Burgers, Wine and A Study in Zinfandel

By on January 22, 2010

Wine isn’t only fun with haute cuisine and fancily prepared dishes. Wine is as versatile as beer when it comes to pairing with what we think as quintessentially American food like burgers and fries, barbecue, and yes even chicken fried steak.
One of my own personal food and wine pairing favorites is actually a great hamburger or cheeseburger and a good robust red. The bigger the better in fact.

What Makes a Burger?

Of course, what constitutes a burger is a subject of heated and passionate debate. A quick web search reveals multiple possible origins of the hamburger. There is even a possibility that the original hamburger was created at our very own Weber’s! But many food historians consider the first burger to have been presented by a man from Athens, Texas. The New York Tribune reported on a food item that caused quite a stir at the World’s Fair in St. Louis in 1904. Fletcher Davis had actually been serving his un-named sandwich since the late 1880s at his lunch counter in Athens. His creation was a hamburger patty placed between slices of home-made bread coated with mustard and mayo, and topped with sliced Bermuda onion and cucumber pickles. The craze count on all over the South, and in 1916 in Wichita J. Walter Anderson flattened the traditional hamburger steak into a flatter patty, and served it between a one-piece bun. After it had grown to five location from the original cart, this became the “White Castle” franchise, and was the first burger business to offer a standardized look, menu and service.

Today, burger purists are adamant that ground beef of some kind, served between a bun, and with a minimum of condiments constitute a true burger. To others, who are more catholic, any product that can be ground, formed into patties, grilled and served between a bakery product, with any additional condiments or toppings, is a burger. To me, who cares, eat what you want and enjoy it!!
But sticking with what I think anyone would agree is a ‘basic’ burger – ground beef, maybe cheese, with onions, tomatoes, etc – makes for a very satisfying and mouth-watering combination with red wine.

My own personal favorite, and this makes absolute sense in the context, is Zinfandel – the ‘American’ grape.

Zinfandel, with its robust and ripe flavors, is a glorious match with a pink in the middle, dripping with beautiful juices and slathered on onions, melt in the mouth, burger that I like to cook up. It is a true example of food and wine synergy where both are improved through the pairing. I don’t find beer particularly appealing with a burger in fact (it’s better with a Coney or hot dog!) as the acidity tends to be a little high and it cuts through the fat, rather than embracing and amplifying it. Although Shiraz is another fine match with a juicy burger, the king pairing to me is always a brash Zinfandel.

Zinfandel Basics:

Given the variety of treatments Zinfandel can receive (lateness of picking, oak regimen, etc) and how easily it can be manipulated pinning down the aromas and flavors of Zinfandel can be challenging.

However, one can categorize Zinfandel into one of three types. The most basic kind of Zinfandel should be quaffable with fruit forward berry flavors in an open-knit style. The second type is typically fuller and spicier. These Zinfandels are medium- to full-bodied and potent, and are made in a spicy and richly fruity style. A good backbone and structure lends to an aging potential for up to 4-6 years, but these wines are ready to drink on release. The aromas and flavors have a burly, brambly quality with raspberries, blackberries, dark cherries, and plums. With age raisins, prunes, herbs and pepper come more to the fore. Lastly, we have the high alcohol, intense, massively extracted style so beloved by many. These wines are full-bodied, often taste of ripe blackberry and blueberry and, because of the large amount of new oak employed, have strong vanilla notes too. Modern styles of Zinfandel can be a little jammy but most old vine Zinfandels are positively classy wines.

Zinfandel always has that brambly mouth-feel that makes it such a delightful wine to consume. There is something uniquely rustic and yet smooth and charming about this grape. While rarely as serious and sophisticated as Cabernet Sauvignon (there are exceptions however, don’t think that Zinfandel cannot age – Ridge wines show otherwise), it is capable of so many manifestations that it keeps Zinfandel advocates coming back for more and more.
Zinfandel is grown throughout many regions of California. Below are the main and most important regions.
Major California Zinfandel Regions

The following are the major quality Zinfandel producing regions in California with notes on what the most expressive and site driven wines can display.

