Why the Wines of Sierra Foothills are Liquid Gold

Why the Wines of Sierra Foothills are Liquid Gold
Photos by Mark Lund

At 250 miles long and 40–50 miles wide, the Sierra Foothills appellation covers 2.6 million acres over eight counties: Amador, Calaveras, El Dorado, Mariposa, Nevada, Placer, Tuolumne and Yuba, with the Sierra Crest to the east. It’s one of California’s largest and most diverse appellations.

Rhône varieties—most notably Syrah—as well as Sangiovese, Barbera, Nebbiolo and Sauvignon Blanc have helped to define the area. Old-vine Zinfandel also has a long history here in the heart of Gold Rush country. 

Rhônes on the Range

William Easton founded Domaine de la Terre Rouge in Amador’s Shenandoah Valley in the mid 1980s, specializing in Rhône varieties. Easton says he’s learned that the Foothills can grow practically any grape variety well, if it’s planted in the right site. 

An intellectual foodie who fell in love with the Rhône as a wine retailer, Easton moved to Fiddletown from Berkeley in the early 1980s. He was fascinated by the town’s microclimate and rich, old-vine Zins. 

At the time, the lone Rhône wine hailing from the foothills was Sierra Vista’s Syrah, which Easton had been selling at his shop.

Today, Easton produces up to six different Syrahs, many of them vineyard-designated. He calls Syrah the perfect varietal for the Sierra Foothills because of its quality and ability to develop with age.

His case is made convincingly via Terre Rouge Ascent, coaxed from grapes grown at an average of 3,000 feet. The highest-regarded wine ever made in the region, it’s a Syrah of intense complexity, fine tannins and craftsman-like structure.

Keeping Things Cool

In addition to Syrah, Terre Rouge produces a Vin Gris, Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, Viognier and Mourvèdre. It also makes Rhône-style blends: the white Enigma (Marsanne-Roussanne-Viognier) and two reds, Tête-à-Tête (Syrah-based) and Noir “Grande Année” (Grenache-based). 

Occasionally, the company releases apéritif and dessert wines.

Easton has led the charge among regional winemakers to hone in on cooler, higher-elevation sites based ideally in volcanic, decomposed red-granite soils. 

In addition to higher elevations, growers are seeking out canyons where cold air sinks, as the nights are colder and soils warm up late. Temperatures can vary by 40–50 degrees between day and night. Such locations allow winemakers to tame wines from jammy, overripe monsters to sublimely aromatic and intricate descendants of their best Italian and French forebears.

Fair Play Fares Well

Secluded in historic Fair Play, the husband-and-wife team of Jonathan Lachs and Susan Marks tend Cedarville Vineyard. They also are inspired by and invested in Rhône varieties, particularly Viognier, Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre. 

The Fair Play AVA measures 36 square miles and averages 2,500 feet in elevation. It sits atop layers of intensely decomposed granite, akin to the granite-based soils of Condrieu and Côte-Rôtie. 

The sloping hills throughout Cedarville’s vineyard lend the wines a cool-climate signature. They’re still plenty structured, like most of the Sierra Foothills, but tantalizingly full of spicy, meaty and smoky characteristics, too.

Wines reveal more of damp forest floor, wood smoke and minerality than big black fruit.

New Directions

Hank Beckmeyer came to the Sierra Foothills after working for a record label in Europe. He now quietly makes a name for himself as a leader in natural winemaking and experimentation through his small-production label, La Clarine Farm

On his tiny 2-acre home vineyard that sits at 2,600 feet, Beckmeyer grows Tannat and Grenache, which he often blends together. He likes the density and firm tannins of the Tannat in combination with Grenache’s aromatics. 

He has also made Viognier-Semillon-Marsanne blends as well as rosé from Syrah and Mourvèdre, foot-crushing the grapes before pressing. He doesn’t de-stem, hoping to balance out what he sees as the Foothills’ “exuberant” fruit.

