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Just about every time you think you've got this wine thing figured out, something new comes along to surprise you. This is one of the reasons why wine, as a hobby interest, can be both frustrating and fun.
Today's tasting offers a case in point.
As we've been studying in this month's Wine Tasting 101, after many years of discussion about the history and heritage of Zinfandel, that all-American grape that turned up mysteriously in the New World with no clear family tree in the Old, scientists have pretty much nailed it down with DNA studies: Zinfandel is the direct descendant of the rare Croatian grape Crljenak Kastelanski; and the Primitivo of Puglia in Southern Italy is not just its brother but the very same grape.
So far, so good. Until I got an E-mail note from Erich Russell, owner and wine maker at Rabbit Ridge, who's selling a lot of Primitivo grown, produced and bottled on his Paso Robles property in ... California.
"Enjoyed your coments on Zinfandel vs. Primitivo," he wrote. "We were also very interested in the two varieties. In fact in my first new planting on the westside of Paso Robles in 1997 I planted 20 acres of Zinfandel and 20 acres of Primitivo side by side. My original intention was to blend the two together for Rabbit Ridge Paso Robles Zinfandel.
But regulatory authories in the U.S. Treasury Department wouldn't allow that, he said. "[They] could not decide if they are the same grape - even with the DNA evidence. So when it became time to bottle the first wines we could not blend the two together. We bottled both a Primitivo and a Zinfandel. Since this time Primitivo has become Rabbit Ridge's No. 1 selling wine from Paso Robles."
Despite their identical DNA, he said, the grapes show consistent clonal differences: "In the vineyard the Primitivo clusters are much smaller than Zinfandel, the Primitivo always ripens earlier, the Primitivo gets much riper without the shriveling of berries that Zinfandel gets, and Primitivo always throws a much larger second crop than Zinfandel.
"In the finished wine, Primitivo has an even greater jammy and berry character than Zinfandel, has so much fruit that it stands up better to higher alcohol levels, does not have the raisin character that you sometimes get with high-alcohol zinfandel. I have referred to the difference between the two wines of Rabbit Ridge's as the Primitivo tastes like the Zinfandel on steroids."
Naturally I had to rush out and find the Primitivo and see for myself. I'd say Russell hit the bullseye. Rabbit Ridge 2002 Primitivo is one BIG wine, instantly identifiable as Zinfandel, but a high-octane version. If you admire subtlety and elegance in a wine, you may prefer to steer clear. But if you like your Zin high-octane and bold, loaded with both fruit and oak, you'll want to seek this one out.
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Rabbit Ridge 2002 Paso Robles Primitivo Westside ($14.99)
Very dark purple, almost black, a real tooth-stainer. Intense raspberry aromas sing soprano over a bass line of new oak, but the fruit remains in the foreground. Big, bold raspberry and blackberry fruit flavors and aromatic oak carry over on the palate in a full-bodied, almost liqueur-like flavor profile bolstered by a warming 15.4% alcohol, pushing the limits that a wine can achieve without fortification. A brawny wine ... is it Primitivo or is it Zinfandel? In this bottle, this seems to be a distinction without much difference. (Oct. 17, 2004)
FOOD MATCH: A wine this big isn't easy to pair with food, although the standard Zin match, char-grilled steaks, should do fine. I managed to bring free-range chicken up to meet it with a flavorful preparation, fricaseed with lots of caramelized onions and a good dose of aromatic fresh tarragon.
VALUE: Decent value in competition with big-style California Zinfandel. Shop around, though, as Web searching suggests that the full-retail price I paid in Kentucky is toward the high side of the range for this wine.
WHEN TO DRINK: It's hard to gauge longevity in an idiosyncratic wine like this, but I would be inclined to drink it up within a few years after the vintage, while its bold and exuberant fruit is fresh.
FIND THIS WINE ONLINE:
California Wine Club:
The California Wine Club succeeds again! This month's Signature Series shipment features the 2000 Paso Robles Isosceles from Justin Vineyards & Winery.
Loaded with medals (1 Gold, Best of Class and 3 Silvers) this wine also boasts a 92-point rating from the Connoisseur's Guide, 4 out of 5 Stars from Decanter and was named one of the "Top 24 Wines" by the Quarterly Wine Review. The Isosceles is a complex and delicious blend of raspberry, strawberry, black currant, cedar and spice.
The California Wine Club's Signature Series is their upper-level club featuring California's highest rated and most coveted wines. This month's shipment features the show-stopping Isosceles, as well as the equally rated 2000 "Napa Valley" Red from Girard Winery and the palate-pleasing 2002 "El Dorado" Zinfandel from Mount Aukum Winery. The price for this three-bottle shipment is $149, and that includes all shipping and handling. To receive this special Signature Series shipment, or for more information please call 1-800-777-4443 or visit
This week on WineLoversPage.com
Here are links to some of our recently published articles that I think you'll enjoy:
Reports From Our Readers: Major Italian tasting
Wine Lovers' Discussion Group: Who's into Beaujolais Nouveau this year?
Last Week's Wine Advisor Index
The Wine Advisor's daily edition is usually distributed on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays (and, for those who subscribe, the FoodLetter on Thursdays). Here's the index to last week's columns:
Aging surprise (Oct. 15, 2004)
Barco Reale (Oct. 13, 2004)
Columbus Day (Oct. 11, 2004)
Complete 30 Second Wine Advisor archive:
Wine Advisor FoodLetter: Pepin's tuna-stuffed tomato (Oct. 14, 2004)
Wine Advisor Foodletter archive:
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Monday, Oct. 18, 2004