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Putting the ‘Z’ in zinfandel – Melvyn Minnar

Ever a stranger on most shores, Blaauwklippen’s is a stand-out local version.

It is in the nature of adventurous (and talented) winemakers (and artists) to explore beyond the obvious. And other that all those strangely-named grape varieties that are now coming into fashion in our wine country, zinfandel is the old-boys’ club cellar challenger.

How old boy, is easily demonstrated when Blaauwklippen’s Rolf Zeitvogel talks lovingly about the vineyard block, planted in 1982, that produced the excellent 2011 Zinfandel Reserve, soon to be released.

However and whenever ‘Mr Z’ talks about zinfandel, the challenges of this stranger on many shores in vineyard and cellar are a constant issue – even ever since Walter Finlayson, who planted first vines on Blaauwklippen in 1977, made it first time in 1980.

Zinfandel is a curious character, individual and even odd-ball, and temperamental under all circumstances. Typical aromatics, flavours and structure can lead into many directions. (Including glug-glug sweet and big stuff in its ‘mother country’.)

So named by the Americans with that zinging ‘z’, it is nowadays accepted to be a version of the Italian primitivo. Both, in turn, are related to the very old Croatian crljenak kaštelanski. With a back history comprising a detective narrative about a single 90-year-old vine in a garden in Split, Croatia, the challenge of making zinfandel wine is obvious.

But the test is not to simply make wine from the grape, but to make good and expressive wine.

For Zeitvogel, Blaauwklippen zinfandel – virtually the last ‘Z’ standing (elsewhere primitivo is the faddish appellation) – is a matter of honour, but also a symbol of distinction for the large Stellenbosch estate.

The past week’s annual tasting that brings international versions to the bench (like all such comparatives a wonderfully informative exercise), was an easy win for Zeitvogel despite the expensive, well-known Australians imported for the match. Sweet, big and alcoholic to a ridiculous degree, the four foreigners attested to the intricate difficulties of the grape.

Blaauwklippen Zinfandel Reserve 2011, echoing the clear fruitiness of the previous 2010 vintage also served (only exceptional years are declared ‘reserve’), is a very fine wine, shoulders above the imports at the tasting. All the eccentric abundance of the grape has been harnessed to express a typical mix of cloves, spice and dried prune and tobacco on a solid tannin and acid structure despite the high alcohol. In fact, typical Blaauwklippen, if you’ve been following vintages.

It is difficult not to recognise the weirdness of zinfandel. It is easy not to like it. But it deserves special attention when it comes up like this. Call it enjoyment and appreciation of individuality.

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