Dry Creek Valley (Sonoma)

The soul of California Zinfandel. This northern Sonoma appellation is dominated by Zinfandel and is home to many of the states finest examples. Unlike neighboring Alexander Valley, Dry Creek is almost immune to the ebb and flow of the maritime environment, being found in a box canyon, and while it receives its fair share of rain, it is warmer than surrounding appellations, and it receives none of the cooling ocean breezes. Thus, although there are an incredible amount of varietals in Dry Creek, they tend to be clustered somewhat geographically, with Chardonnay and Riesling at the cooler southern end, and Zinfandel and Cabernet in the middle and northern end. There are exceptions of course, but this is a fair description of vineyard plantings. To many, Dry Creek Zinfandels are unlike any other. Noted writer and commentator Matt Kramer said it this way:
“That Zinfandel speaks in Dry Creek Valley is incontestable. Proof is found in an almost uncanny consistency across vintages, vineyards, and wineries. It is a creature even a first-year student in Zinfandel taxonomy can readily anatomize. When classically made, they are dense, slightly metallic, and more than hinting of tar. The best versions offer a degree of detail frequently lacking in Zinfandels grown elsewhere. This is thanks in part to texture. The denseness of flavor is delivered with a certain dexterity, like a big man handling a small baby…Dry Creek Zinfandels tend not to have the exuberant wild berry flavors or Pinot-like texture found in Russian River Valley Zinfandels. Perhaps because of this, one (rather odd) term that keeps cropping up in my notes is “solemn.” They somehow remind me of an unbending church elder of strongly held conviction. They do last. But they seem not to transform, only soften with age. That said, they are among California’s most distinctive wine expressions and proof – if any were needed – of the pedigree of Zinfandel.”

Alexander Valley (Sonoma)

This warm northern Sonoma valley produces soft, ripe, supple blackberry-like Zinfandels with deep plummy fruit and moderate tannins. Fruit definition is perhaps a bit less sharp than in Dry Creek, but the texture of an Alexander Valley Zinfandel is almost unmistakable, especially if it comes from one of the more southerly vineyards, below Cloverdale. The best examples tend to have an easy drinking opulence, sometimes showing a touch of chocolate, but without any rough edges. Interestingly, wines produced with fruit grown north of Cloverdale (all the way up to Geyserville) are more rasping, and a little less polished and supple. They might be described as more assertive. This is probably because the northern half of the valley is warmer.

Howell Mountain (Napa)

Zinfandels from this Napa AVA are tough, tannic, hearty wines that are often blended with fruit from other parts of California to lend intensity. When bottled by themselves Howell Mountain Zinfandels have a pronounced pepperiness, and a lean, briary fruit quality. The Zinfandels from Howell Mountain are also sometimes described as ‘wines of detail,’ which I take to mean as distinctive and also rewarding. It was bottlings from Howell Mountain that drew much attention to the grape in the resurgent 1960s.
Santa Cruz Mountains
Directly south of San Francisco, this district produces concentrated Zinfandels that are noted for their balance. A sunny but cooler climate than any of the other premium regions insures less robust alcohol levels along with bright lively raspberry-like fruit.

Paso Robles

Located in San Luis Obispo County in the south Central Coast, Paso Robles is home to many wineries that are making a name specializing in Zinfandel. With a very sunny growing season in the region, the Zinfandels tend to the peppery, jammy edge of the spectrum, with soft, lush blackberry fruit, low acids and medium-full body.

Amador County

Zinfandel dominates this county in the Sierra Foothills. This is home to the oldest continuously producing vineyards in the state, some of which yield massive, dense, richly ripe Zinfandel fruit. The vines are at high elevations and much of the soil is volcanic, decomposed granite. Although Amador’s climate lacks a full maritime influence, during the summer there is a strong variation between the blazingly hot daytime temperatures and the cold, breezy nights. The vineyards warm up early in the day and the results are grapes high in sugar and as well as acidity. Typically Amador Zinfandels are quite ripe but earthy, with suggestions of dried fruits and a bold, velvety texture. Potent alcohol levels in excess of 15% are not uncommon. There is often a jammy spice quality to Amador Zinfandels too.

