Saturday, October 25, 2008

A SavvyTaste Wine Guide: All About Big Red Wines [Mac McCarthy]

Here is some general guidance to the world of Big Reds. If you love big, intense red wines, read on!

Big Reds are dense, highly "extracted," meaning intensely flavored, often "jammy" to the point of seeming like liquid jam, with some deep sweet undertone--not like cheap sweet white zin, mind you, but a sweet note you'll never forget!

The main Big Red Wines are:


Zinfandel is the Original. Zins are capable of being very big, and Rosenblum makes some of the biggest. It has something to do with its being a grape that ripens late in the season, and by the time its ready to pick it's a lot riper and thus fuller of flavor and sugar than many other grape types. That much sugar results in a high-alcohol wine -- I don't notice it because my taste buds are shot at my age, but some find these style wines too "hot" or alcoholic for them.

Rosenblum is one of the leaders in the ZAP movement (Zinfandel Appreciators and Producers) that over the past fifteen years has rescued Zinfandel from its reputation ruined by White Zin. Rosenblum makes some of the very biggest Zins in the world.

Rockpile Road is an actual place, near Napa Valley, that produces some of the most amazingly dense, fruit-forward, jammy, sweet grapes in the world. I think it's Rosenblum's best Zin. Other winemakers get great zins from Rockpile too, and another winemaker produces a Syrah from Rockpile Road and it, too, is dense and sweet. It's my overall favorite.

Lyons is another big boy, and it never disappoints me. It's fullbodied and rounded. And Carla's is one of Rosenblum's wines with a woman grower's name on it (along with Annette's and Maggie's), leading to the rule: If it's a Rosenblum named after a woman, it's a great wine! Carla's is more approachable than Rockpile, so people who don't necessarily like really big wines can still drink it.

Other top-drawer, gigantic Rosenblum Zins include Cullinane, Monte Rosso, and Snow's Lake--which when I had a bottle recently made me wonder if it was not maybe even better than the Rockpile--which I would have thought impossible to achieve!

Other heavy-duty wineries making great Zins are JC Cellars, Dashe Cellars, D-Cubed of Calistoga, Five Vintners, R&B Cellars "Swingsville," Red Skye, Villa Toscano, and Wood Family.

Also generally good are Zins from winemakers Cline, Concannon, Franus, Galleron, Inspiration, and Makor.

Problem: Many of these wines are not widely available outside California. Partly this is because they don't make enough of them, partly it's because in the rest of the country there's still that weird idea that Zin means White Zin, so it's hard to make people understand that nothing could be more different from a white Zin than a red Zin! (There really are huge advantages living in California if you love wine.)

There are also a few Zins made in a lighter style, less intense, but also easier and more approachable for those who haven't gotten the hang of gigantic reds. Even Rosenblum makes one, its "Cuvee" Zinfandel. 7 Deadly Zins, despite its ripsnortin' name, is a nice mild-style wine that's easy to drink and easy to like. Some Zins from Napa Valley are made "Bordeaux" style, or less intense. Give them a try.

Oddly enough, a strange rule of thumb seems to have arisen in the Zin world, as the marketing people have latched onto its growing popularity: Knowing early-adopter Zin lovers are smitten with the big, brutal intensity of Zins, they'll take minor wineries with mild Zins and slap fierce-souding labels on them. So the rule becomes: The more ferocious the name of the Zin, the milder it actually tastes.

So the 7 Deadly Zins, above, which is a tasty wine, is not however a big fat Zin; it's an easy-drinking, quite tasty one though. Others include Earthquake Zin and Cardinal Zin (get it? great label, too!). These are not the big, chewy, aggressive Zins you might be lured into thinking by those nifty labels. Still, they are drinkable, usually. Just don't think you're buying Big Red.

Syrah is one of those grapes that can be made in any style, from very mild, to ferocious enough to go toe-to-toe with Zin. Personally I like the super-big California Syrahs; others like the mild French Syrahs made where the summers are too short to make a big one, so they blend it with several other grapes to make red Rhone wines (which are in the Light Reds category).

Good California makers of big Syrahs include Rosenblum (England Shaw, and Rockpile Syrah), JC Cellars (especially their Rockpile Road Syrah) and Lost Canyon Winery of Oakland, Wood Family of Livermore, Leal, Nickle & Nickle, Qupe (whose Syrahs are milder but quite tasty), R&B Cellars, and a Berkeley winery with the Japanese-sounding name San Sakana. The growing interest in Syrahs is producing more choices with every passing year; the variety of styles makes testing this grape a fun thing.

Petite Syrah, an entirely different grape unrelated to Syrah, comes in wildly varied taste styles, so it requires trial and error. Some of them are huge. I find a bitter note in many that puts me off, but others are terrific. Longevity makes a very drinkable Petit Syrah.

Cabernet is the original Big Red Wine--though there are certainly lots thin Cabs out there. Worse, the longstanding reputation of Cabs as The Serious Wine (from Napa and as the basic wine in certain Bordeaux) means you will find many Cabs are overpriced for what you taste, while the cheap ones just taste cheap. You can just let somebody else buy the Cabs for your tastings until you find one you like. Or you can use the SavvyTaste Find a Wine system to figure out which Cabs match your taste preferences (for big or for light).

Reds made in Sicily can be wonderfully brutal. They have a grape called, appropriately, Primitivo, that will remind you a lot of Zinfandel, for all the right reasons. Prices aren't as low as you'd expect, though. But if somebody is serving a Primitivo, your big-red-loving eyes should light up; make sure you're in the front of the line.

1 comment:

Jo said...

Petite Sirah IS related to Syrah. It's a cross between Syrah and Peloursin, and that happened in 1880 by Francois Durif. Durif originally called the cultivar Durif. Petite Sirah is also considered a Rhone variety. You can read more about Petite Sirah at my advocacy's Website: This is a very common misunderstanding. As the group's founder and executive director, I find myself constantly trying to correct this misunderstand. Thanks for letting me use your platform for doing this. --jo diaz