California's red wine king, Cabernet Sauvignon, has a contender for its throne. Last year, Zinfandel was second in tonnage to - and not far behind - Cabernet Sauvignon in amount of red grapes crushed in the Golden State. While Cabernet Sauvignon's 2007 crush tonnage remained about the same compared to 2006, Zinfandel's increased by 16 percent. The combined total of these two popular red wine varietals was more than 44 percent of California's total 2007 red grape crush.
I wouldn't bet that Zinfandel will ever overtake Cabernet in California, but according to the "Connoisseur's Guide to California Wine," only three counties - Amador, San Joaquin and San Luis Obispo - had modest increases in Zinfandel acreage planted during the past five years. Despite this increase, some wine regions, such as San Luis Obispo County's Paso Robles, have not experienced a huge Zinfandel boom, though about 50 percent of the appellation's wineries produce it.
Paso Robles is known for its riper, full-bodied Zinfandels with sweet, extra-ripe fruit and alcoholic warmth. This hedonistic style, though not unique to Paso, has many fans, who can usually be found at the annual Zinfandel Advocates & Producers tasting in San Francisco every January.
Many California wine regions known for Zinfandel, including Paso Robles, have hot climates that can quickly overripen grapes if the weather remains too warm for too long. Cooler night breezes help moderate Paso Robles' average daily temperature. Zinfandel's oft-high ripeness level can translate to alcohol levels approaching or exceeding 15 percent - lower alcohol can be accompanied by some residual sugar.
We tasted 27 Paso Robles Zinfandels. More than half were 2006s. Many of the wines we've liked in the past weren't submitted for tasting. But even with this modest sampling, Paso Robles seems to be staying its course, continuing to make dark-fruited, full-bodied, riper-style Zinfandel.
Rating: TWO STARS 2005 Calcareous Vineyard Twisted Sisters Paso Robles Zinfandel ($26) Paso Robles has areas of calcareous soil, after which this winery was named. Assertive American oak announces itself on the nose of blackberry and sweet plum, which is driven by dusty pencil lead and oaky spice with smoky char and tobacco overtones. The more rustic palate is brightly fruited and herby but shows some heat on the finish. Winery only.
Rating: TWO STARS 2006 Christian Lazo Paso Robles Zinfandel ($20) This winery - purchased in 2002 - is named after owners Steve Christian and Lupe Lazo. Twenty percent Missouri wood is used for 19 months of aging. There is slight bricking (a brownish-garnet color) on the edge of the wine's rim. Nose of coconut, smashed huckleberry, milk chocolate, stewed cherry and earthy spice with potpourri undertones. Tannins seem softer amid the ripe fruit and 15.5 percent alcohol.
Rating: TWO AND A HALF STARS 2006 Eberle Paso Robles Zinfandel ($24) Founded in 1982 by Gary Eberle, who is of German descent, this winery's wild boar logo reflects the Germanic meaning of the name "Eberle." Steinbeck Vineyards and Wine-Bush Vineyard each contributed half the grapes in this wine, which shows rich vanilla, toast and cinnamon stick aromas that bolster the sultry mix of red and black fruit. There is lovely tart acidity and less opulent fruit on the palate, with rather fine tannins and a dry earth note on the finish. A more restrained, elegant style.
Rating: TWO STARS 2006 Eos Paso Robles Zinfandel Port ($30, 375 ml) Eos was the name of a Greek goddess of the dawn, which seemed an appropriate moniker for a winery that harvests its estate grapes justbefore or right after sunrise. This wine includes 20.5 percent Petite Sirah. It is fortified to retain residual sugar, which accounts for its 19 percent alcohol. Toasted blueberry, prune/raisin, jammy dark-fruit aromas with carob and hints of wet earth and English breakfast tea. Not over the top and retains focus.
Rating: TWO STARS 2006 Rosenblum Cellars Paso Robles Zinfandel ($18) Now part of Diageo Chateau & Estate Wines, Rosenblum Cellars specializes in Zinfandel. This Appellation Series wine includes 12 percent Petite Sirah and was aged in both French and American oak barrels. Blackberry, dry spice and a slightly waxy nose, which has underlying robustly rich fruit despite the big hit oak. Plum, blackberry/huckleberry tart and chewy tannins, with some dry leaf on the palate.
Rating: TWO STARS 2004 Rotta Giubbini Vineyard Paso Robles Zinfandel ($27) Founded in 1908 and claiming to be the only remaining family-owned "original" winery in San Luis Obispo County, Rotta was one of the first established in Paso Robles. A nose of spiced plum, chocolate, a bit of sachet, walnut skin and dry oak char. Bright, mouthwatering acidity and moderate raspberry and prune notes help balance the palate.
Rating: TWO STARS 2005 Stacked Stone Cellars Zin Stone Paso Robles Zinfandel ($28) Named after the elaborate stone stacks that are a part of its landscaping, the winery was started in 1998 by owner-winemaker Donald Thiessen. A slight dill pickle note on the nose punctuates the very ripe fruit on the aromas and flavors that include currant, plum and red fruit. Dusty, subtle finish with increased alcoholic heat. Winery only.
Panelists include: Lynne Char Bennett, Chronicle staff writer and wine coordinator; Jon Bonné, Chronicle wine editor; Zach Pace, manager and wine buyer, Foreign Cinema. For additional recommended wines, go to sfgate.com/wine.
Key: Rating: FOUR STARS Extraordinary Rating: THREE STARS Excellent Rating: TWO STARS Good
Lynne Char Bennett