit, including the shoulders of each grape cluster, so that the berries would not so much as touch each other. He explained that this is absolutely essential to avoiding bunch rot. He also noted that the grapes in this region are harvested 30-45 days later than California vineyards. Between the sun, and selective harvest -sometimes three different picking seasons per acre - the fruit ripened to the height of its potential.

The world began to take notice.

At a trade and press tasting in London, 1997, Troon's Zinfandel was the most talked about wine among bottles from some 26 wineries. The participants of a Chicago Tribune tasting of Zinfandels and Primitivos from around the world laughed when they heard of a Zin from Oregon… until they tasted it. Without exception they loved the wine and wanted to know how they might obtain more. Troon, now in his 80s, sold the winery to a friend a few vintages ago and these Zinfandels have continued striking gold (medals), and the highest acclaim, on a global level.

On the expansive patio at Schmidt Family Vineyard, notes of sweet cranberry, tangerine zest, chocolate pudding and clove jumped from a glass of "Zinphony". This 50/50 Zin-Cab Sauvignon blend could be likened to liquid chocolate cake with a drizzle of balsamic and raspberry reduction and finished with just a hint of white pepper. Four generations of the Schmidt family serve guests in a glorious garden and hand-built tasting room of world class beauty.

Schmidt's Zinfandel cuttings were taken from Rex and Sandy Garoutte's vineyard next door, which were planted in 2001, obtained from Joe and Susie Ginet’s Zin, which in turn originated from Dick Troon’s stock. Four doors down from Troon, Dave and Elaine Trump planted a Zinfandel vineyard with cuttings from Troon’s front Zin, and Jacksonville Vineyards sourced their Zin from Trump’s. Shasta View Vineyard in Northern California grows and bottles Zinfandel which stemmed from Troon’s Zin plantings as well.

Up the hill at tiny Wooldridge Creek Winery, club members relaxed and sipped as if part of the extended family. In fact, members purchase most of the Wooldridge Zinfandel as futures before its release each vintage. Ted Warrick, one of the four (all local) owners, planted Zin from Dick Troon’s cuttings in the early 1990's.

As Warrick emphasized, dropping fruit is their recipe for success with Zinfandel as well. The vines will set eight tons to the acre; however, for quality, Wooldridge drops clusters and cultivates only two tons to the acre. Warrick mentioned the vast differences in terroir; the diurnal variation in temperature - hot days and cool nights result in a wine of lower alcohol - 13 to 14 percent. He compared this style, which he mentioned pairs better with food, to wines of 16 percent or more alcohol and jammy, low acid qualities that can develop in hot climates. The enzymes which are necessary to metabolize acids are heat dependent, and when temperatures remain in the 70's at night, the grapes never stop ripening during the wee hours as pH soars and acid continues to plummet.

When the natural acid drops out of the grape before harvest, it must be chemically added in the laboratory. Sometimes this artificial acidulation causes negative physical effects on the consumer.

In contrast, the Applegate Valley Zinfandels retain their own perfect balance, naturally. Troon smiled, with a sparkle in his eye. "My wine will never give you a headache."


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