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One Brilliant Bottle

organic/biodynamic/natural wines in Vinland

Frog’s Leap Zinfandel

United States (California)

zinfandel (76%), petit sirah, carignan(e)

I’ve made the leap across the Big Pond. Settled back in Newfoundland, where now winter is past and signs of spring are everywhere. I’ve only encountered one frog (and that one bottled) as I walk the perimeter of Quidi Vidi Lake, but others will show up in due course I’m sure.

I’m feeling the need to sit down with something new worldly, to set French wines aside for a while, and reacquaint myself with some of the fine producers in the North American neck of the woods.

California seems a logical place to start. and zinfandel, the most American of varietals, a logical grape as first choice. So straight into Napa Valley it is, where zinfandel was reborn and brought into vigorous life by a handful of dedicated producers in the 1970s.

It is here that John Williams of Frog’s Leap is to be found, among the mere 5% of Californian wineries that are organic (as compared to the Languedoc region of France where the figure is 35%). Something is out of sync here, considering the nation-wide movement toward organic production and California’s reputation as a healthy lifestyle leader. In which case what Frog’s Leap has done is all the more noteworthy.

And not because Williams thinks of it as a marketing tool. Being organic (and it’s been that way for 20 years) is not something he even mentions on his labels. “We’re doing it because it leads to higher quality,” he has said. “And it’s better for the health and longevity of the vineyard and the workers.”

The winery’s commitment to the environment doesn’t stop there. All its power is solar generated and it heats and cools its buildings using geothermal energy. Its new visiter centre was built using green building standards. On the human resources side of the operation, farm employees work year round, with benefits, and it has undertaken an initiative with other wineries so that more of the seasonal vineyard workers can be employed full time.

And what does that say about the taste of the wine in the bottle?

It says that what goes in is a reflection of the winery’s respect for what comes naturally to the terroir. The vineyards are dry-farmed (no irrigation), as would have been the tradition in Napa Valley up to 40 years ago. In fact Frog’s Leap wines harken back to the earlier days of Californian wines, when finesse and balance were the aims, rather than weight and power, which seems the case today, with many zinfandels hitting the scales at 15 or 16% alcohol and tasting like a muscular fruitfest. Frog’s Leap Zinfandel remains at an approachable, food-friendly 13.5%.

As Williams sees it, “Because of the unbelievable influence of critics, this modern style of high-alcohol wine is being exported all over the world. Their palates have lost any sense of nuance.”

Frog’s Leap Zinfandel 2007

I am struck immediately by the wildness of the fruit, the same rich, earthy quality I get from blueberries picked on wilderness trails. Add to that a thread of spice, a sparkle of acidity and I am openly charmed. Claret in colour, in character bright but substantial. It puts class ahead of showmanship. It certainly holds its own through dinner. With lamb it sings. I suspect with beef the same. Looking ahead to summer… with hamburgers on the barbecue it would doubtless hang on the highest notes. It is a wine that encourages the substantial Californian terroir to express itself, an attitude lamentably lost on other wine-makers in their quest for universal style.

Salut, John Williams. Long may your frogs leap and set the pace. (And your humour hold strong and your corks say ‘ribbit’!)   $




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