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Lodi Zinfandel Goes Native

lodi native

Lodi is well-known for Zinfandel. Of particular note are its many acres of old vines. Thick-trunked and twisted after all these years, they look more like short trees than grape vines.

The fruit these centenarians bear is full of character, but their unique traits are sometimes masked by new oak and other winemaking choices intended to please contemporary wine lovers. So, unlike Pinot Noir vineyard-designates often made with a minimum of intervention to expose distinct terroir, even super-premium Zinfandel wines don’t necessarily reveal all the unique characteristics of particular old vine plots. This makes it hard to know exactly how excited we should really be about those vineyards.

The Lodi Native project addresses that problem directly. It presents single-vineyards of distinction from Lodi’s Mokelumne River AVA in wines that are skillfully made, but not “crafted.” I tasted the project’s first 6 wines. The differences between each were dramatic. The wines are beautiful. They compelled me to open my wallet, a much harder task these days than it used to be.

What is Lodi Native?

Lodi Native is a serious effort by six winemakers to let heritage vineyards speak clearly through “sensible viticulture and minimalist winemaking”. Each man was responsible for his own wine but also worked with the others from the outset to define a winemaking credo. As wine production moved forward, they consulted with each other on challenges and critiqued all the wines to drive quality and transparency of terroir. Each agreed to forego personal and brand-styles in favor of that transparency.

Here are some of the restrictions on Lodi Native wines:

• 100% Zinfandel from single-contiguous vineyard
  (except when a particular vineyard has a long, recognized history for mixed blacks)
• Native-yeast fermentation for primary and malolactic fermentation
• No new oak or inner staves
• No oak substitutes such as chips or powder
• No addition of water or subtraction of alcohol
• No addition or reduction of acid
• No added tannins
• No added color or concentrates, including Mega-Purple
• No fining or filtration
• No must concentration, Flash Détante or similar extraction measures

This was a risky project. The winemakers couldn’t use commonly accepted measures to counteract issues with the grapes or production. Some winemakers hadn’t relied solely on native fermentation before, so they didn’t know what surprises the peculiar strains in their vineyard and winery would bring. There was no oak “spice box” to cover minor flaws.

In fact, there were originally seven winemakers in the project. One voluntarily withdrew because an issue with harvest resulted in his grapes coming in with too much sugar. He wouldn’t be able to ferment the grapes dry or have a balanced wine while adhering to the protocols.

The Lodi Native Wines

The first vintage for Lodi Native Zinfandel was 2012. A limited number of six-bottle sets packaged in attractive wood boxes are available from the Lodi Wine & Visitor Center for $180. If there are extra single bottles, those will be available from the wineries for about $35.

2012 Maley Brothers Lodi Native Zinfandel Wegat Vineyard
Winemaker: Chad Joseph — Grower: Todd Maley

Wegat Vineyard is on Lodi’s west side, an area noted for Zinfandel with spicy characteristics. Its 21 acres hold head-trained Zinfandel on St. George rootstock planted in 1958. The vines here are noted for producing unusually open clusters with small berries. Some whole clusters were used in making the Lodi Native wine to enhance complexity.

The dark ruby wine is a study in cherries. The vivid nose shows red cherries and black, canned cherries, fresh cherries, macerated cherries, dried cherries and tart cherries. The cherrypalooza is decorated with fresh sage, garrigue and array of spice. The palate is intense, focused and quite long with flavors of red cherry, blueberry and a touch of sweet herb. The body is medium+ with notable freshness and just enough fine-grained tannins. 14.9% alcohol. Highly Recommended+

2012 m2 Wines Lodi Native Zinfandel Soucie Vineyard
Winemaker: Layne Montgomery — Grower: Kevin Soucie

Soucie Vineyard is the furthest west of all the Lodi Native sites, very near both I–5 and the Delta. Kevin Soucie’s meticulous care results not just in great fruit but a vineyard that looks like a massive Zen garden, hundreds of bonsai vines in a vast field of sand that’s smooth as a U.S. Open sand trap. The particular block used in this wine was planted in 1916 and features deep, sandy soil that’s so fine as to be nearly powdery. The vineyard is noted for a unique earthy character that ranges from mushroom to dairy yard notes.

