Z is for zinfandel

Mystery readers everywhere mourn the December passing of Sue Grafton, a master of the genre whose alphabet series debuted in 1982 with "A is for Alibi."

In her 30-plus years penning whodunnits, Grafton made it all the way through Y, but sadly never completed Z. I offer this column as a humble homage.

Another December surprise, this one a delight, is a 2016 Zin dubbed Allegro that cropped up on the DANCIN wine list. DANCIN is a highly regarded Burgundy house, so why Zin? Owner Dan Marca explains that when he and wife, Cindy, were dating they often ordered Zin at restaurants and started a collection of favorite labels. “Zinfandel has always been a part of our lives.”

Marca compares his inaugural 2016 vintage to California Zins from the Sierra Foothills, El Dorado County and Amador County. “With big, luscious fruit, it pairs well with anything Italian and ties into the whole Italian/American program we’re doing. The goal going forward is to do about 50 to 60 percent burgundies, 10 percent syrah and the rest barbera, Zin and sangiovese.”

Allegro (a music term for “fast”) is well named since it went from harvest to glass in only 14 months. Winemaker Brian Denner, now with his own winery Simple Machine, says the fruit had a flavor profile strong enough to stand up to barreling in 25 percent new French oak. He points out that with softer tannins, zinfandel is a varietal that typically doesn’t need extended aging but hits its stride as a young wine.

Zinfandel was generally thought to be Italy’s primitivo using an alias. Indeed, a 2001 DNA study led by Carole Meredith of UC Davis shows that zinfandel and primitivo have a common ancestor from the Dalmatian Coast of Croatia, the crljenak grape. Yes, we definitely need to buy a vowel.

Hungarian immigrant Agoston Haraszthy is credited with bringing the variety to California in the mid- 1800s. That’s where you’ll find the world’s mother lode of Zin today.

Rogue Valley Zin is found on a swatch of raised alluvial terrace known as the Kubli Bench in the Missouri Flat area of the Applegate Valley. Granitic soils that produce softer tannins than the iron-rich red earth prevalent farther north, and a gap in the mountains to the west that pulls in cool coastal air create a pocket perfect for Zin in the Northern Sonoma style.

Dick Troon was the first to plant Zin in the Rogue Valley at his eponymous vineyard established in 1972. Troon’s 2002 Estate Reserve Zin was named Best New World Wine in the 15th Jerry D. Mead’s New World International Wine Competition, perhaps the highest distinction won by an Oregon wine at the time.

Troon’s original Zin block, among the oldest vines in Southern Oregon, was planted by stepdaughter Maggie in 1973 and is still thriving. Cherishing these old vines and burnishing the reputation of the Troon brand is the objective of new general manager Craig Camp and winemaker Steve Hall, whose zinfandel chops earned at Napa’s Robert Biale Vineyards brought him to the project.

Upping the game at Troon begins in the vineyard. In the old Zin block, Hall will drop some trellis wires and switch to traditional head training, producing vines that look like little trees. “A lot of people use cane or cordon pruning for Zin. Head training is more labor intensive, but you get great quality of grapes.” The dynamic duo also seek to add organic and biodynamic certification to Troon’s LIVE credential.

On the production side, Hall has instituted treading (pigéage) instead of mechanical pressing or pump-overs, fermentation with naturally occurring yeast, co-fermentation (achieving a highly integrated blend by fermenting different varieties together) and low intervention (eschewing chemical adds).

Also look for improvements to the grounds and addition of an Air B&B guest house. That said, Camp stresses, “It’s all about the wine.”

On that note, let’s raise a glass of Applegate Valley Zin to Sue.

— What’s your take? Email MJ Daspit at mjdaspitwinot@gmail.com. For more on this topic, check out her Backstory Blog at mjdaspit.com.

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