WINE SCHOOL 29 September 2014 - 5 October 2014

REGION: USA > California > Napa Valley

Prolific, prodigious and prestigious, Napa Valley is the epicentre of the American wine industry. Beginning at the small town of Napa, it is possible to trace a near continuous northwesterly path along the valley for 40 miles without leaving land turned over to viticulture. Climate and soil types can vary quite dramatically and there are now 16 officially designated sub-regions (American Viticultural Areas, or AVAs) designed to reflect and protect this diversity of terroir.

Key red grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Shiraz, Pinot Noir, Merlot
Key white grapes: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc


GRAPE: Zinfandel

As is befitting the grape variety that has found its spiritual home in California - alongside Giant Redwoods, the Golden Gate Bridge and the dramatic vertical granite rocks of Yosemite National Park - Zinfandel makes massive, towering, arresting wines. Zinfandel wines are like Hollywood blockbusters - yes, the lowest examples may be bombastic, superficial and syrupy sweet but, given the right pedigree, they can also be heady, hedonistic, alluring and irresistable.

DNA profiling has traced the grape's origins first to Puglia, southern Italy (where it is known as Primitivo) and then back to the ancient Croatian variety Crljenak Kaštelanski. It is believed that the vine was imported to New England from Europe in 1829 by George Gibbs, a horticulturalist and mineralogist from Long Island. In the 1850s Zinfandel journeyed west to California as part of the growing agricultural activity driven by the thousands of economic migrants of the Gold Rush. By the end of the 19th century Zinfandel occupied a prominent position in the Californian wine industry. The huge popularity of White Zinfandel (a bland, pale rose summer quaffer) led to a big increase in plantings in the late 20th century and by 2005 Zinfandel was the second most planted red wine grape in the State, after Cabernet Sauvignon.

Structurally, Zinfandel wines resemble super-ripe Shiraz: high sugars and alcohol with medium-low acids and tannins. Zinfandel needs a long warm growing season to achieve its potential - too much heat and the sugars obliterate all else. It can display quite a broad palate of aromas depending on how it has ripened and when it has been harvested: raspberries and redcurrants, blackberries and plums, through to raisins and prunes. Notes of leather, tar and spice may also be present (often in Primitivo).

A shortage of acids and tannins means that most Zinfandel is best drunk within four or five years of bottling. Older vines, lower yields and careful winemaking can lead to age-worthy wines, such as the classy, complex and harmonius wines created by Paul Draper of Ridge Vineyards.

SYNONYMS: Crljenak Kaštelanski (Croatia), Kratosija (Macedonia, Montenegro), Primitivo (Italy)

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Next week in WINE SCHOOL: Yecla (Spain) & Macabeo

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