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08.23.2004

2001 Saucelito Canyon Zinfandel, Arroyo Grande Valley, California

There are a lot of things that go into making up the complexity of flavors in a wine, but none by my judge better than the age of the vines growing the fruit.

The effects of vine age were first made starkly real to me on a trip I took to Australia's Hunter Valley. There, in the capable hands of a man whose name and touring company have sadly escaped me, I got a chance to taste through a large, prestigious winery's entire portfolio of Chardonnay and Shiraz in horizontal and vertical tastings stretching back almost 10 years. The ability to compare 3 Chardonnays all from the same year, made in exactly the same way, from the same winery, but one with 5 year old vines, one with 20 year old vines and one with 60 year old vines was mind-blowing. The older the vines, the more subtle and varied the complexities of the wine. Older vines just equalled better taste.

Since then I have been a true believer in old vines. Nowhere is this more true than when it comes to Zinfandel as a varietal, which perhaps more than most grapes, gains amazing character from older vines (40+ years).

The vines that produced this wine from Saucelito Canyon Winery, a small family winery near San Luis Obispo, are no less than 120 years old. Planted by immigrant Englishman, Henry Ditmas and his wife Rosa shortly after moving to their newly purchased estate in 1878, these Zinfandel vines are thought to have been brought as cuttings from Spain.

Bill and Nancy Greenough, the current owners and operators of the Winery (Bill is the winemaker, too) purchased the estate directly from the descendants of the Ditmas family, who owned and resided on the property continuously until 1974. Since then, Bill has laboriously and meticulously been nursing the remaining living vines back into a producing vineyard with excellent results.

Tasting Notes:
Blood red in the glass, this wine has a shifting nose that waffles (or maybe its me that's waffling) between sweet aromas of blackberries, blueberries, cedar chips, and a slight floral scent that resembles lavender. In the mouth it is what you would expect after a nose like that -- loads of blackberry pie, a bit of black cherry, and some spice notes that incorporate vanilla and dried herbs. The tannins in this wine are soft and nearly undetectable, and the wine finishes with a hint of cinnamon. An excellent effort.

Food Pairing:
I had this with, of all things, a rock shrimp and jalapeno pizza in anticipation of the spice from the peppers, and it was a great complement, not too overpowering so the flavors of the cheese and the cilantro of the pizza remained bright, but matching the jalapenos in their spice.

Overall Score: 8.5/9

How Much?: $17

This wine can be ordered directly from the winery's Web site.

Comments (4)

08.23.04 at 7:15 PM

Hm. It's interesting to see that in fact it's the vine stock that's 120 years old and not the vines themselves. It makes one wonder, do you still get the same complexity, balance, and so forth as you do with actual old "wood"? You obviously get the same root depth, and thus the complexity, but the plant is still putting a lot of energy into getting its trunk going, so you may not get the same natural equilibrium. Of course, even young vines can be handled in such a way that they produce something close to what old vines give naturally, so such things are always hard to say.

It's surprising they think the vines came from Spain. I thought most of our Zinfandel came from Eastern Europe via the East Coast greenhouse fad.

Anyway, it's an interesting read. That is very old Zinfandel vinestock for the Central Coast; most of the older plantings there only go back to the Prohibition grape exportation craze.

N.R. Carlson wrote:
01.02.06 at 11:12 AM

Sorry for posting a comment so long after the initial post, but I can't resist!

I make and drink wine in San Luis Obispo county, and have been a fan of this wine for years. I think it is correct to say that the vineyard was rehabilitated from some very old vines that were still barely struggling to live when the Greenough's purchased the vineyard in the early 1970's. That is not to say that the vines themselves are that old, but rather propagated from the very few vines that remained on site, making the vineyard a respectable 30+ years old, and with a heritage of old genetic material, not the more modern high-bearing selections that were used for White Zin production in the Central Valley and Paso Robles.

This is one of my favorite Zins in California. It is from the Arroyo Grande Valley, an area better known for stellar Pinot Noir & Chardonnay (Talley, Laetitia, Au Bon Climat.) This site is tucked further up into a beautifully secluded valley in the first coastal ranges of the Santa Lucia mountains, with flocks of wild turkeys and deer often on the road as you drive up, and bear, wild boar and mountain lions inhabit the surrounding hills. This cooler climate does not allow the kind of blatant overcropping that occurs in some of the less scrupulous Paso Robles and Lodi vineyards, where the intense heat can produce a dried out, pruny fruit character.
This is definitely a wine that is true to its very distinct terroir. Not obnoxious, it always has balanced levels of ripeness, elegant structure with fruit, yes; but balanced by the herbal notes that you mention in your tasting notes above. A suberb wine to serve with food, and an absolute bargain for a small-estate Zinfandel, (~15 acres of the oldest vines, maybe 25 acres total?;) that definitely is true to itself and has been for years.

I recently tried the new 2004 vintage, and despite the raging heat in the nearby Edna Valley and the rest of Arroyo Grande Valley, which made the '04 Pinot Noir harvest problematic, the Zin really is true to type; perhaps due to its later ripening it weathered the worst of the heat spikes and made it through to complete ripening in the more moderate first weeks of October.

If I ran the world of wine, this is one of the wines that I would select to be a "cult wine"; not for being totally showy and blockbuster, but rather for being absolutely true to its terroir year after year after year.

Alder wrote:
01.02.06 at 11:31 AM

N.R.

Never too late for a good comment. Thanks for stopping by.

Ken Meyer wrote:
05.07.06 at 6:06 PM

Re: Saucelito Canyon

I'm looking for more of their 2002, Estate Zinfandel. This is the one that had a white label around the neck noting that the wine was unfined and unfiltered.
Does anyone know where there is some (besides Greenough's library :-) ?
Many thanks.

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