By history and by reputation, Lodi is zinfandel country, even though more of the region’s approximately 110,000 acres of vines are planted to cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay. That’s just a measure of how popular cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay are in the marketplace. In the glass, on the other hand, Lodi is more highly regarded for zinfandel.
That standing was reinforced in February at the TexSom International Wine Awards, a Texas wine competition in which classes are organized by region as well as by varietal or style. My panel the first day had the 30 entries grouped in the class “Lodi Zinfandel.”
As we made our way through the class, no one was surprised by the heft and power of so many of the dark, jammy and often surprisingly complex wines. Several weighed in at more than 15 percent alcohol, but several also were in the 13 percent neighborhood. Those that we tended to mark down were just too dense with the vanillin, tannin and char of oak-barrel aging. Blustery zinfandel can handle a fair amount of wood, but too often winemakers over-exploited oak.
Of the 30 zinfandels, we gave three gold medals, a respectable proportion, though going in I would have guessed we would have handed out more, given Lodi’s standing for zinfandel. Our panel also was assigned the cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay classes from Lodi. There weren’t many – 15 cabernet sauvignons, five chardonnays – and none was deemed worthy of gold.
I also visited several of the Lodi area’s 70 wineries. Here’s an introduction to the most impressive Lodi wines I’ve tasted lately:
Torn Winery 2013 Lodi Old Vine Zinfandel ($10): This was the only one on which the Texas panel agreed unanimously that it warranted a gold medal. It packs 14.5 percent alcohol, but tastes fresh and buoyant, with focused blackberry fruit, a sleek structure, and a generous serving of spice from the clove family.
Folie à Deux 2012 Lodi Ménage à Trois Zinfandel ($14): This sunny and agile zinfandel took a gold medal in Texas. It can be called floral, fruity, lean, graceful and, by Lodi standards, low in alcohol, coming in at just under 14 percent.
Oak Ridge Winery 2012 Old Zin Vines Lodi Zinfandel ($10): This was our third gold medal at TexSom. It’s plush with berry fruit, readily approachable for its benign tannins, and with a sweetness that rounds off the edges and perks up the flavor.
Oak Farm Vineyards 2012 Lodi Wegat Vineyard Zinfandel ($29): OK, so it has 15 percent alcohol, but it also has the rollicking juice, the solid structure and the ample oak to carry and deliver it without scorching heat. This is one delicious zinfandel, its lush blackberry and raspberry fruit laced with a thread of herbalness that heightens its appeal through the added complexity. Tasted at the winery.
Harney Lane 2011 Lodi Estate Zinfandel ($22): Harney Lane produces a zinfandel made from the Lizzy James Vineyard planted in 1904, but for character and value I preferred this release from its own estate. The color is brilliant, the fruit flavors juicy and the overall impression running more to the briars and spice that says Lodi zinfandel. Tasted at the winery.
Lange Twins Caricature 2012 Lodi Old Vine Zinfandel ($15): This wine is an exceptionally friendly take on old-vine zinfandel. The color may be lighter than usual for a Lodi zinfandel, but deep fruit flavors representative of the berry family, a touch of sweetness from the barrels in which the wine was aged, and a dash of pepper spice add up to a faithful take on the genre.
Lange Twins 2012 Lodi Estate Zinfandel ($13/$15): Another high-value release from Lange Twins, this one is drier, spicier, more leanly structured and more representative of the sunshine that can be seized in zinfandel when it is grown attentively at Lodi. A thread of anise only intensifies the wine’s allure. By far, the most noble yet vigorous zinfandel that winemaker David Akiyoshi has turned out at Lange Twins.
Mettler Family Vineyards 2012 Lodi Cabernet Sauvignon ($25): While this cabernet sauvignon includes 12 percent petite sirah, it easily could be taken for a dry, direct and supple representative of Bordeaux, given its cherry and plummy fruit, modest tannins, toasty oak and sharp acidity. Tasted at the winery.
Lange Twins 2011 Lodi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($30): In Texas this got a bronze medal, though I voted gold for its finesse, lingering finish and evocation of spring Bing cherries. At the winery, I also noted currents of black and green tea.
Oak Farm Vineyards 2012 Lodi Clements Hills Cabernet Sauvignon ($28): Anyone who likes their cabernet sauvignon shot through with suggestions of eucalyptus and mint will love this interpretation. Tasted at the winery.
Bokisch Vineyards 2014 Lodi Borden Ranch Vista Luna Vineyard Verdelho ($18). This verdelho is a perfect summer wine – dry, fruity, spicy and vivid with totally natural acidity.
Borra Vineyards 2014 Lodi Borden Ranch Gill Creek Ranch Vermentino ($22): For its dryness, leanness and zippy acidity, this is a wine to pair with shellfish.
Markus Wine Co. 2013 Lodi Mokelumne Glen Vineyards Nimmo ($22): Everything about the wine is unusual, starting with its blend: 69 percent kerner, a German grape variety rarely cultivated in California with gewürztraminer, riesling and bacchus. The forward aroma and flavor is all tangerine and peach, with notes of caramel and smoke.
Fields Family Wines 2013 Lodi Mokelumne River Postage Stamp Vineyard Shiraz ($32): This shiraz has plush fruit and peppery spice with a beguiling note of eucalyptus.
Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at email@example.com.