The great Zinfandel food match challenge

Drinks: Wines, Zinfandel
Location: North America, USA

Take five sommeliers, a few classy bottles of Zinfandel and a bunch of gutsy Californian dishes and here’s what we learned…


Donald Edwards - Donald Edwards, head sommelier, Le Bouchon Breton

Donald Edwards, head sommelier, Le Bouchon Breton

“Underrated as an excellent accompaniment to grilled cuts, Zinfandel has also been caught in the crossfire by a lot of UK press looking to assert their individuality and worth by knocking their better known US colleagues. ”


Sebastiani Zinfandel 2007, 14.%, Berkmann, £8.10
Ravenswood Old Vine Zinfandel 2005, 14.5%, Matthew Clark, £9.03
Seghesio Sonoma County Zinfandel 2007, 15.5%, Liberty, £13.95

THE FOOD Grilled andouillette: powerfully gamey tripe sausage, served with creamy mashed potatoes and a mustard sauce.

THE FAVOURITE Sebastiani – The mustard sauce worked particularly well, seeming to bring out a creaminess that had previously been absent on the palate. Worked well, complementing the dish and coping with the tripe character.

THE FOOD 250g rib-eye steak (rare), with pomme frites and a creamy mushroom sauce.
Overall far and away the best of the matches with all the wines, especially the slightly more tannic ones. There was a sense that here was a classic yet simple match.

THE FAVOURITE Ravenswood – The extra tannins and structure made for a very satisfying match here, with the char-grilled character on the edge of the steak really working with the slight earthiness of the wine.

Venison cutlet - Venison dishTHE FOOD North Indian spiced lamb cutlets, marinated in a garam masala, cumin, mild curry paste, shallots, garlic, crushed coriander and mixed with natural yoghurt. Marinated for six hours then oven roasted until medium rare. Served with pilau rice with golden raisins soaked in Domaine Durban, Muscat Beaumes de Venise.

THE FAVOURITE Seghesio – The spice of the dish worked nicely with the lower tannins in the wine, with exotic spices, cinnamon and cream coming out on the palate.

THE FOOD Spicy chilli pepper omelette (using fresh green and red peppers)

THE FAVOURITE Sebastiani – The wine that showed the most fruit with the chilli peppers.


Stephen Nisbet - Stephen NisbetStephen Nisbit, head sommelier, L’Ortolan

“There are still two areas of perception that will take time to shake off: the much trumpeted “show” wines and hugely expensive collector’s examples (which may take many years to show a delicate side, if ever); and the lakes of very average (at best) and often poor white, rosé and red examples that either benefit from or enhance any amount of effort to marry with food.”


Frog’s Leap Zinfandel, 2006, 13.5%, Fields Morris & Verdin, £14.15
Bogle Vineyards, Old Vine Zinfandel 2006, 15%,
Great Western Wines, £9.65
Delicato Family Vineyards, Gnarly Head Old Vine Zinfandel 2006, 14.5%, Bibendum, £8.60

THE FOOD Venison served with blackcurrant jus: our dish’s sauce is made from dark chocolate
and crème de mure with beetroot, salsify and red wine pickled cabbage on the side, and pancetta protecting the fillet.

THE FAVOURITE Bogle – Sweetness of fruit combined with sweet spice of well-managed oak. Goes well with crème de mure. The wine’s robust but ripe tannin and mineral structure stand up to cabbage. Also the earthy finish of the wine comes through to go with chocolate on the plate. The venison and wine were a harmonious match, with neither drowning out the other.

Pork Belly - Pork belly dishTHE FOOD Pork bellies with red wine reduction with beets and mushrooms.

THE FAVOURITE Delicato – Wine is quite chunky overall, with a broad base and mid palate, so we thought it went best with the mushrooms, which turned out to be the dominant flavour.
This solid base also fared the best with our pork belly, which we tasted separately. It was best suited to all elements plus the pork, which canbe a difficult cut.

THE FOOD Spiced scallops with butternut squash risotto. Smoked paprika, cumin, a little salt and black pepper used on scallops, with only a little salt added to risotto.

THE FAVOURITE Frog’s Leap – The wine’s subtle character and keen acidity with gentle ripe tannins suit this dish well. The spices of the scallops and richness of butternut are absorbed by the savoury palate. It worked well, not just because the other wines didn’t, but as a realistic suggestion instead of a grippy Pinot, for example.


