I’ve been having fun experimenting with Zinfandels lately. I found that the key to this experiment is to chose from reputable wineries who reside in the heart of Zinfandel heaven (Sonoma). This may mean gazing your eyes upward in the wine aisle, and it may mean stretching that price limit a few dollars higher. But I say to you, as an average wine consumer who’s in the throws of discovering what “good wine” really means, it’s worth it. And St. Francis Zinfandel? It’s totally worth it.

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About the Wine: St. Francis Sonoma County “Old Vines” Zinfandel is made from 86% Zinfandel, 7% Petite Sirah, 6% Mixed Blacks, and 1% Mouvedre. The grapes de-stemmed, crushed, then cold-soaked for three days. After the soak, the grapes are treated with different yeast strains then are fermented in separate batches. The wine goes through malolactic fermentation in 100% French Oak barrels (I’m guessing a mix of new and seasoned based on scent and flavor) where it ages for sixteen months before the final blending and bottling.

My initial question when I read the wine label was why is “Old Vines” in quotation marks? My next question was, what does “Mixed Blacks” mean? Turns out, my second question answered my first. “Mixed Blacks” refers to a vineyard lot with a mix of grape varietals (ok, when you say it out loud you’re kind of like, ‘duh’) that specifically contribute to Zinfandel winemaking. I found a quote from Joel Peterson, founder of Ravenswood Winery, that explains this quite clearly:

When I committed myself to making old vine zinfandel, I was unwittingly committing myself to making interplanted field blends. The more time I spent walking the vineyards and talking to the “old timers,” the more I became aware of the presence of these interloping wines in the zin mix. The “old timers” would refer to a block of grapes in the plural. If they said zinfandels I knew it was a mixed black block.

Now, I never quite put this together until just now but the best Zinfandels (specifically the best Zinfandels from Sonoma) are actually blends. And for those winemakers who are well seasoned in this field, well it seems they keep a block lot in their vineyards specifically for the blending grapes. This is a technique that dates back to the 1800s, before lots were actually separated by varietal. And what these blending grapes contribute to are those heartier red wine characteristics that many refer to as “Old Vine” Zin. Often times, the vines themselves are not that old, however St. Francis Winery states, “The grapes in our Sonoma County ‘Old Vines’ Zinfandel come from vineyards in Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma Valley, Russian River Valley, and Alexander Valley. These head-pruned and dry-farmed vines range in age from 55 to more than 100 years old.”

Flavor Profile: As you pour the wine, your initial reaction will be “thick and inky.” But take a closer look, in the light, over white — you know what to do. Do you see that tinge of pink around the perimeter? There’s an aura around this wine that hints at its inner beauty. The smell is luscious with a warmth that permeates the nostrils, the lungs, the soul. It’s always beautiful when you can smell the fruit in a wine, but I find it even more attractive when the nose holds onto extra elements as well. In this case, the earth and the oak take a center stage in those initial aromas, getting me even more excited to take that first sip.

A mixture of dark berries (blackberries, boysenberries) will grab hold at first. But these only pave the way for the depth of the darker flavors: a bit of damp earth, dark wood, is that cigar I’m sensing? And then a long and luxurious finish filled with herbaceous spices (black pepper, dried chili, even tobacco).

It’s mouthwatering from start to finish, but because of that barrel aging, that malolactic fermentation, and that perfect ratio of grape varietals that make up this Zinfandel “blend,” the mouthfeel is soft, smooth…kinda sexy soft. There’s enough tannins to give the wine a full, voluptuous body, but they’re subtle enough to keep the tastebuds moist.

Food Pairing: If ever a wine called for a thick tomato sauce, this is the wine. Pair this wine with a tomato-sauce-enduced pizza, a thick bolognese pasta, a herb-happy and spice-filled lasagna. Do you get my point? The acidity in the tomato will do well to cut through the wine, but ultimately it’s the herbs and spices that will get the St. Francis Zinfandel really talking to you.

More Info: This is my first review of St. Francis Winery (though I have visited their estate — lovely!), and I’m encouraged to sample more. In fact, I believe there’s a Pinot in my cellar, just waiting to be opened!

Of course, for more information about the winery and their wines, please do visit the St. Francis Winery website. I purchased the St. Francis “Old Vines” Zinfandel at Safeway (Sale Price: $15.99)


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