If Zinfandel had a soul mate in the food world it may just be BBQ. Smoked meat and Zin goes together like chocolate and peanut butter. But this isn’t just any Zinfandel, this is a wine from Ridge Vineyards. And that means a LOT.
At a sommelier camp in Sonoma a few years back a bunch of wine experts got together to explore the “best” Zins on the market. The event was held at Ridge Vineyards in Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma. If you aren’t fully versed in Ridge wines, let me give you the answers to the test—they probably make the “best” Zinfandel in the world, or at least in America.
Ridge winemaker, Paul Draper is a living legend in the wine industry. He was hired by the winery in 1969 with no formal training after graduating from Stanford where he studied philosophy. At the somm camp, we were privledged to hear Mr. Draper talk about his, uh, philosophy and inspiration behind winemaking. When he was hired, Ridge Vineyards was “way up in the boonies” north of Healdsburg before California’s wine industry was put on the map in 1976 after the Judgement of Paris.
At that time in California, wines were made in a style that mirrored the old world, especially Bordeaux. In 1969, Mr. Draper tasted a Napa wine from the 1930’s where he had the “aha!” moment. He described how the wine (which was a blend of varietals) set the target of what “good” wine should taste like, which is to say structured and balanced. As California wines got bigger and bigger over the past 50 years, Mr. Draper has stuck to a more traditional (and structured) winemaking style.
Zinfandel of all grapes might be the varietal more than any others where the alochol content has gotten a little out of hand. Personally, I like new world red wines to be in the 13% – 14.5% alchol range. It’s not uncommon to see Zins tip the scales over 15% easily. Draper for his part hasn’t followed the herd. His winemaking style has resulted in wines that are right in the window I like. But that’s me, some folks really like those big, jammy wines which is fine.
Lytton Springs is predominantly Zinfandel, but there’s a few other varietals (hence, Draper’s love of structured blends) including Petite Sirah. To be more precise, Lytton Springs is a field blend. That’s when the winemaking team picks all the grape varietals in the vineyard and mixes the grapes together from the start of the proces where the grapes get crushed on the crush pad. Most wine blends are made where each grape varietal is picked, crushed and fermented seperately. It’s only at the end where the winemaker picks how much of which he or she wants in their wine. A field blend is just a matter of throwing it all together and see what happens.
What happens is epic.
Ridge Vineyard’s Lytton Springs vineyard in Sonoma is one big vineyard with all the grape varietal vines growing together. It’s not a row of Zin and a row of something else. You may have Zin, Carignan and Petite all in one row. Coincidentally, a mile or two away as the crow flies over the 101 Ridge Vineards has another vineyard called Geyserville that has the exact same varietals as the Lytton vineyard with the same percentage of each. Geyserville is another field blend that’s great with BBQ as it’s a fraternal twin.
Well smoked meat such as pork ribs have a tender smokiness which calls for a wine that won’t overpower it, but rather compliment it. BBQ can sometimes have spicy flavors too either from certain BBQ sauces or seasoning on the meat. This is where I love Lytton Springs as the pairing. The rich, dark brooding blackberry sweetness from Petite Sirah is the perfect offset to spicy. And it’s in such small amounts that it’s a supporting cast member rather than overwhelming flavor. The entire wine is nuanced with a fair bit of complexity while young, but true to form a Draper wine will get better with age like a fine Bordeaux.