Feeling the burn

Here in the Ohio Valley, summer isn’t showing any signs of leaving us, and with temperatures in the middle to upper 90s and high humidity hanging on all week, the lyrics to Cole Porter’s “Too Darn Hot” keep running through my mind.

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But we’ve got nothing on the West Coast wine country, through California and on up to the Pacific Northwest, where record temperatures have roasted the region and its people much of the summer, and where the wildfires that have burned through the region are bursting out again.

Record heat around the world, wildfires threatening forests, property, and lives … dangerous floods across Europe, in China, and around the U.S., and rising oceans wearing away beaches and oceanside property around the world: Can anyone continue to ignore the reality that chaotic climate change is a real and present danger?

The National Weather Service tweeted heat warnings for the U.S. West.

The National Weather Service tweeted heat warnings for the U.S. West.

Talking about lives, homes and property makes it feel a bit trivial to ponder the impact of climate change on wine. But wine is what brings us together here, so let’s acknowledge the greater concerns as we take a few moments to pick up the conversation of wine and climate once more.

It has been just about a year since I last addressed this topic in the September 2020 column, How does climate change taste?, and that certainly wasn’t the first time. The issue – in wine and in the wider world – is important to me, and I’ve addressed it periodically at least as far back as the 2002 article, Alcohol: Creeping upward?

Indeed, that’s what brings me back to the subject today. When I opened the Bonterra 2019 California Zinfandel that I tasted for this week’s report, I was startled to read the 15.3% alcohol level on the back label.

While that’s not an unusual level for some of the high-end California Zins – Turley, for one example, frequently comes in at 15.6% or even more – it was a surprise for Bonterra, an approachable, affordable Zin made from organic grapes that I return to from time to time. My notes show a 14.5% reading for the 2006 and 2010 Bonterras and 14.2% for the 2012. Curiously, since the 2018 vintage, Bonterra Zin has borne a California appellation on the label, not the Mendocino home of its organic vineyard. I’ve reached out to Bonterra for information about this, but with no response so far.

Happily, Bonterra wine maker Jeff Cichocki has handled the alcohol nicely; it doesn’t come across harshly on the palate, as you’ll see in my tasting report below. It’s a good wine and an excellent value. But the challenges of heat and fire and smoke make me wonder how much longer these California vineyards that we love can survive as we know them.

Business Insider’s writer Amber Gibson has a good article out on this today: How California wineries are surviving a record-hot summer and adapting their crops to climate change.

Gibson interviewed growers and wine makers in Sonoma, Napa, San Luis Obsipo, and Paso Robles for the article, which you should read.

Briefly told, the wine-making sources spoke of three key responses to the dangers of fire and heat:

  • Fire mitigation, through investment in fire-protection equipment, cutting fire breaks, and managing the density of wild grasses.
  • Deficit irrigation, saving water by using dry farming methods and carefully rationing water to the vines that need it most.
  • Planting new varieties, replacing Pinot Noir with Cabernet Sauvignon in parts of Sonoma that were once thought too cool for Cabernet, for instance; and establishing Rhône varietals Mourvedre, Grenache, and Syrah in San Luis Obispo, where producers hope they’ll thrive in the region’s warming weather.

As the climate changes, wine makers try to keep up; and wine consumers may have to get used to higher alcohol levels … and perhaps decide to pass on that second or third glass.

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Today’s Tasting Report

Bonterra 2019 California Zinfandel ($13.99)

Bonterra California Zinfandel

Bonterra Zinfandel, a good-value California Zin made with certified organic grapes, offers an appealing introduction to Zinfandel at a rational price. Its fresh, fruity aroma offers characteristic Zin raspberries and strawberries, with distinct touches of blueberry and black plum that might signal the splash of Petite Sirah in the blend. A heady overtone of strawberry liqueur comes along for the ride. Plums and blueberries are more evident in the flavor, with food-friendly acidity and a light buzz of tannins that linger. Notes of oak show as pleasant black coffee and dark chocolate as the wine airs in the glass. Sturdy 15.3% alcohol is worth noting, but to the wine’s credit, it handles the high alcohol well without unpleasant harshness or heat. (Aug. 26, 2021)

FOOD MATCH: This hearty, fruity aromatic red is a natural with just about all forms of red meat: Steaks, prime rib, roast pork or venison. Creamy cheeses also bring up its flavor nicely, and it goes surprisingly well with fiery fare: We enjoyed it with a Cajun-Italian mix of spicy okra and tomatoes over penne rigate.

WHEN TO DRINK: A couple of years in a good cellar will do this wine no harm, but I advise drinking Zin within five years or so after the vintage, while its trademark fruit is fresh.

Wine-Searcher.com lists a $15 average U.S. retail, the winery posts a $16 suggested retail price. I was delighted to pick up a bottle locally for $14; it’s certainly a good bargain throughout the middle teens.

The winery offers a short fact sheet and a purchase opportunity at this link.

Check prices and find vendors for Bonterra California Zinfandel on Wine-Searcher.com.

Follow this Wine-Searcher link to find listings for dozens of other Bonterra wines with vendor and price information.


Wine Focus: Wine 303 – Zinfandel and its family

Ah, Zinfandel! Wine Focus this month bridges summer and fall with Wine 303 – Zinfandel, the bold red grape that was long declared America’s grape for its strong and early status as an iconic California wine … until wine scientists using DNA research found that its roots reached back to Croatia, where its identical DNA twins Crljenik Kasteljanski and Tribidrag had grown for centuries, maybe as far back as ancient Rome. Southern Italy’s Primitivo is the same grape too, perhaps transported across the Adriatic from the Balkans in ancient times. And Plavac Mali, another Croatian grape thought to be a Zin ancestor, turned out to be a similar cousin. So let’s celebrate Zin and all its family in Wine Focus this month. Bring your Zin, or a Primitivo, or even a Crljenik if you can find it, and let’s talk about Zin! Here’s your link: Wine 303 – Zinfandel and its family


Good wines we’ve tried under $10.99!

Want tips to still more good, inexpensive wines? Here are Wine-Searcher links to vendors and prices for a bunch more wines for $10.99 or less that I’ve told you about in recent years. In some cases the prices may have risen over the $10.99 mark since I reviewed them, but they should still be excellent bargains. Please tell us about your favorites!

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