Dunne on Wine

Dunne on Wine: This Thanksgiving, set the table with zinfandel

Scott Harvey gestures in the vineyard in Shenandoah Valley that provides grapes for his Vineyard 1869 zinfandel.
Scott Harvey gestures in the vineyard in Shenandoah Valley that provides grapes for his Vineyard 1869 zinfandel.

The traditional Thanksgiving practice in our household is to set the table with a bottle of each of the varietal wines most at ease with the wide range of weights and flavors in the customary holiday meal – zinfandel, pinot noir and riesling.

This year, I’m tweaking that approach and going solely with zinfandel. This modification is motivated in part by my belief that the most American of holidays should be recognized with the most American of wines.

Beyond that, I have other reasons to go only with zinfandel. For one, on the competition circuit this year I’ve come across a disproportionate number of outstanding zinfandels. Secondly, Sacramento abuts two of the premier zinfandel regions in the state, the Sierra foothills and Lodi – so why not keep the decision close to home in this era of locavorism? And finally, zinfandel remains one of the more versatile of wines at the table, as appropriate for the lightness of a roasted turkey with mild cornbread dressing as the richness of a sweet-potato casserole with praline topping.

At any rate, here are several of my favorite zinfandels that should be available in the Sacramento market, arranged from lighter to heavier:

▪ Terra d’Oro’s Montevina 2012 Amador County Skyland Ridge Zinfandel ($12): Voted the best Amador zinfandel at this summer’s Amador County Fair Wine Competition, the wine is round, smooth, easily accessible and stuffed with fat, juicy blackberries. The vanilla and smoke of its oak will go just dandy with the juiciness and char of a brined and deep-fried turkey. If the 2012 has been succeeded by the 2013 in your neighborhood store, go for it, given the consistency that winemaker Chris Leamy brings to the brand.

▪ Torn Winery 2013 Lodi Old Vine Zinfandel ($10): Of the 30 Lodi zinfandels our panel tasted at the TexSom International Wine Awards in Dallas in February, this was the only one on which we agreed unanimously that it warranted a gold medal. It’s a beauty – sleek, fresh and focused, with uplifting blackberry fruit, refreshing acidity and spice from the clove family. Please pass that cranberry and fig sauce.

▪ Lange Twins 2012 Lodi Estate Zinfandel ($15): After first tasting this wine at the winery this spring, I wrote that it was “the most noble yet vigorous zinfandel that winemaker David Akiyoshi has turned out at Lange Twins.” Several months later, that view was reinforced when I tasted it again. It has zinfandel’s classic berry aromas and prickly spice, well-integrated oak, a lean yet athletic build, and a lingering finish that draws you back for taste after taste. Grill or smoke that turkey and accompany it with a dressing of pork, raisins and chili peppers; this zinfandel has the spunk and depth to go the distance.

▪ Scott Harvey Wines 2012 Amador County Vineyard 1869 Zinfandel ($45): During a tour of winery tasting rooms in Sutter Creek this summer, this was my favorite discovery for its uncommon combination of brightness, spirit, elegance and fidelity to zinfandel’s signature characteristics of fresh berry fruit, diverting spice and sharp acidity, all in one cohesive package. This and a big, meaty turkey leg is all any Thanksgiving guest would want.

▪ Boeger Winery 2013 El Dorado Estate Zinfandel ($19): Zinfandels of this much nuance, balance and surprise aren’t supposed to carry so much alcohol (15 percent), but that’s the nature of zinfandels from the higher elevations of El Dorado County. It won a gold medal at this summer’s Long Beach Grand Cru, where my notes simply said: “For tradition, directness and equilibrium, this zinfandel couldn’t be more on target.” It has the fruit, body and acid to pair with everything from a spinach, pear and Parmesan salad to green beans finished with mushrooms and bacon.

▪ Terra d’Oro 2013 Amador County Deaver Vineyard Zinfandel ($30): An exceptionally refined interpretation of Deaver Vineyards, which traditionally yields zinfandels more rugged. However, the 2013, winner of a silver medal at TexSom (though I voted gold) is seductively fresh, spicy and long, combining both power and grace. It will be right at home with a mushroom or squash soup.

▪ La Chertosa Old World Wines 2012 Amador County Reserve Zinfandel ($35): Winner of a silver medal at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition in January, the wine is husky, concentrated and rich with the ripe boysenberry fruit associated with Amador County. It has the structure, tannin and jamminess to go as well with the candied yams topped with tiny toasted marshmallows that accompany the main course.

▪ Prospect Cellars 2012 Amador County Pay Dirt Zinfandel ($24): Talk about tradition. This is strictly old-time Amador County zinfandel, a throwback to the days when Shenandoah Valley was known for one ripe, robust and high-octane style of zinfandel. Winner of a gold medal at the California State Fair Wine Competition in June, it is more late-harvest than table-wine for its intensity, muscularity, sweetness and alcohol (15.1 percent). Don’t hesitate to pair it with a stuffing of andouille sausage, or even pumpkin pie.

Enjoy! The kinds of dishes mentioned here, incidentally, are from my favorite Thanksgiving cookbooks, “Thanksgiving 101” by Rick Rodgers (Broadway Books, $15, 165 pages) and “The Thanksgiving Table” by Diane Morgan (Chronicle Books, $19, 192 pages).

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 dmichaeldunne@gmail.com.

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