St. Helena Zinfandel sets itself apart with distinctive regional characteristics
by Alan Goldfarb, Napa Regional Editor
In a California awash with Zinfandels from just about every nook and cranny of the state, St. Helena winemakers seek to identify the individuality of their own version of California’s “official” grape.
Pepper is evident in St. Helena Zinfandels, but in addition to the black variety, there’s a slightly milder white pepper characteristic. St. Helena Zins are less jammy and briary, tending to have red fruit such as strawberry and cherry. Additionally, the Zins of this upper valley appellation have softer tannins and structure than their counterparts in other appellations.
see Alan Goldfarb’s supplementing article:
St. Helena Viticultural Area – historical development and physical characteristics
On June 22, 2006, on what was the hottest day of the year to date, with temperatures hovering around 100 degrees, AppellationAmerica’s St. Helena Discovery Panel met at Vineyard 29 winery, north of St. Helena, to taste a selection of the appellation’s Cabernets and Zinfandels from the 2003 vintage.
(note: to see the results of the Cabernet portion of this tasting, click here)
A total of 13 Cabernet-based wines and seven Zinfandels were on hand for the exercise. In an attempt to identify some common regional characteristics, the wines were tasted blind and scrutinized in three stages as outlined here:
1.) An independent organoleptic assessment to determine the overall quality and characteristics of each wine;
2.) Group discussion to coalesce and synthesize an appellation identity based on the dominant terroir and stylistic patterns found in the wines;
3.) Identify the “Signature” wines of the appellation by voting (blind) for the wines, if any, that best represent what St. Helena Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel should taste like when measured against the findings from Stage 2.
Overview of the 2003 vintage
The unpredictable nature of the 2003 growing season began with a series of early heat spikes in March, followed by the wettest April on record.
A long cool summer allowed the fruit flavors to evolve beautifully ahead of the sugar accumulation. Because of the cooler-than-normal weather into the third week of August, which saw temperatures fall to 49 degrees at night, the Cabernet in St. Helena managed to finish veraison (coloring) by August 20.
The end of the month brought ideal fruit-ripening temperatures that spiked at about 99 degrees but hovered in the high 80s, enabling growers to begin sampling their Cab fruit. The Zin on the other hand, started coming in during the second week of September, while the sugar levels in the Cabs began to creep into the 22-24 Brix range. Heat spikes in September helped move the harvest forward after many felt it would be a late year.
By September 24, after 11 days of temperatures that climbed into the 100s, the Cabs began reaching their optimum levels and the crush was on.
But by the beginning of October, only about half the tonnage was in due to a cool front that had moved in, and by the middle of the month, temperatures were dropping to 36 degrees, never getting higher than 80. The result was that the vines shut down, the sugars slowed and the pH counts moved into normal range. In this uneven year, the harvest stretched into early November – a late year in St. Helena, the warmest AVA in the Napa Valley.
In the final analysis, this roller coaster vintage produced some uneven wines but if one cherry picks from top producers, one can find wines of elegance with silky extraction and luscious forward fruit.
Technical Analysis of the 2003 St. Helena Zinfandels
(According to the technical data submitted with each entry.)
- Five of the seven wines of the fight were comprised of 100 percent Zinfandel. The other two wines were not technically Zinfandel, but were allowed to be included in the flight. One of those wines was a Primitivo (that also included 13% Petite Sirah and 3% Cabernet Sauvignon). The other wine was comprised of just 50% Zinfandel, with 22% Petite Sirah, 10% Mourvèdre, 7% Carignane, 4.5% Grenache, 4.5% Syrah, and 2% Alicante Bouchet rounding out the blend.
- The age of the vines ranged from 3 years to “very old,” with most in the 30- to 50-year-old category.
- The Brix or sugar levels at harvest ranged from 22.9 to 29 percent.
- Most used French oak barrels with the highest percentage of new wood ranging from 22 to 50 percent new; while three wines were fermented in American oak, one of which was 100 percent new. That wine, later voted an “Appellation Signature”, also spent the most time in barrel – 27 months, and was the most expensive -- $75.
- The final listed alcohol percentages ranged from 14.8 to 16.3 percent.
- The wines ranged in suggested retail price from $25 to $75.
To date, there hasn’t been a definitive and/or comprehensive character profile of California Zinfandels. The Zins from the east side of Paso Robles and from the Amador Foothills are considered to be some of the best of their type in California. An argument could be made for the Zins emerging from the Dry Creek or the Russian River valleys of Sonoma. Zinfandels from the Napa Valley too, have their loyalists.
But what distinguishes this varietal that the California legislature has deemed – incredulously – as California’s official grape variety?
Black pepper comes immediately to mind. Indeed, when trying to get at a definitive descriptor of the seven Zinfandels in the flight tasted on June 22 at Vineyard 29, the task was daunting. Nonetheless, the five panelists came up with some characteristics that may be recognized as the signature of St. Helena Zinfandels in the future.
The pepper was there all right, but in addition to the black variety, the panel agreed that a slightly milder form – or white pepper – was prevalent in those St. Helena wines.
“Napa Zins have pepper but the Zins from Dry Creek or the Russian River tend to be more jammy and briary,” said one panelist. “But we get redder fruits – strawberry and cher