Friday, November 23, 2007

Last Night's Tipple

Thanksgiving is the second most distinctively American of holidays (July 4, Independence Day, would be the most distinctively American), and, as such, it seems appropriate to me to consume American wine with Thanksgiving dinner. Ridge Geyserville is nothing if not an American wine. Ridge's Monte Bello winery in the Santa Cruz Mountains dates back to 1885. Their Lytton Springs winery, where Geyserville is produced and aged, is in Sonoma County. Where most other American wineries with pretensions of greatness ape the French by aging their wines in French oak, Ridge uses American oak, even for their top-of-the-line Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon, which is on just about everybody's short list for the best wine produced in the United States and as one of the great wines of the world. And consider the grapes that are used to make Geyserville: the 2005 Geyserville that I had is 77% Zinfandel, 17% Carignane (notice the American spelling), and 6% Petite Sirah. Petite Sirah has long been an important blending grape in California, capable of adding tannic backbone to wines. It's known as Durif in France, and it has never achieved the importance there that it has here. Carignane likewise has featured prominently in American blends for decades, and American vintners know that it can produce very good wine when it comes from properly-tended old vines. In France, known as Carignan, it has been a prominent component in the oceans of rot-gut vins de table pouring out of the Midi since the late 19th Century. Only recently have the French begun to acknowledge what Americans have known for a long time: that Carignan can produce good wine if it's cultivated vinified properly.

And then there's Zinfandel. It's as American as a vitis vinifera (ie, the European/Near East wine-producing grape species) can possibly be. Only in the United States has it achieved greatness and prominence. Heck, only in the United States is it known as Zinfandel. Zinfandel grapes were first cultivated in Long Island greenhouses in the first half of the 19th Century as table grapes. They were transplanted to California, were widely planted, and were used to improve and replace the insipid wine made from the Mission grapes that had been current in California since the 18th Century. And they flourished. Zinfandel, like Petite Sirah and Carignane, was an important component in the blends produced by California winemakers in the second half of the 19th Century and throughout the 20th Century. In fact, as often as not, the three grape varieties shared the same vineyards with each other. Recent research has indicated that the Zinfandel grape originated in Croatia, where it is known as the Crljenak Kaštelanski. It is also planted in southern Italy, where it is known as the Primitivo, but those plantings postdate the California plantings by many years. It's a minor grape producing indifferent wine in Croatia and Italy. It's a major grape capable of producing great wine in the United States.

Geyserville is the name of a vineyard in the Alexander Valley of Sonoma County. When Ridge first began to expand its production outside of the grapes on Monte Bello Ridge, Geyserville was one of the first vineyards that they used; and they used it because it was in a perfect microclimate for viticulture and because it had an abundance of high-quality old vines. Ridge Geyserville has always been predominantly Zinfandel, but the vineyard has always included other grapes, like Petite Sirah and Carignane (also Mataro, Alicante, and others); and, in keeping with Ridge's winemaking philosophy, so has the finished Geyserville wine. The blend will vary from year to year; and in many years, it won't have the 75% Zinfandel that the US government requires for the wine to be labeled as Zinfandel. Consequently, Geyserville is never labeled as Zinfandel, even in years, like 2005, when it has enough Zin to qualify.

This is a wonderful wine. I don't claim to be a wine expert or to have a great palate, but it was just what my Thanksgiving steak needed. It's not a little wine -- nothing that's 14.6% alcohol could ever be called little -- but it did not overpower the food. Instead, it provided a nice complement to it. There was a good bit of tannic bite and a lot of raspberry aromas and flavors. The flavors were intense, but it was not over-extracted or syrupy. An outstanding wine. It's not inexpensive (I paid $30 for the bottle), but, for me, it was worth it.

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