Mastering Mendocino’s Diverse Wine Country

To Mendocino County winemakers and growers, building a showcase winery or hanging out with wannabe collectors isn’t what’s important.

It’s all about the wine.

Some grew up in Mendocino County, and it’s what they know. Others left and came back to restore a family legacy. There are those who made wine elsewhere and ruled out other suitors, putting down deep roots here.

Beauty in Contrasts

This is a vast county that possesses extreme coastal beauty, hot and cold climates, old and new vines, and a growing reputation for world-class wines.

Mendocino County has earned much of its fame from the wines of its Anderson Valley subappellation.

Cool-climate Pinot Noir and Chardonnay flourish here, as do Alsatian-style whites like Gewürztraminer, Riesling and Pinot Gris. The area also produces some of the best sparkling wines in California.

Inland, American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) like Redwood Valley and Hopland, farmed for decades by descendants of Italian immigrants, contribute old-vine Zinfandel, Carignan, Petite Sirah and Syrah.

The continued presence of many of these family farmers, and the tenacity shown by subsequent generations, has helped preserve many of these coveted old vines.

Great Grapes, Great Value

In adjoining Lake County, grapes often cost half the price per ton of those grown in Napa Valley. Within the county, much excitement has grown around the Red Hills Lake County subappellation, high in elevation and rich in red volcanic soils.

There are also many areas within the AVA that excel with Sauvignon Blanc.

Two mountain ranges create the unique topography of Lake County. To the west are the Mayacamas Mountains, which also divide Napa Valley from most of Sonoma County.

On the east, the Vaca Ranges corner Napa’s heat from escaping further inland toward Sacramento.

Here, vineyards grow at relatively high elevations—95% are more than 1,000 feet above sea level.

Growers and winemakers believe the elevation gives Lake County grapes a signature intensity of ripeness, but also keeps them in balance.

“We get small berries with thicker skins,” says Peter Molnar, owner of Obsidian Ridge Vineyards. He’s also chairman of the Lake County Winegrape Commission. “The soils, slope, elevation and temperature swings all contribute to the retention of acidity here.”

Lake County’s climate and porous, mineral-rich soils are also heavily impacted by Mount Konocti and Clear Lake, which help maintain some of California’s cleanest air.

Up-and-Coming AVAs

Lake County remains quiet and sprawled out, the presence of its 28 wineries and 140 growers subtle. With five subregions already defined, Lake County awaits approval of two more AVAs, Big Valley and the Kelseyville Bench.

Longstanding Napa Valley star grower Andy Beckstoffer is also firmly entrenched in Lake County. He grows acres of Bordeaux varieties for such wineries as Duckhorn Vineyards, Joel Gott, Robledo Family,Steele and the Francis Coppola Diamond Collection.

In 2012, the Gallo family bought the gorgeous Snows Lake Vineyard in Red Hills Lake County, with 900 acres already planted with Cabernet Sauvignon and other grapes. This top-tier interest illustrates how Lake County has grown in stature.

Mendocino/Lake’s Top Varieties

Pinot Noir
Mendocino Coast and Anderson Valley Pinot Noirs are relatively light in body, color and texture, with invigorating spice, floral and red fruit notes.

Typically display notes of apple, melon and vanilla. Thanks to bright acidity, coastal Mendocino Chardonnay is often used in sparkling wines

Aromas include ripe cherries and blueberries, cocoa powder, toasted oak and coffee; others are more classically briary, with tobacco, nutmeg and black pepper accents.

Sauvignon Blanc
Lake County Sauvignon Blanc is among the most sought-after of the North Coast’s offerings, crisply ripe in stone fruit and tropical flavors.

Cabernet Sauvignon
Lake County Cabernet, especially when it’s grown on mountain ranges, has great tannic structure, intensely concentrated red-fruit flavors and balanced acidity.

Published on November 20, 2015
Topics: American wine, California

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