Rockpile

The new Rockpile AVA (it was only created in 2002) is really an extension of Dry Creek Valley, and is found in the northwestern most corner of Sonoma. Just under 20% of the AVA actually overlaps with the Dry Creek Valley AVA. Rockpile is well named, and has an interesting history, if local lore is to be believed. The land, found between 800 and 2,000 feet, is a collection of bare ridges and rugged hills that overlook the more picturesque Lake Sonoma. The name derives from a 29,000-acre cattle and sheep ranch called Rockpile Ranch, owned in the 1800s by a corrupt local sheriff. Legend has it that the name stuck from the prisoners who were put to work on the ranch building roads. They dubbed it Rockpile. Although Cabernet, Syrah and Petite Sirah are all planted here among the 200 acres currently farmed for wine grapes, the Zinfandels are what put Rockpile on the map. With the vineyards still being relatively young, none over twenty years, it will take some time for the character of the AVA to be established, but certainly the names of the wineries sourcing wine from here is prestigious, with Rosenblum, Ridge, Seghesio, Kenwood, and St. Francis, all taking fruit from these vineyards. So, what makes Rockpile so unique? Although Rockpile is located just 13 miles from the coast, Lake Sonoma provides an inversion layer that prevents the heavier fog that typically blankets other Northern California appellations, allowing for longer, more consistent sun exposure. Moisture and daytime temperatures are regulated by howling coastal breezes, and in many cases, steep slopes and rocky terrain require non-motorized vine management.

Whatever your preference for Zinfandel, it won’t be hard to find a great example to go with a sumptuous burger! Here are some of my favorites – a half case to satisfy the most discerning Zin lover – and hopefully not the usual suspects like Bogle, Cline and Renwood that are always mentioned (all are good however and well worth drinking!)

Marietta Cellars, California, NV Lot 50 ($13)


This is actually what is called a ‘field blend’ in California. Italian immigrants at the end of the last century planted vineyards with mixed rows of various grapes, most commonly Zinfandel, but also alongside Syrah, Carignan and other varietals. This NV wine, released every six months or so (so Lot 51 will be next), is big, jammy, and smoky aromas, with rich ripe fruit in the mouth.

Adler Fells Winery, Sonoma County, 2006 Big Ass Zin ($14)

This wine is barely a Zinfandel designate with 75% Zinfandel, 21% Petite Sirah, with tiny amounts of Syrah, Carignane, and Grenache. Surprisingly complex for the price, this wine has a smoky aroma, with plum and cherry, with anise, black pepper and smoked meats on the palate. This is a great barbecue wine too!

Joel Gott, California, 2007 Zinfandel ($20)


This is a clever blend of fruit from Napa, Lodi, Amador, and Sonoma. Many of the vineyards are old, dry farmed, gnarly head-trained vines which produce concentrated fruit. It has lovely currant and plum aromas, with lots of blackberry, cherry and spice on the palate.

Opolo Vineyards, Paso Robles, 2006 Summit Creek Zinfandel ($30)


A great Paso Robles Zin this lip-smackingly good wine offers intense fruit including ripe cherry, plum and spice. Yum.

Titus Vineyards, Napa Valley, 2006 Zinfandel ($32)


This is a majestic Zinfandel, an absolutely top-class wine. Produced from 30-year-old Silverado Trail Vineyard fruit with a bit of Petite Sirah for added color, spice and finesse, this wine offers bright and concentrated red fruit with notes of baking spice, bramble and briar.

About the Tulsa Wine Club:

Mark Stenner is the organizer of the Tulsa Wine Club, a local tasting group that meets once a month to sample wines. The tastings take place in private homes in the Tulsa metro area, and are casual and fun events. Participants of all age ranges enjoy 10-12 wines per event, served alongside the food each member contributes to the evening. They welcome anyone with an interest in wine, whether novice or expert. Mark believes in learning through osmosis, drinking wine and forming your own evaluation of your experience.

For information about the club, please email Mark at tulsawineclub@yahoo.com

About Mark Stenner

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