If you see a wine label that says “Old Vine Zin” or “OVZ,” chances are pretty good that it’ll also say “Lodi.”
Besides being a small town in Northeast Ohio, Lodi is a wine region in Northern California known primarily for its Zinfandel. The appellation hasn’t traditionally had the cachet of “Napa” or “Russian River,” sitting as it does in the warmer central part of California. Wine geeks associate warm-climate regions with flabby, un-structured wines that may sell well at the grocery store but don’t usually rate a place at the Premium Wine table.
But wait! Lodi has more to offer than the wine geeks allow, as I can testify after tasting through several wines at an online interactive tasting event sponsored by an association of Lodi wine producers. There was surprising variety and a few really excellent bottles that made me rethink my definition of “Lodi wine.”
First, let’s get this climate thing straight. Lodi may sit inland, directly east of San Francisco, but it’s right on the edge of the Sacramento Delta where nightly “Delta breezes” funnel cool ocean air over the vines. The soil is sandy and summers are dry, so growers can control vine vigor and ripening with careful irrigation practices.
Speaking of growers, they dominated the Lodi wine industry until about 20 years ago. Lodi grape growers supplied fruit that was blended into plenty of big-name “California” appellation wine, until some decided to experiment with smaller-production, vineyard designated wines. There are now about 85 active wineries, many making wines that can run with the big dogs.
We started our tasting with Uvaggio 2011 Vermentino, made from a grape that fans of Italian wine night recognize. In fact, all of Uvaggio’s wines are “Cal-Ital,” or made in California from native Italian grapes.
This wine was a revelation. It was crisp, clean, aromatic and delicious, with no residual sugar to coat the palate. Although the grape hails from northern Italy, just like the ubiquitous Pinot Grigio, this wine offers more middle notes and complexity, making it a delight as an aperitif but probably a real killer with Mediterranean-style food. Grill up some shrimp or throw some Asiago on a cheese tray and give it a try.
Kidder Duet 2010 pays homage to another European wine region. The Spanish grapes Tempranillo and Graciano are the main grapes in Rioja, but Duet bears little resemblance to its ancestors. It must be Lodi’s warm sun and long growing season that gives this fruit much more ripeness and softness than I expected, with dark berries and caramel on the nose that led me to rich, juicy black raspberry, vanilla and mocha. This is decidedly not a wine for lovers of austere, Old World Rioja but it’s a kick for us New World aficionados. And while the richness rocks, there’s still a hint of acidity on the finish to keep the balance in check.
M2 Tempranillo 2010 was my favorite red, showcasing again the ripe, juicy side of this Spanish grape. The nose offered bright cherry and vanilla, and the palate surprised with its killer combination of intense fruit and strategically-placed acidity. This Tempranillo was really good with my sun-dried tomato appetizer, but my guests and I were bummed to think that we’ll probably never be able to buy this wine where we live. (Is it in Arizona, anyone??)
The Zinfandels took us back to more traditional Lodi territory. D’Art Lodi Zinfandel 2010 showed the plummy character for which Lodi is famous, created by warm daytime temperatures that always completely ripen the fruit. The 2010 vintage, however, showed a bit more acidity created by a cool growing season. The alcohol content of this wine is still a whopping 15.9%, but it doesn’t come off as “hot” or wildly out of balance. A rack of ribs would complement it nicely.
My bottle of Fields Family Old Vine Zin 2010 was corked, so I’ll have to go with the comments of other tasters. The Fields reportedly showed more brightness and natural acidity than the D’Art, giving it a juicy, mouth-watering style. There was a question raised here about the legal definition of the term “old vine Zin.” I loved winemaker Stuart Spencer’s comment: his dad always said that Old Vines were anything older than him…
We finished with another grape that we don’t associate with Lodi but certainly thrives there. The Rhone varietal Syrah likes warmer climates, as we tasted in Klinker Brick Farrah Syrah 2010. I certainly tasted the warm-climate richness, but also the bacon-y character that comes through in some Syrah. This one has plenty of savory notes — tobacco, herbs, smoked ham — to complement the dark berries, with a rich and supple mouthfeel. I’d say you need too throw some lamb on the grill to bring out the best in this wine…
My final suggestion is that wine lovers need to look further than the $10-ish, mass-market Lodi Zin to really taste what this appellation has to offer. I know you won’t be disappointed. Cheers!