Matthieu Longuere - Matthieu LonguereMatthieu Longuere, head sommelier, La Trompette

“Unfortunately, it is a quite inconsistent wine. There are as many good as bad examples of it. You just can’t pick a bottle on a shelf and know what to expect.”

Delicato Family Vineyards, Old Vine Zinfandel 2006, 14.5%, Bibendum, £6.82
Ridge, Lytton Springs 2006, 14.7%, Fields Morris & Verdin, £18.60

Grilled duck - Grilled Duck dishTHE FOOD Confit of duck with a rich jus.

THE FAVOURITE Ridge – This wine needs some time to integrate the oak. At the moment it makes the lot taste quite bitter but it still handles the richness of the jus quite well.

THE FOOD Grilled merguez.

THE FAVOURITE Delicato – Even though it is the wine that I liked the least, the spiciness
of the merguez adds some structure and texture to the wine.


Hamish Anderson2 - Hamish AndersonHamish Anderson, head sommelier, The Tate Group

“It’s a great grape with a bad image. It produces characterful, interesting wine across a range of styles. That is not, however, what the customer thinks. Most associate it with being big and alcoholic.”

Sebastiani Sonoma County Zinfandel 2005, 13.5%, Berkmann, £10.50
Eberle Winery Steinbeck Bush Vineyards 2007, 14.9%, Alliance, £18.06
Heitz Cellar Zinfandel 2004, 14.5%, Justerini & Brooks, £14.07

THE FOOD Lamb chops: ours were nice and charred on the outside and came from a young animal, so had delicate flavour.

THE FAVOURITE Sebastiani – Sweet fruit in the wine accentuated the natural sweetness of the lamb, and it was a nice counterpoint to char-grilled meat.

Roast Salmon - Roast Salmon dishTHE FOOD Seared salmon with Indian spices. We thought Indian spices definitely had a place with Zinfandel, but not with fish, particularly an oily one.

THE FAVOURITE Heitz – Being the most restrained and developed of the three wines, this really worked with the spicing of the dish. However we thought the fish got lost overall.

THE FOOD Cheese plate.

Eberle – This performed rather like a rich port and was best with Cheddar styles and blue cheeses in particular, the natural sweetness of the wine balancing the saltiness of the cheese.
Heitz – The extra age and complexity made it our favourite match with hard cheese. It worked fabulously with nutty, complex Montgomery Cheddar.


Andrea Briccarello - Andrea BriccarelloAndrea Bricarello, head sommelier, Galvin La Chapel
le/Café Deluxe

“It’s a bit of an underdog; customers and sommeliers are a little afraid of the bold flavours it can offer and the big alcohol stereotype doesn’t really help. Not for the faint-hearted.”

Sula Vineyards Zinfandel 2008, India (!), 13.5%, Novum Wines, £6.12
Clos du Val Zinfandel 2006, 14.5%, Boutinot, £11.83
De Loach Forgotten Vines Zinfandel 2006, 15%, Liberty, £15.33

THE FOOD Pork belly with red wine reduction, beets and mushrooms.

THE FAVOURITE Sula Vineyards – The jammy fruit and acidity cuts through the rich sauce and fattiness of the pork and it brings a touch of earthiness. It was the biggest surprise, especially the ‘low’ 13.5% alcohol and its origin in India?!?

THE FOOD Red peppers and couscous with Indian spiced roasted vegetables (fennel, parsnips, rutabaga and beetroot).

THE FAVOURITE De Loach – Balanced pairing, works well with the sweetness of the pepper. The cinnamon spice of the wine works well with the spices of the food. This wine also went best overall with each dish.

THE FOOD Venison with blackcurrant jus.

THE FAVOURITE Clos du Val – The wine gives a certain creativity to the dish. The tannins in this wine were too much for the pepper in the dish but it worked wonderfully with the venison.

Cheeses - Various cheesesMan swilling wine - Silhouette of man swilling wine round in a glassLamb chops - Lamb chop dish

California food suggestions provided by: Pamela S Busch, proprietor, CAV Wine Bar & Kitchen; Jen Paul Henaff, head sommelier, Ame; John Lancaster, wine director, Boulevard; Peter Joseph Palmer, wine director, Farralon. Thanks to all the sommeliers who took part, both here and in the US.

Editorial feature from Imbibe Magazine – November / December 2009

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