The Turley Zinfandel Paradox

I’m a traditional-wine-style guy. That means my taste and constitution lean toward the leaner side of weight with kaleidescopic aromatics. Think of great Ontario Chardonnay or perfect Chianti Classico. While I’ve enjoyed many a full-throttle bottle, that was in far younger years. I can no longer handle wines that are generous in everything but acidity and dimension, be it sappy South-Auz Shiraz or extracted La Mancha Monastrell. So, if Zinfandel is best known for that bigliness in an all-American way, why do I like Turley Wine Cellars‘ wines? Let’s call it the Turley Zinfandel Paradox.

Turley Wine Cellars Old Vine Zinfandel California labelFacts  

  • Many California mesoclimates encourage high sugar-levels (so big-alcohol).
  • Common modern winegrowing practices enhance size and fruit expression.
  • Zinfandel naturally reaches high sugar concentration at ripeness.
  • Turley Zins can range from 15.1% to 16.9% alcohol, which equals HUGE.

But Turley Zins, while big, are also fresh, firm, complex, age-worthy, and they evolve, How?

Big but built

For starters, let’s acknowledge that big things can still be lithe. Take Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Priorat, and some Amarone as examples. The best of these are full and rich, but they also have firm acid and tannins, whose tartness and bitterness offset the soft sweetness of the alcohol and fruit.

What does Turley have and do?

Vine age

Some years after starting Frog’s Leap with John Williams, Larry Turley started his own adventure. He sought old vineyards which, of course, mean lower yields. And lower yields usually mean better wine. The easiest-to-understand reason is that more of the vines’ “energy” goes into less fruit.

Most of Larry’s 47 vineyards up and down the state range between 75 and 135 years old. These are in Napa, Sonoma, Lodi, and Paso Robles. For perspective, if 5 tons per acre is in the low range for yield, the Dogtown vineyard in Lodi gives 3/4 of a ton per acre in a good year.

Turley Wine Cellars Dogtown Vineyard Lodi California bottle
Vineyard health and management

Healthy vineyards equal healthy fruit. All of Turley’s vineyards are organic, which Larry started converting in 1986 (among the first in California). Organic vineyards enable earlier physiological ripening, which in turn leaves the acidity higher and the sugar slightly lower at the point that the flavours have developed.

Along with organics, all of the vineyards are dry-farmed, meaning they don’t irrigate; not even for dying vineyards they need to resuscitate. The vines are forced to find naturally occurring soil moisture (which let’s face it, California isn’t famous for these days). So, compost replaces irrigation and introduces microbes to naturally strengthen the vines’ constitution against nematodes and other diseases.

At these ages and in the natural environment, the vines find their own balance, so little intervention in the vineyard is necessary. Recently, they’ve moved to less leaf-pulling, which also helps to “harvest earlier with good skin-ripeness and lower grape sugars,” explains Stephen Tanzer about the Hayne vineyard in Napa.

Old-school philosophy, traditional methods

Along with the old-and-interesting vineyard mission, Larry primarily sought out Zinfandel as California’s quintessential grape. And quintessential in that it would best express these sites. This thinking is the opposite of the general new-world approach, where the site serves the purity of the fruit, not the other way around.

Those old vines, organic vineyards, and resulting acid-sugar-flavour rati0 are the important groundwork for that true vineyard expression. Then there’s what you do with (and don’t do to) it all. Turley allows wild, local yeast to wild-ferment the grapes. These yeasts grow in the vineyard and are much more varied than selected cultures. The result is more complex aromas.

They also press whole berries (rather than crushing first to separate the silkier free-run juice from the pressed juice), allow long, gradual fermentations, and don’t fine or filter. Then, they age in mostly French oak (80%), which better integrates the flavours and allows slower oxidation. These techniques encourage structure, texture, and longevity.

“Old” and “new” world is an obsolete concept

One of the first things the wine curious learn is that “new world” wines emphasize fruit power and softness over site. Conversely, “old world” wines are earthy and structured. But it’s time to change that language. It’s time to abandon it, in fact. Winegrowing and making have evolved enough to blur those definitions. As Larry and his team show, you can have old-world feeling from new world vineyards and vice versa.

Some lament the homogenization of wine styles as knowledge and technology progress, and as the purpose changes to suit demand. But what’s so exciting are the lessons we can trade.

Today, the best of the new world is making “traditional” wines–those that invest in vineyard health, show some restraint, elegance, an ability to evolve, but can still be big and true to themselves. And the old world is learning about fruit, fleshiness, and earlier pleasure without sacrificing placeness.

Turley is no paradox

For its part, Zinfandel is the cover girl for big, soft, ripe, fruity wine. More than that, it’s grow in a hyper-technological, research-focused, advancement-chasing, modern winemaking culture. But Turley wines are not some magical exception to the laws of nature. They are the result of science applied to the wisdom of history on a different standard of “good” and a more precise definition of “authentic”.






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