Mike Dunne: Russian River Valley's 'Ponzo' a great zinfandel

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 3D

As an officially recognized American Viticultural Area, the Russian River Valley in Sonoma County keeps growing, much to the alarm of grape growers and winemakers who subscribe to the view that the smaller an appellation, the better.

Their reasoning makes sense: The more acres an American Viticultural Area includes, the less likely its wines will reflect meaningfully an enclave's distinctive growing conditions.

Since it originally was established in 1983, the Russian River Valley appellation has grown to encompass 160,028 acres. This includes 14,044 acres federal officials added late last year at the urging of Gallo Family Vineyards, which has vineyards that would benefit by the added prestige of being included in the newly revised Russian River Valley designation.

Federal officials acknowledged that comments from interested parties – mostly other grape growers and winemakers in the area – "overwhelmingly" opposed the proposed expansion.

Nevertheless, they approved Gallo's petition on the grounds that information concerning such issues as watershed, climate and fog supported rather than effectively argued against adding the acreage to the appellation.

In the meantime, the Russian River Valley looks to be growing in another way – as an appellation respected for kinds of wines other than chardonnay and pinot noir, the varietals that have been largely responsible for the region's high standing among wine enthusiasts.

In recent years, I've been struck by the impressive showing of Russian River Valley petite sirahs on the competition circuit.

Then, at a trade tasting last fall, I was delighted by a zinfandel from the Russian River Valley that seized with unusual spunk, equilibrium and expressiveness the varietal's classic fresh raspberry flavor and peppery spice.

It was the Ridge Vineyards 2009 Russian River Valley Ponzo Zinfandel. I liked it so much I picked up a bottle for the Thanksgiving table, where it showed itself to be a wonderfully versatile player, providing as much refreshing spirit with the fried turkey as with the vegan stew.

Ridge Vineyards of Cupertino, of course, has shown over the past 50 years that zinfandel is as worthy a grape as cabernet sauvignon to be taken seriously and treated respectfully. Ridge has made and continues to make zinfandels from choice vineyards all over California, including the Dry Creek Valley in Sonoma County, Spring Mountain in Napa Valley, and Paso Robles.

The Ponzo is the only zinfandel that Ridge makes from Russian River Valley. The winery has been making a Ponzo zinfandel since the 2002 vintage. The name "Ponzo" is for the Ponzo family, which has been farming vineyards in the north part of the state since before Prohibition. Specifically, Bob Ponzo provides Ridge with grapes from his vineyard at the northern reaches of the Russian River Valley appellation.

The Ponzo vineyard, just south of Healdsburg, consists of three blocks of grapes, two of them young (planted in the 1990s), one of them older (planted in 1952). Ridge's Ponzo zinfandel is made with grapes from the older plot, which also includes interplantings of petite sirah, which accounts for 2 percent of the finished wine.

The Russian River Valley, noted Paul Draper, Ridge's longtime winemaker, is much cooler than the nearby Lytton Springs and Geyserville districts, where he also secures zinfandel grapes. In the Russian River Valley, the morning fog moves in earlier and burns off later. The vineyard, however, is in the warmer stretches of the Russian River Valley appellation.

That combination of cooling fog and overall warmth slowly and fully develops the grapes while also retaining their acidity, accounting for the zest that sets apart the Ponzo from many other zinfandels.

Draper is careful not to apply too much new wood to the wine. It was aged entirely in American oak barrels, only 20 percent of which were new; the rest ranged from 1-year-old to 5-year-old barrels.

"We don't ever want to overoak zinfandel. We want its fruit to show through," said Draper.

And that it does, providing a zinfandel that while dry nonetheless comes across as sweetly fruity, with a complexity that while bright with raspberries also folds in suggestions of cranberries, currants and plums, all topped with a sprinkling of black pepper. The wine's build feels more lean than thick, its finish refreshingly tangy.

Ridge Vineyards

2009 Russian River Valley Ponzo Zinfandel

By the numbers: 14.8 percent alcohol, 3,000 cases, $28

Context: In noting that the Ponzo is one of Ridge's richer and riper zinfandels, winemaker Paul Draper suggests that it be paired with hearty beef and pasta dishes.

Availability: I found the Ponzo at the new Sacramento branch of Total Wine & More, but check first to make sure it's still in stock, as supplies were low at the time of my purchase. The wine also can be ordered through the winery's website, www.ridgewine.com.

Information: Ridge Vineyards has two tasting rooms, one at 17100 Monte Bello Road, Cupertino, open 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, the other at 650 Lytton Springs Road, Healdsburg, open 11 a.m.-4 p.m. daily.

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