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Cozy up to zinfandel

Snow and cold weather blanket the Midwest and Northeast, and even Miami has had its version of a cold snap, with daily highs in the mid-70s. It's time for comfort foods -- beef stews, macaroni and cheese, tuna casserole, chili.

With comfort foods go comfort wines.

And some of the best of these are good old American red zinfandels. Big, rich and hearty, with no hard, tannic edges, no biting acids, just tons of fruit and flavor. A good zinfandel might taste like raspberries or plums, usually with a backing of mocha or espresso and a warming dash of alcohol.

Other wine writers I admire like to define zinfandel's flavor as "brambly." I've never understood this, so I looked it up. Turns out a bramble is "a prickly shrub of the genus Rubus, including the blackberry and the raspberry."

So they're defining the wine in terms of the shrub instead of the fruit? No wonder people make fun of us. Still, if you detect a hint of bramble, more power to you.

When you're choosing a zinfandel, you'll often run across the words "old vines" on the label. Winemakers brag about this because most wine fans agree that old vines -- up to 100 years of age -- make the best wine. Maybe it's because their roots have penetrated the earth down to 20 or 30 feet, finding better nutrients. Maybe it's because old vines produce less fruit -- often only a few bunches per vine -- thus concentrating all their efforts into fewer grapes.

Zinfandel vines are older in California because when the root louse phylloxera devastated more than half of that state's vines in the 1990s, requiring massive replantings, zinfandel was immune from the pest.

So Rodney Strong Vineyards, for one, has 15 acres of zinfandel vines dating back to 1904. And they produce a wine called Knotty Vines Zinfandel that is rich and smooth, with flavors of black raspberries and black pepper -- a marvelous wine. St. Francis Winery has zinfandel vines up to 100 years old, also producing concentrated, powerful wines.

It's a victory for codgers everywhere.

>Highly recommended:

2009 Rodney Strong Knotty Vines Zinfandel, Northern Sonoma, Calif.: Inky color, intense aromas and flavors of black raspberries and black pepper, rich and smooth, with a long finish; $18.

2008 St. Francis Winery Old Vines Zinfandel, Sonoma County, Calif.: aromas of cedar and spice, flavors of red raspberries, espresso and cloves; $22.

2008 Bonterra Zinfandel, Mendocino County, Calif.: pure red raspberry and cinnamon flavors, hearty and rich; $15.

>Recommended:

2009 Paul Dolan Vineyards Zinfandel, Mendocino, Calif.: dark red color, aroma of cedar, flavors of red raspberries and black coffee; $25.

2009 Quivira Vineyards Zinfandel, Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma County, Calif.: inky color, aromas and flavors of mulberries, cinnamon and black pepper, smooth; $20.

2006 Hahn Family Bin 36 Zinfandel, California: dark, soft and rich, with black raspberry and mocha flavors; $16.

2009 Ravenswood Vintner's Reserve Zinfandel, California: aromas and flavors of black plums and espresso, full-bodied; $9.

2009 Sutter Home Zinfandel, California: black cherry flavors, soft tannins, hint of sweetness, smooth; $7.

2009 Fetzer Zinfandel, California: black raspberry flavors, soft and round, ripe tannins; $11.