I'm not really a football fan, but I like to pretend I am. Even if I don't know one team from the next, I enjoy getting caught up in the drama. Especially with good food and wine. So, fans and pretenders, this one's for you: Chili Con Carne with Zinfandel.
Now, chili is a very subjective dish. It is many things to many people. This classic version, with kidney beans and ground meat, is well-spiced and complex, thanks to a touch of unsweetened chocolate, and a dash of chipotle pepper sauce. More flavorful than hot, it pairs well with jammy wines that offer both finesse and power. Chili is great with beer, but a good spicy Zinfandel really raises it’s game.
Often considered America’s best wine grape, Zinfandel is not American at all. It’s a genetic twin to Italy’s Primativo, and most likely a descendant of Croatia’s Cryjenak. Not that it matters, because no place does Zin like Cali. These days, the wines are fruit-forward, ripe and structured with tell tale hints of pepper and cinnamon, but that wasn’t always the case.
Introduced in Long Island in 1822 as a table grape, Zinfandel headed west during the California Gold Rush of the mid 1800’s. With every available resource dedicated to the quest for gold, winemakers needed something low maintenance to supply those thirsty miners. Zinfandel fit the bill because it can grow without costly wires or stakes for the vines. Known as “head pruning”, this technique also eliminated the need for special harvesting equipment.
Easy to grow, easy to pick, fruity and abundant, this was a win-win situation. And indeed, through philloxera, Prohibition and beyond, Zinfandel produced jug after jug of anonymous cheery wine. By the mid 1970’s, however, tastes began to change, so growers began uprooting vines in exchange for the more noble (read profitable) Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. But then the 80’s came along and the ubiquitous grape transformed into White Zinfandel. The huge success of this off-dry rose rescued the grape from oblivion, giving it a second chance at greatness. With the old vines, a vast array of choice locations, and tried and true expertise, California vintners now create world class Zinfandels in a wide variety of styles. Not bad for a miner’s jug wine.
Quality Zinfandels range from crowd pleasing reds with big berry flavors to age worthy wines, layered with spice, dark fruit and hints of chocolate and licorice. Here are a few great choices under fifteen bucks:
• Cline Zinfandel ($10) is packed with flavor, but restrained, great with food.
• Rock River ($11) shows a hint of earthiness with it’s berry fruit. From Joel Gott.
• Peachy Canyon ($11) easy and delicious, a great choice for a crowd.
• Jed Steele’s Shooting Star ($13) is rich, jammy and intense.
To taste what a Zinfandel can really do, you may need to spend a bit more, but fear not, you won’t be disappointed. These are worthy of a championship game.
• Joel Gott ($18), decant this beauty and let it charm you or save it for next season.
• Serghesio Zinfandel, Sonoma ($23) combines old vine sophistication with latest technology.
• Amphora, Dry Creek Valley ($29), complex in structure with flavors of licorice, tobacco, leather.
• Ridge Geyserville, Sonoma ($33) is full-bodied and vibrant with intricate spices.
By the way, this goes for March Madness, too.