THE YEAR'S BEST
  Each issue Wine & Spirits focuses on one variety or group of related wines and selects the ten best wines in that category for the year.

October 2001

Over the last twelve months, Wine & Spirits tasted 303 Zinfandel. The following wines received the strongest praise from our critics. A list of all Zinfandel tasted, with the recommended wines highlighted, is included with subscription copies.

Zinfandel
96 I Gary Farrell $36.00
1999 Dry Creek Valley Tina's Block Maple Vineyard Zinfandel

I'd do bad things to get this wine in my cellar. Like not telling you about how much it tastes of fresh fruit off the tree, fresh berries off the vine, a branch of cherries, a laden blueberry bush, a pricker of raspberries. Like sparing you all the superlatives in my notes (tres glorieux, so elegant, heady, lasting, the scent and savor of old vine fruit, the natural complexity, the endless length). But I can't remain mute for long. Get a case of this wine before it's all gone. Then take a bottle to your friend in Paris and show him what a great California wine is all about. Gary Farrell, Healdsburg, CA.
 

 
96 I Ridge $30
1999 Sonoma County Lytton Springs Zinfandel

A classic vintage at Lytton Springs, this '99 frames all the complexities offered up by the ancient vines on these rolling, Dry Creek Valley hills. The field blend of zinfandel with petite sirah (17 percent), carignane (10) and mataro (3) builds the deep scent of currants, of blackberries in compote, of the warmth of the soil and the sweetness of the sun. Alcohol lifts it, but it's no match for the succulence of the fruit, its refined beauty, its tight grip. This is one of the most evocative wines you'll find from California, a liquid portrait of a vineyard. Why it costs only $30 is anybody's guess. Buy a case before those $100 a bottle cabernet drinkers get a clue. Ridge Vineyards, Cupertino, CA
 

 
94 I Cline $15
1998 Contra Costa County Live Oak Vineyard Zinfandel

Ripeness and concentration lend this zin the depth and power of a Port, yet it remains savory and composed. The dense, promising aroma shows the earthiness of the wine, a terroir character from old vines long accustomed to a place. Then the fruitiness builds with layers of currants, raspberries and blackberries, while somehow, for all its ripeness, the red fruit dominates the black. And the fruit dominates the wine, carrying the significant alcohol and potent tannins with ease. Gorgeous zin — great to drink now at the end of the meal with Roquefort, walnut bread and sliced pear. And a treasure to stash away. Cline Cellars, Sonoma, CA
 

 
94 I Dashe $20
1999 Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel

An explosion of fruit, this touches all the senses on the tongue, a huge berry flavor ripening from cranberry to blackberry and currants. Freshness runs through it from the beautiful color to the brilliant focus on fruit — not at all Port-like, just fully ripe. Sleeping underneath it all are scents of smoke, tobacco and Earl Grey tea, all giving a sense of the complexity to come with further age. For now, the wine is seamless, focused, impossible to pull apart. And while the rating has nothing to do with the price, at $20, it's a steal. Dashe Cellars, Alameda, CA
 

 
94 I Rafanelli $26
1999 Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel

What makes a zin intoxicating? Put aside the alcohol for a moment and consider the deep scent of this Rafanelli, the cherry pit, walnut, chocolate-covered raisins and fresher plum. Forget the scents and consider the saturated color, or the flavors as layered as a wedding cake, rich as chocolate pudding and raspberry glacé. This wine has that extra oomph, some combination of power and grip in the fruit that lives beyond the strength of the alcohol. It's seamless, a pristine line of glorious zin from beginning to end. Rafanelli is a zin legend in Dry Creek, and this wine clearly demonstrates why. Get on the mailing list. A. Rafanelli Winery, Healdsburg, CA
 

 
93 I Cline $28
1999 Contra Costa County Live Oak Vineyard Zinfandel

A potent style, this huge wine is as super-ripe and as grand as a Port. The plastering of fruit onto the palate has a fruitcake intensity, a gleeful mass of flavor that coats everything it touches with all the flavors it packs: dark berry, roasted meat, black pepper, mint. And it all remains lifted, a jamboree to the end. Too big for most food, this is best with cheese, with a camembert or Portuguese serra. Cline Cellars, Sonoma, CA
 

 
93 I Clos LaChance $20
1999 El Dorado County Twin Rivers Vineyard Zinfandel

Immediately striking for its sumptuous texture and beautifully modulated aromas of berries and beach roses, this is a cool and gentle zin. It's more about depth of fruit than alcohol and power, the floral tones, the black raspberry and unsweetened cocoa tannins rising aromatically as they seek out the channels of the throat. It's long and lasting, lengthening out with air, a knockout Foothills zin. Clos LaChance Wines, St. Helena, CA
 

 
93 I Howell Mountain $28
1999 Napa Valley Old Vine Zinfandel

When first poured, this zin presents a contrast of hard edges and soft, ripe plum fruit. It tastes of berries macerated in brandy, the acidity and the alcohol making their presences known. But the wine has a generosity, and with air the weight and style come together in force. The structural elements of alcohol and acidity act as a frame for the fruit, allowing it to show off detail, complex nuances, lasting impressions while remaining lush at the core. The power of the wine makes it dramatic, while the detail provides a map of the earth in which those old vines grow. Howell Mountain Vineyards, Rutherford, CA
 

 
93 I Rancho Zabaco $16
1999 Sonoma County Sonoma Heritage Vines Zinfandel

Here's a steal. It doesn't have the power, the expensive oak or the length of flavor that many of the more ambitious zins boast, but it does what it sets out to do with an effortless ease. The wine is all about generosity and floral spice. It starts with a burst of purple rose flavor, soft as a rose petal, all its spiciness seeming to be just around a corner, which, once turned, yields a deep well of raspberry and black cherry fruit. It's dense and delicious, a hedonistic pleasure, so seductive up front — a terrific performance from the team at Gallo of Sonoma. Zabaco Vintners, Healdsburg, CA
 

 
93 I Ridge $30
1999 Sonoma County Geyserville Zinfandel

The ancient vines at Ridge's Geyserville vineyard grew super-ripe in '99, carrying a honeyed buzz into the fermenter and out into the wine. The harvest there was two weeks later than normal, and yields were down 40 percent after June rains, factors leading to the ripeness and concentration of this '99. The ripeness comes across as blackberries in honey, toffee, the scents of halvah, bringing dessert wine to mind. Then the depths of the wine begin to show as it takes on air, growing more savory, the density of the fruit and tannins creating a complex, lasting flavor. Air sublimates the sweetness to a tremendous elegance. A great vintage of Geyserville, best enjoyed two or three years from now. Ridge Vineyards, Cupertino, CA