So you think you know Lodi Zinfandel? If you are ready to get your geek on, let’s delve into the six major reasons why Lodi grown Zinfandels are the way they are: so compellingly lush, round, gentle, bright, and often distinctly earthy…
- Moderate Mediterranean climate influenced by cool coastal winds blowing through the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta
- Very porous yet rich, sandy loam soil (in Tokay series) on mostly lower lying, flat to gently sloped topography
- Choice of planting practices (most of Lodi’s older Zinfandel plantings are cultivated as head trained “goblets”)
- Choice of rootstocks (most of Lodi’s older Zinfandel plantings are actually ungrafted – that is, growing on their own natural roots)
- Sheer age of the vines (most of Lodi’s Zinfandel plantings are between 40 and over 100 years old)
- Subtle clonal variations (especially in older vineyards with larger percentages of replanted vines).
All these things add up to one thing: a distinct Lodi terroir, or “sense of place.” In fact, Zinfandel has found such a comfortable home in the Delta, Lodi now crushes about 40% of California’s yearly crop of the grape – more than any other region in the state.
But truth be told, it has only been within the past 10 years that there have been enough artisanal wineries producing single-vineyard bottlings to give us a firm idea of the terroir characterizing this vast American Viticultural Area (encompassing 644,500 acres, of which over 101,000 acres are planted to some 100 variations of classic wine grapes classified as Vitis vinifera).
Terroir, by its original French definition, also refers to the sensory qualities in a given wine that are directly attributable to the entirety of environmental conditions in which the grapes going into the wine are grown. Although it is climate, soil and topography that effect terroir in the purest sense of the word, it is also generally acknowledged that human decisions long associated with winegrowing regions – that is, viticultural and, to some extent, winemaking traditions – are also part of what we perceive as “terroir” when we taste a wine.
In Lodi, for instance, the largest percentage of Zinfandel plantings consists of free standing (i.e. untrellised) head trained vines. Most of those vines are planted on their own natural roots rather than on rootstocks selected for their resistance to Phylloxera vitifoliae – the root louse that wiped out most of the world’s vineyards planted on their own vinifera roots towards the end of the nineteenth century. The reason most of Lodi’s winegrowing pioneers deliberately chose to eschew phylloxera-resistant native American rootstocks such as Vitis rupestris (commonly known as “St. George”) is because most of Lodi’s Zinfandel is planted in the sub-AVA of Mokelumne River – the historic center of Lodi, defined primarily by its deep sandy loam soils. It has long been known that phylloxera does not proliferate in porous sandy soils, where plants are forced to develop stronger, deeper rooting systems to find water (this is why ungrafted Vitis vinifera is found only in the few other wine regions of the world dominated by sandy soil, such as Chile’s Valle Central and a few pockets of Washington’s Columbia Valley, California’s Contra Costa, San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara).
Ergo: the choice of cultivating mostly ungrafted, head trained Zinfandel has always been as much a part of what defines Lodi’s terroir as the region’s Mediterranean climate and sandy loam soils. Whereas in the rest of California – counties like Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino, Amador and Paso Robles – St. George was the most popular choice of rootstock for head trained Zinfandel during most of the twentieth century, in Lodi plantings on St. George have been known to result in increased vegetative growth and yields — not completely necessary in Lodi’s alluvial soils, already fairly rich in organic matter.
Rous Vineyard, for instance, was planted on St. George rootstocks in 1909, and remains among Lodi’s most productive 100-plus year old Zinfandel plantings today. Although quantity in the field does not equal quality in the bottle, the fact that Rous Vineyard Zinfandels (produced by Macchia and Ironstone) are also among the state’s finest is probably attributable to the sheer age of the vines – another major factor defining Lodi’s terroir. Deep rooted ancient vines, after all, are venerated precisely because they tend to grow a healthier balance of fruit and canopy — hence, higher quality fruit — year in and year out.
