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Profile Six: How Varietals Differ from Taste Profiles and Where We Dive into Zinfandel, Malbec and the Gold Rush

Profile Six: How Varietals Differ from Taste Profiles and Where We Dive into Zinfandel, Malbec and the Gold Rush

In our series on terrior and profiles versus vartietals we’re exploring our Profile Six and some of the wines that make up this luscious, soft, sweeter red. 

Malbec, even though it too has a thin skin, unlike the pinot noir grape, it’s got large berries in big, loose bunches and also unlike pinot -which is delicate and finicky – you’ll find malbec happily growing all over the world. It only truly thrives though, in places that can give it extra sunlight, extra heat (but not too much) and plenty of water in soil that drains well. Think Antelope Valley (about 60 miles due north of LA as the crow flies) in the California High Desert. Malbec, like many other grapes, will succumb to rot in conditions that are too cool and wet, so, desert. Not surprisingly when you look at the maps below, malbec also thrives in the similar climate of Mendoza, Argentina, one of the world’s biggest producers of the varietal.

Antelope Valley, CA
Mendoza, Argentina

This terrior produces the qualities we expect in Malbec: fruit aromas of raspberry, cherry, plum and raisins, earthier qualities of coffee, chocolate, balsamic and leather. When aged in oak, you’ll get notes of vanilla as well. How acidic they are depends on where they’re grown, (malbec grapes from France can be quite high in acid, requiring a long aging period) and most malbecs have moderate tannins, though its strong fruit components often even out any bitterness or over-tannic experience on the palate. In our article on Profile Five, we talked about the most famous of all blends, Bordeaux, and what goes into that – a combination of three or more of merlot, cabernet sauvignon, malbec, cabernet franc, petit verdot and carmenère. Malbec, with its inky intensity, is often used in blends. Side note: if you come across a claret, that’s just a Bordeaux-style blend made outside of Bordeaux – like Champagne, Scotch or Bourbon, you can’t call it a Bordeaux unless it was made in a certain place.

Not surprisingly, Malbec comes from the Cahors region, the same general area as the other wines found in Bordeaux, and it dates back to the 16th century when it was called Auxerrios. Popular opinion is that a certain Monsieur Malbeck planted the grape in Bordeaux and then claimed it as his own. 

Zinfandel has a very different story. With its original ancestors dating back to 6000 BC way over in Caucasus (Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Southern Russia), current zin vines grown in California can be traced directly back to vines from the Dalmatian coast of Croatia – with the same DNA. But zinfandel didn’t go straight from Croatia to Sonoma. Historians at UC Davis have traced the vine’s path to nursery owner George Gibbs, who brought cuttings back from Vienna in the 1820s. In the mid 1840s, another East Coast plant man, Frederick Macondray, brought the vines with him from Massachusetts to California. 

The 1849 gold rush tapped California out of most of its lumber and wire, but zinfandel grapes need very little structure or equipment: picture vineyards where you see the vines staked to long fence-like structures of fence posts and wire – zin doesn’t need this to thrive and can be head pruned in the traditional European style – vignerons use a simple split redwood stake at each vine – a technique so effective for producing low quantities of high quality grapes (this is a good thing), cross cultivation for weed control and organic pest prevention – it’s still widely used in California today. 

Old vine zinfandel, Lodi, CA

Zinfandel had a surge during this period, but like nearly all of California’s coastal and central valley vineyards, from Mendocino all the way down to San Luis Obispo counties, zin was hit hard by the phylloxera (a microscopic louse or aphid that loves grape vines) plague a decade or so later. But because of its ease in growing and tending and earlier popularity, zinfandel was one of the first vines replanted in the mid 1880s. By the 1950s, zinfandel was again one of the most important varietals grown in California. 

We love zin for its hints of spice and bright dark fruit notes like raspberry and black cherry. Similar to malbec, zinfandel loves higher-altitude vineyards and loamy, sandy, clay-filled soils. California grows its best zins in Napa Valley, which has an altitude that ranges from 760 to 2600 feet. The mild warmth of the valley – that Goldilocks spot between the heat of the Sacramento valley to the east and the too damp, too cool weather of the coast to the west – is the perfect place for the slightly delicate zinfandel grapes to thrive. While the vines are strong and robust, the grapes themselves are thinned skinned like pinot and malbec, and they grow in large, tight clusters, which leaves them susceptible to bunch rot. Thank goodness for the perfect climate of the Napa Valley – one of the reasons BOXT chose Napa for our winery.

So let’s talk about petite sirah, or is it syrah? Or even shiraz? Petite sirah is its very own varietal, not to be confused with syrah, which is also sometimes called shiraz. Clear as mud? Let’s break it down. Europeans and Americans call it syrah, Australians call it shiraz, but it is still the same grape. Syrah/shiraz, unlike zin, has small, oval berries that are nearly blue-black (like pinot) that tend to shrivel when ripe. The wine they produce is a deep purple-red with medium to high acidity and tannins. What you call it all comes down to location. We don’t know the birthplace of syrah/shiraz, but it has a long history in the Rhone Valley (due east of our other wines that hail from Bordeaux) and is a cross between Dureza and Mondeuse Blanche. The Austrailians and Californians got into shiraz/syrah in the early part of the 19th century and are now its biggest producers. James Busby, a Scottish viticulturist, is responsible for the change in location and name of syrah to shiraz, having brought the first cuttings from France to Australia in the 1830s. He labeled his cuttings Scyras and Ciras, hence the confusion and new pronunciation. 

But what about petite sirah (and let’s be clear, not petite syrah, which is a cross between syrah and peloursin, a rare French varietal from the Rhone-Alpes region.) Petite sirah is more commonly known, outside of the US, as Durif, owing its name to Francois Durif who is said to have discovered it in the mid 1800s. The durif/petite sirah grape is small and very dark, nearly black, like a syrah, shiraz or pinot noir grape. France grows little petite sirah anymore, with California taking over the market after Charles McIver brought the grape over in 1884. Petite sirah takes the tannins and acidity a step further than syrah, producing a big wine ideal for aging or blending. 

How do these three wines differ in taste? We say three, because even though syrah and shiraz have the same parent grapes, terrior (the entire environment the vine is in all year long, from soil, to sun, to wind, to rain) plays a huge role in how a grape tastes.

Since syrah is generally grown in a cooler climate, you’ll get moderate acidity and tannins, notes of red plum, blueberry (notice how different that is than the zin with raspberry and cherries – that’s partly why they are so great when blended together), chocolate and earthy tones of mild pepper, herbs and floral notes. 

The warmer climate where shiraz grows helps bring out notes of blackberry, black plum, cloves and other baking spices like anise or licorice and even tobacco. Tannins and acidity are similar to syrah. 

Petite sirah gets a little more complex with stronger tannins and acidity, as well as aromas and notes that match it’s inky color – dark chocolate, coffee, caramel, black plum and smokey fruits along with spices. That’s why we like to use it in our Profile Six. It’s part of what gives this delectable wine it’s depth, it’s gorgeous dark color and its fruit-forward velvety smoothness. 

But don’t just take our word for it. Have yourself a little taste test with BOXT Profile Six and these varietals and see what you think. We’d love to hear all about it. Drop us a line at hello@drinkboxt.com or find us on instagram @drinkboxt.


Stags’ Leap Winery Petite Sirah 2018

Rombauer California Zinfandel 2019

Zuccardi Concreto Malbec 2019

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