Sipping and grilling
Independence Day in the U.S. having fallen on a Sunday this year, we're celebrating an extended weekend with an extra day off today. As millions of Americans took to the outdoors to enjoy the weekend, the familiar "boom" and "oooh!" of fireworks has almost been overshadowed by the "whoomp!" and "aiyeee!" of charcoal fires exuberantly overdosed with starter fluid.
Indeed, according to a purportedly scientific survey of people who own and use grills, conducted annually by Weber, a leading maker of home grilling equipment, more Americans reported grilling their dinner on Independence Day - an amazing 89 percent of those surveyed - than any other holiday. Labor Day trailed with 75 percent, followed by birthdays with 73 percent and Memorial Day with 70 percent. A hard core of dedicated - or possibly sub-tropical - grill artists (14 percent) reported that they grill their Christmas dinner.
The national drink with holiday grilled fare is probably beer, iced tea or lemonade. But for those of us for whom a fine meal means a good wine to go along, whether we cook it indoors or out, let's devote a quick holiday column to a brief overview of wines to match goodies from the grill.
If you're looking for a symbolic gesture, there is only one choice for American Independence Day: Zinfandel. It is the most "American" of traditional wine grapes, a grape with immigrant ancestors (like most of us) that has really reached its full potential only after having arrived here by a circuitous route from Croatia in the early 1800s. Equally important, though, it's not just a thoroughly assimilated American, but its healthy combination of bright, jammy fruit and muscular alcoholic backbone makes it an unusually good match with the smoky, browned appeal of steaks, burgers or even hot dogs seared over an open fire. Its affinity for grilled flavors even carries over to grilled tidbits other than red meat: Roast chicken or even grilled vegetables will work fine with this all-American match.
Well, not quite all-American. Australia is producing a small but growing amount of Zinfandel nowadays, much of it extremely good. And remember that Southern Italy's Primitivo is Zinfandel, genetically identical on the basis of DNA testing. But please note that we are not talking about your pallid pink "White" Zinfandel here, but the real thing, robust, hearty and red.
OTHER OPTIONS: If you don't care for Zin, or can't find it in your part of the world, fear not, as grilled fare finds an equally good match with plenty of other dry red wines. I'm particularly fond of red wines from the Southern Rhone and Languedoc with charbroiled meats. Based on Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, Carignane and others, often as blends, occasionally as single-varietal wines, these tend to be robust wines, often showing nuances of black pepper and even raw meat that echoes the flavors in your food. International wines made from these grapes, including the popular Australian Shiraz and Spanish Garnacha, can work equally well, and I certainly wouldn't turn down the food-friendly Italian reds like Chianti and its cousins with smoky-charry red meat hot off the grill.
Today's tasting features one of the (relatively) less pricey wines from the extensive selection of Zinfandels made by Ridge, one of California's most highly regarded producers.
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Ridge 2001 California Sonoma Station Zinfandel ($19.99)
This is a clear, dark-garnet wine, showing glints of bright reddish-purple against the light. Slightly Port-like aromas surround ripe blackberries with warm vinous and alcoholic notes, and the alcohol, although not unusual for a Zin at 14.5 percent, doesn't seem fully integrated with the fruit on the palate. More powerful than jammy, the flavor blends sweetish blackberry fruit with a lemon-squirt of acidity and a wallop of alcoholic warmth. Viewed as a whole, the wine is more amiable than these analytical notes may seem to indicate: It's varietally correct but just a bit awkward, showing more austerity than the typical exuberant Zin. (May 6, 2004)
FOOD MATCH: This is a case where a wine really needs a food match with enough muscularity to hold it in balance, and rare charcoal-grilled steaks fill that role nicely. For a meatless match, try an omelet bulked up with roasted red peppers, black olives, onions and sharp Cheddar.
VALUE: Except for mass-market labels, Zinfandel is no longer an inexpensive wine, and the $20 point - my local retail price and the winery's suggested retail - now represents the lower end of the scale for big-name and single-vineyard bottlings. This is one reason why I don't drink a lot of Zin.
WHEN TO DRINK: Generally speaking, I like to drink Zin while it's young and fruity. Since exuberance isn't really part of this wine's otherwise estimable flavor profile, it might be worth cellaring it for two or three years to see if it evolves into something more balanced. The parts are there, so it's certainly worth a try.
PRONUNCIATIONS: There's nothing difficult for English speakers in this all-American wine, but for the record,
WEB LINK: Ridge's Website is exceptionally content-rich, containing much information about the winery, its wines and Zinfandel, and online ordering with shipping to 25 U.S. states where the law permits.
FIND THIS WINE ONLINE: For sales direct from the winery (available in the U.S. where the law allows), visit the Ridge online store,
2001 Prices with The California Wine Club!
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This week on WineLoversPage.com
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Last Week's Wine Advisor Index
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Wine on ice (July 2, 2004)
Bull market (June 30, 2004)
Keeping your cool (June 28, 2004)
Complete 30 Second Wine Advisor archive:
Wine Advisor FoodLetter: Bread pudding (July 1, 2004)
Wine Advisor Foodletter archive:
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Monday, July 5, 2004