The grapes for this wine were picked at two different ripeness levels, the first 50% at just 22 brix, to foster complexity, acidity and ensure that the wine would ferment dry. The nose features spicy, slightly resinous, forest floor, mushroom and a whiff of dill with plenty of sweet-tart berry fruit. The creamy, nearly full-bodied palate is intensely flavored with spicy berry fruit. The moderate tannins are fine-grained, the finish long. 14.5% alcohol. Highly Recommended+

2012 McCay Cellars Lodi Native Zinfandel TruLux Vineyard
Winemaker: Michael McCay — Grower: Keith Watts

The TruLux Vineyard is also on the west side, roughly located between the Michael David and Van Ruiten wineries. Its exceptionally tall vines were planted in the 1940s on St. George rootstock. It’s wines are said to lean toward loamy flavors.

Medium+ ruby in the glass, this wine offers aromas of earth, spicy dark plum and carob. In the mouth there’s medium+ body, moderate, fine-grained tannins and marked acidity that provides juiciness throughout the lengthy finish. Flavors include tart and ripe blackberries, dry earth and spice. 14.5% alcohol. Highly Recommended

2012 St. Amant Lodi Native Zinfandel Marian’s Vineyard
Winemaker: Stuart Spencer — Growers: Jerry & Bruce Fry

Marian’s Vineyard is an 8.3 acre plot within the expansive Mohr-Fry Ranch southwest of Lodi. All of the fruit from the 113-year old vines go to St. Amant winery.

This deep ruby wine is softly aromatic, showing dry earth, gentle brown spice and introverted dark fruit. Silky tannins add interest on the creamy, full-bodied palate. Rich flavors of cocoa, savory herb, sweet yet tangy dark fruit and blackberry jam. 14.7% alcohol. Highly Recommended

2010 Fields Family Wines Lodi Native Zinfandel Century Block Vineyard
Winemaker: Ryan Sherman

The vines in this 3-acre vineyard in the far to the AVA’s eastern side are own-rooted. They were planted in 1905 on the quick-draining sandy soil of talcum-powdery fineness. This was the first time its fruit was used in a vineyard-designate wine.

According to sommelier/writer/Lodi wine expert Randy Caparoso, Lodi’s east side is associated with Zinfandel of “red berry perfume and higher acidity.” That’s certainly evident in this feminine, Pinot-esque wine. Its attractive nose expresses three aspects of cherry: the red fruit, the blossoms and the leaves. The palate is also more delicate than the west side wines with medium+ body and prominent acidity balanced by very fine, delicate tannins. Flavors include red cherry, sweet spice and sweet herb. 13.9% alcohol. Highly Recommended

2012 Macchia Wines Lodi Native Zinfandel Noma Ranch
Winemaker: Tim Holdener — Grower: Leland Noma

The portion of Noma Ranch Zinfandel that goes to Macchia comes from own-rooted, head-trained vines that are unusually low to the ground. More than 100 years old, they are dry-farmed and yield tiny bunches and berries with yields as low as one ton to the acre, resulting in very concentrated wines.

The darkest of the six Lodi Native Zins, this Macchia effort is opaque with a ruby-purple hue. Subtle aromas of dark berries, dark spice and ripe black cherry peak from the glass. The palate is much more outgoing: full-bodied with moderate, very fine tannins framing heady flavors of ripe black cherry, plum, spice, cocoa and oak char. (No new oak is allowed in Lodi Native, but once and twice used barrels can still yield flavors.) 15.0% alcohol. Highly Recommended

Conclusions

The Lodi Native project has achieved its primary goal in the very first vintage. The wines very clearly show the differences between some of Lodi’s most-prized heritage vineyards. And, despite a commitment to sacrificing ideal balance and maximum deliciousness to achieve that aim, the resulting wines are very, very good. They show that, when taken from fine, lovingly-farmed vineyards and made with care, Zinfandel needn’t be sweet, thick in the mouth or dressed in new barrels to captivate. Bravo!

For more on the project and wines, including her signature drawings, see Elaine Brown's article at Wakawaka Wine Reviews.

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for wine news, information on events and more, or friend me on Facebook. This article is original to NorCalWine.com. Copyright 2014. All rights reserved.

Comments   

 
Ryan Sherman
#1 Ryan Sherman 2014-04-03 05:41
Thank you for covering Lodi Fred, cheers! Great overview.
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Bill Tatomer
#2 Bill Tatomer 2014-04-11 05:28
Great summary of an excellent event. The more you know, the more you enjoy. Thank you for your write up.
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#3 cheap london paris 2014-05-05 02:18
I couldn't resist commenting. Very well written!
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