There are wines that seem to live on their nuances, demanding careful attention and rewarding the finest of sensitivities. There are wines that deflect all contemplation, emphasizing ease and pleasure. There are wines of quiet and tenderness and wines of uproar and power. Some wines are all interior; others are gregarious. Some wines are like the noontime sun; others stalk the night streets. Then, there’s zinfandel, which encompasses all of these.

I’m usually drawn to wines that exude balance, finesse and precise flavors, as well as a willingness to help out at the dinner table. I usually eschew wines that seem to blanket the situation, prance, smother my emotional response and numb the palate. Zinfandel is often in the latter camp, yet I’m continually swept up in its genial embrace.

Why? I’m not sure. But I think it has something to do with the fact that zinfandel defies that very question. If a good zin could speak when I ask why I love it, it would say something like, “Oh shut up and give me a hug, you big goof!”

Like all all-American treasures, zinfandel isn’t quite all-American. The origins of the grape lie, according to the latest though not fully conclusive research, in a varietal known in Croatia as tribidrag. Plavac mali, from another part of Croatia, and primitivo, from the southern Italian area of Puglia, are also in the mix. The story of zinfandel’s travels to and within this country is fascinating, a classic tale of immigration, transition, disparagement and resurrection. The gnarly old vines that produce most of the best zins are visual expressions of a tortuous history.

Zin is big, but it’s interesting big. With the good ones, each initial taste is an irresistible come-on, a sexy blast of rich, purple-hued fruit. If it stopped there, it would be malbec. But it rarely stops there.

After the bite of pie comes the trademark spiciness, tamarind depth and additional secondary impressions: smoke, cinnamon, fresh tobacco, licorice, black pepper. The mouth is more fully inhabited by a taste of zinfandel than by any other wine I can think of, though in the many overwrought, overcompensating, overdone zins on the market, the habitation feels congested and messy, as if squatters had taken over.

The culprits for that situation are zin’s Achilles heels: overly vanillin effects of too much treatment in new oak, and high alcohol. Naturally high in sugar, zinfandel grapes left too long on the vine gain so much potential alcohol that if fermented to dryness the wines can reach levels over 16 percent. A “low-alcohol” zinfandel is usually still above 14 percent, though a few sub-14s exist.

The saving grace is all of zin’s other aspects (not just the flavors, but mineral notes and complicated textures), which can collaborate to provide balance in a wine whose pure numbers would suggest something off-kilter. And beware less expensive zins with alcohol levels that have been artificially lowered using reverse-osmosis machines. You don’t taste a lot of actual wine in one of those.

All that new American oak? I’m not sure why it’s used, why it’s often overused. Zinfandel grapes have relatively low tannins and a natural sweetness that don’t suggest a need for the tempering effects of aggressive wood regimens. My guess is this: zinfandel is infamous for ripening unevenly. A given bunch on a vine will contain fully ripened grapes next to green ones. The farmer can either harvest by hand in multiple passes, which consumes both time and money. Or he can do it all in one fell swoop and hope to compensate in the cellar for his rush in the fields, by implementing aggressive oak treatment that covers up the imperfections in the raw material.

Oak ought to be a tempering agent to affect structure, ageability and texture, not a flavor profile in itself. But unscrupulous corner-cutters in the industry have convinced certain customers otherwise.

Anyway, part of why I love zinfandel wines is that I dislike so many of them. Encountering a successful one – delicious, fruity, preternaturally bold, deep-dark, spicy – is a unique experience. No other wine with similar character and goals – cabernet sauvignon from California, shiraz from Australia, malbec from Argentina, Priorat from Spain – does what zin does. And no two good zins are very much like each other.

Regional differences matter, of course, though I’m not as informed on these as I’d like to be. For that I blame the economics of the California wine industry: It’s so much easier for wineries to sell their products at tasting rooms or through online-enabled wine clubs that too little of the category’s breadth is represented in Maine’s general market. I’d love to drink enough Santa Cruz Mountain AVA zinfandels to be able to write cogently about them, but how relevant would that be?

For now, I’ll keep searching, keep running into the “wrong sort of zins,” keep finding the needles in the rough. And I’ll keep eating, too. Zin’s outsize American character demands big, comfort-food style meals: plates all over the table, sauces, fat. Classic matches are wet-sauce barbecued meats and burgers, meatloaf, sausage-laden pizza. But don’t stop there. Try zin with spice-rubbed salmon, curries, warm-climate island dishes with tamarind and chilies, and rather surprisingly, difficult accompaniments like kimchi and chutney.

The zins of Ridge Vineyards are benchmarks, a tribute to chief winemaker Paul Draper’s commitment to the grape’s potential for seriousness that dates back to the early 1960s. There are several of Ridge’s single-vineyard zins newly available in Maine, but the Three Valleys 2012 ($29) is an ideal starting place. A blend of grapes from seven Sonoma vineyards (including 18 percent non-zin varietals, primarily petite sirah and old-vines carignane), hand-harvested and fermented with indigenous yeasts, the wine expresses a suppleness and deep calm that can’t be faked.

The fruit is of a primarily black nature, with other dark-tinged flavors, like teriyaki and squid ink, along for the ride. My one complaint, even with a wine of such balance and brightness, is the usual: a bit too much oak. But Ridge makes wines to age, and I’m certain the oaky aspect will integrate over time.

Vines on the Marycrest’s Remo Belli Zinfandel 2012 ($23), from Paso Robles, is one of my perennial favorites. This sub-region of the San Luis Obispo area is known for relatively dramatic diurnal temperature shifts, which yield more acidity and a softer texture than many other zins express. A zin of harmony and silkiness, where so many are known for being bold and spicy, reveals much of the category’s hidden diversity. Supremely fresh and energetic, behind flavors of sweet spice and sun-dried tomato, this is a food lover’s zin and ideal warm-weather companion.

Dry Creek Vineyards offers a more recognizable, “classic” flavor profile: black cherry, vanilla, pepper. I recently drank three successive vintages of The Heritage Vines Zinfandel ($18), and found the differences exciting. The 2011 (no longer available for sale) and 2012 are mature and settled, a remarkable improvement upon the 2013. That’s not because the 2012 is a better wine, but because it’s an older one. The disappointing aspects of the 2013 – overly prominent oak, tannins hitting out of nowhere, noticeable alcohol – are fuel for how the wines will develop successfully. An age-worthy sub-$20 wine is always to be celebrated. (But for now, buy the still-available 2012.)

Or, right now, you can drink a terrific Napa Valley zin from 2010. That’s the current vintage of the refreshing, ravishing D-Cubed Zinfandel ($26). The barrel effects have been softened by the time in bottle, the cola and tobacco elements scream for the grill, the electric acidity holds your tongue in thrall. It’s hard to imagine the misanthrope who would dislike this wine, but as with all good zin, its almost human affability is merely the enticement to discover many hidden treasures.

Joe Appel works at Rosemont Market. He can be contacted at:

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