Lodi Zinfandel plantings on “Dog Ridge” (Vitis champini) rootstocks have been known to grow even heavier canopies and weightier clusters – better suited for high production winegrowing. Maley Vineyards, one of the largest Zinfandel growers on Lodi’s west-side, cultivates own-rooted 40 to 55-year old head trained vines, as well as a considerable amount growing on Dog Ridge and St. George. Vineyard manager Todd Maley, as well as winemakers Chad Joseph (Maley Brothers), Tim Holdener (Macchia) and Layne Montgomery (m2), consider the plantings on St. George to be Maley’s finest, and the high-vigor Maley plantings on Dog Ridge are considered the least desirable.
Finally, there is the sixth major factor contributing to the quality and characteristics of Lodi grown Zinfandel: clonal variation. Differences among Zinfandel clones are the least understood of factors – probably because documented research in this area really date back only to 1995, when U.C. Davis initiated the first phase of its Zinfandel Heritage Project: starting with 80 Zinfandel selections culled from 50 vineyards in 14 counties in California, planted in the Oakville Experimental Vineyard in Napa Valley and utilizing consistent protocols (such as head trained vines grafted to St. George rootstocks).
The Zinfandel Heritage Project – in part, funded by yearly ZAP (Zinfandel Advocates & Producers) events – is just now entering a third phase, in which 22 selections will be planted under the same controls in Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma Valley, Paso Robles and Lodi. In a recent report delivered to ZAP by U.C. Davis professors Jim Wolpert and Mike Anderson, it was noted that varieties like Zinfandel are not nearly as prone to genetic mutation as, say, Pinot Noir; evidenced by the fact that there are no white (blanc) or gray (gris) cultivars of Zinfandel in existence (in contrast to Pinot Noir, with its well known Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc off-shoots).
Still, it has long been observed in Lodi that certain vineyards, such as Maley’s Ray Rd. planting (known as Wegat Vineyard) and Noma Vineyard on Victor Rd., are dominated by vines that produce smaller, looser clusters, usually with smaller sized berries. Other vineyards, like Harney Lane’s celebrated Lizzy James Vineyard, consist of vines planted as far back as 1904; but nearly half the vineyard consists of replants put into the ground over the past 50 years, many of them yielding slightly different cluster morphology from that of the oldest plants – differences due mostly to clonal and rootstock variations (Lizzy James’ original vines are own-rooted).
Generally speaking, smaller, looser Zinfandel clusters have always been considered more suitable to higher quality wine production: first, because they are less prone to bunch rot (because tightly packed, heavier clusters are prone to bunch rot, they are not capable of hanging on the vine as long to develop intense varietal character); and second, because smaller berried clusters do tend to develop a more desirable balance of soluble solids (especially Brix sugar readings), organic acids, pH, and the phenolics and anthocyanins that contribute to color, flavor and texture.
This much we know: there are visibly different cluster architectures in the best parts of Lodi’s most highly regarded vineyards. At the same time, how much of the differences are due to actual clonal variation, or vine age, choice of rootstock, or small differences in physical terroir (the sandy loams on the east side of the Mokelumne River AVA, for instance, are known to be considerably deeper and more well drained than the sandy loams on the west side) – we’ll probably never really know with absolute certainty. Differences related to Lodi’s terroir, like in all the great wine regions of the world, is a complexity of intertwining factors – observable from vineyard to vineyard, block to block, row to row, and from plant to plant.
The important thing is knowing that distinct Lodi terroirs exist. This is why Rous Vineyard Zinfandels are so flowery and gentle, Noma Ranch Zinfandels are so high in acid yet full throttled, Mohr-Fry Marian’s Vineyard Zinfandels are so deep and bosomy, Lizzy James Vineyard Zinfandels are so refined and multi-faceted, Soucie Vineyard Zinfandels are so lush yet downright earthy, and Maley’s Wegat Vineyard Zinfandels are so round and “voluptuous”… so many wonderful sensations we are now beginning to clearly delineate, and appreciate, in Lodi’s finest wines.