Shaking Things Up

Many winemakers are exuberant about the fruit they get from Ann Kraemer of Shake Ridge Vineyards, one of the most respected names in the Sierra Foothills. 

Kraemer grew up as one of eight siblings on a Southern Californian orange grove. Eventually, she moved onto farming wine grapes, serving as viticulturalist at a handful of top Napa names, including Beaulieu,Silverado, Domaine Chandon and Swanson, before getting the itch to have a vineyard of her own.

She searched throughout Northern California for the right spot. In 2001, she settled on a cleared, yet undeveloped expanse along a 1,650- to 1,810-foot ridge above the town of Sutter Creek. 

At first, Kraemer worried that the region would be too hot. She soon found out that nighttime temperatures during growing season are plenty cool, as low as 50 degrees even after a 100-degree day.

Shake Ridge Vineyard has become one of the most famous sites here, 46 premium acres planted in all, its name adorned on many fine Zinfandels. Its Rhône grapes are coveted by cult Napa-based producers like Favia and Keplinger Wines.

Approximately half of her vineyard remains Zinfandel, but the next serious chunk is all Rhône—Syrah, Grenache, Viognier and Mourvèdre. She uses bits of it all for her own brand, Yorba Wines.

She’s placed Grenache and Mourvèdre in the warmer swells of her vineyard, while the Syrah and Viognier sit in cooler spots to better preserve their pretty aromatics. 

Working with several different clones of Syrah, she’s able to offer winemakers a slew attractive characteristics like meaty versus spicy, and bright fruit versus very dark berry.

The Stars of Shake Ridge

Shake Ridge Vineyards has become a sought-after source for many up-and-coming-winemakers based in Napa Valley who can’t wait to get their hands on its fruit.

Among those doing great things with Shake Ridge grapes are Andy Erickson and his wife, viticulturalist Annie Favia, considered young Napa royalty. In addition to making wine under their small label,Favia, they consult to Dalla Valle, Arietta, Ovid, Harlan,Screaming Eagle and David Abreu Vineyard Management

Favia Quarzo is the couple’s Syrah, named for the quartz crystals found in Shake Ridge’s soils. 

The Favia Rompecabezas (Spanish for jigsaw puzzle) blends Grenache, Mourvèdre and Syrah. Favia’s Suize Viognier is named for a female Gold Rush prospector whose tireless spirit and dogged determination makes Erickson and Favia think of Shake Ridge’s Ann Kraemer.  

Helen Keplinger makes Lithic, a blend of Grenache, Mourvèdre and Syrah from Shake Ridge. Fruit is sourced from blocks on rock-filled slopes with great exposure, wind circulation and drainage. 

Vines love the ancient volcanic-red soils and rocky terrain, a mix of quartz, basalt, soapstone and shale.

Keplinger and Kraemer started working together for Keplinger’s 2007 Sumo, a Petite Sirah made in a Côte-Rôtie style, cofermented with Viognier and Syrah, that Keplinger has nicknamed the “velvet sledgehammer.”

Sierra Foothills’ Top Varieties

Marked by concentrated black fruit, tar, licorice and cedar flavors and silky, balanced tannins, these well-structured Zins are the top-billed stars of the region. 

Fruity, soft and high in acidity, usually drunk young, Barbera is a fresh, food-friendly wine that many in the Foothills think could be the area’s next big thing. 

Often made in a Chianti Classico style, Foothills Sangiovese is forward in rich cranberry and cherry flavor with a touch of spice; versatile with food.

Sauvignon Blanc
Crisp, floral and creamy, this grape shows flavors of pear and melon in much of the Foothills. Its balanced minerality makes it an outstanding match with food.

A wine of great body, richness and mouthfeel, with lime, Meyer lemon, apricot and peach flavors, honey on the nose, and a slight taste of stone.

Published on November 24, 2015
Topics: California Travel GuideCalifornia Wines