The Best Zinfandels for Less Than $20
I make no secret of my love for zinfandel. It’s California’s greatest red wine, with petite sirah making it a competitive race. Yes, that goes against the cabernet orthodoxy, but I find too much cabernet tastes alike, and not compellingly like cabernet, while lots of zinfandel tastes just like zinfandel, and offers better value than cabernet to boot. Unfortunately, value is becoming something of a relative thing, still secure near the upper levels of the zinfandel hierarchy, which remains roughly in the $35 to $50 range, but perhaps less so under $20 or so (and there’s no reason to discuss wines above $50, for I am not a buyer there).
So what can you expect for a zinfandel that's less than $20? Fortunately quite a bit. You’ll find varietal character: great fruit, brambly notes, good acidity, moderate tannins. You’ll find regional expression that is discernable, and you’ll find enjoyment in the bottle, which has historically been one of zinfandel’s advantages. These are wines for the hedonist: you don’t need to make excuses for these wines, and there’s no saying that they’ll need more time. These are ready to go, and with the vast majority of people enjoying a bottle of wine within hours of purchase, that’s another advantage in the zin court.
So jump right in. $20 is not an insignificant amount of money, but it delivers a lot of value with these zinfandels.
Floral and spicy oak aromas top a nice base of peppery pastrami-like meatiness. This is fairly tight in the mouth and needs a little time to tame the lightly aggressive tannins. Dark, jammy strawberry fruit and lovely spice notes emerge on the mid-palate followed by layered vanilla, black raspberry fruit, and French oak spice on end of moderately long, moderately tannic finish. A little atypical, but I really like this. 90 points
Nice and precise on the nose, with slightly herbal, chaparral brush and edgy, wild berry fruit aromas. In the mouth there are lovely herbal shadings to the core of dark cherry fruit. This is smooth and supple, with nice soft tannins and integrated acidity, and while it does turn just a little jammy on the finish, it’s a very happy wine. 90 points
Smoky, burning chaparral top notes greet the nose followed by subtle toasting Middle Eastern spice notes over red berry fruit. There’s a little pine-like note adding freshness on the light and zesty entry, which is followed by rich blackberry fruit that's a little tight and earthy with a nice briary edge. 89 points
Dark, oily, and extracted on the nose with floral top notes and oily seed aromas. The nose does offer up some fine fresh perfumes of wild fruit. On the palate there’s an early rush of blackberry fruit in a lighter style, decidedly medium body with lovely bright fruit, zesty berry flavors and fine tannins that lead to a moderately long finish. 88 points
Very pretty, and very Dry Creek Valley, with lovely, nice briary fruit that’s full of crushed raspberry and wild cherry nuances. A little plump and easy going, but varietally spot-on with fairly deep zin berry fruit, good acidity that accents tart cherry flavors on the back end, and a little tannic bite on the modest finish. Also a bit four-square perhaps, but this checks all the boxes. 87 points
With a nose that’s a bit smoky and oily, this remains attractive with deep, dark berry fruit. Firm in the mouth, if a bit hollow across the mid-palate, this lacks some detail but does offer up a nice, elegant and firm core of black cherry and blackberry fruit that finishes with a bit of dry tannin. A bit old-school. 87 points
Chocolatey and ripe on the nose with vanilla and a little coconut layered over black cherry fruit. This is bright and juicy in the mouth, with layers of blue fruit, raspberry and red currant flavors topped with gentle spice, yielding to a light finish that shows a hint of firmness. 86 points
— Gregory Del Piaz, Snooth