Even to a Californian, discovering the Sierra Foothills can be as surprising as a visit to, say, the Ahr Valley in Germany. Maybe you knew there was such a place, and that it made wine. But how could you know which of its wines might be worth drinking?
After blind-tasting 354 Foothills wines over the past two years, it’s clear there are many worth your attention, and not just the region’s signature Zinfandels.
Like a tree that falls in the forest out of earshot, just because you haven’t uncorked a bottle of timeless Terre Rouge single-vineyard Syrah or luxurious Terra d’Oro Deaver Vineyard Zinfandel doesn’t mean they don’t exist. The same goes for creamy-textured Viogniers, tobacco-scented Tempranillos, Barberas bursting with cherries and a mother lode of other outstanding Foothills wines.
You may not recognize the names of star wineries like Renwood, Boeger, Scott Harvey and newcomer Baiocchi because 95 percent of producers here are too small to be picked up by national distributors. So the wineries do the majority of their business direct to consumers via tasting rooms and email lists. Luckily, 92 percent of Americans can legally receive wines shipped direct, so it’s time to start researching some of these brands.
The direct-sales approach dictates that most wineries make an array of wines in hopes that tasting-room visitors will find at least one that they love. That selection makes it difficult to say what the best varietal wines are, with the exception of Zinfandel, which has the longest track record and claims the greatest number of high ratings.
Growers in the 2.6 million-acre Sierra Foothills American Viticultural Area (AVA) take advantage of its mostly hilly or sloping vineyard sites. Elevations vary from several hundred feet (on the western edge that touches the San Joaquin Valley) to more than 3,000 feet at the eastern extremes.
A complex jumble of exposures allows producers to choose between warmer, western-facing locations for heat-loving Zinfandel and cooler angles for Chardonnay or Merlot. As the climate runs mostly warm to hot, there’s little or no Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris or Riesling.
Many vines grow in well-drained soils of iron-rich red volcanic matter, fine-grained shale or gray- and black-speckled decomposed granite. None of these soils are very fertile, and thus, ideal for low-yielding grapevines intended to make high-quality wines.
The delineated AVA is vast. It includes eight counties that stretch 120 miles roughly north to south along scenic Highway 49, set 80 miles inland from San Francisco. The preponderance of top wines come from Amador County, Calaveras County and El Dorado County, including the sub AVAs of Fair Play, Fiddletown and California Shenandoah Valley. There are 203 bonded wineries here, yet only 6,000 acres of vines are planted.
Zinfandel grapes are planted throughout the region, and accounted for 33 percent of the wine grapes crushed in 2014. Foothills Zin comes in at least three styles: the blockbuster with gorgeous ripeness and ample alcohol; a reserve style with firm tannins, medium to full body and complex flavors; and the easy-going Zin that you find yourself gulping by the glass.
Dig deeper into the old vines of the Sierra Foothills in our companion piece above.
The diversity encouraged by tasting-room sales is evident in Rhône-, Italian- and even Iberian-style red wines. These can be more novel than the Zins, and they’re generally drier and more traditionally balanced. One of the region’s most popular festivals, Amador Four Fires, scheduled for May 7, will celebrate these three European wine styles and heritage California types. They’ll be paired with food cooked over open flames.
Maverick winery La Clarine Farm released a beautiful, unfiltered (even cloudy) 2013 Sumu Kaw Syrah that makes the case for Rhône varietal wines, as does the beefy, smoky Helwig 2013 G.S.M. blend. White Rhône varieties seem particularly well suited here, producing rich but tangy wines for Donkey & Goat (another iconoclast, fermenting whites on the skins) and Cedarville Vineyard, among others.
The Barbera variety came to California from Italy in the early days of winemaking. Barbera now enjoys recognition in the Foothills, where Borjón makes impressive versions with bold flavors and great structure. A few producers make Sangiovese, as well, and the best have the pleasant bite and complexity of Chianti Classico.
A bounty of outstanding wines from a wide range of grape varieties doesn’t mean that all’s golden in the Sierra Foothills. With rather isolated wineries and minimal feedback from the traditional wine trade, mediocre and occasionally flawed wines slip through the cracks.
So, if you discover an occasional chunk of fool’s gold, don’t be discouraged. Prospecting for unusual and exciting wines in these hills can turn up some precious nuggets.
A multidimensional wine, this delicious example made from 130-year-old vines combines depth, breadth and length. It smells like ripe blackberries, tastes fruity and layered, feels luxurious and supple but at the same time firm in fine tannins and balanced by lively acidity. Medium to full bodied, it tastes great now and will improve through 2020.
A striking and flavorful wine, this bottling shows a little more spicy oak than most of the Renwoods, giving a slightly sweet cinnamon accent to the vivid blackberry and strawberry syrup flavors. The fruit character is powerful and delicious, seemingly seeping out of the wine in all directions. It’s dry, full bodied, firm textured and will drink nicely now through 2020.
While slightly reserved in aroma, this serious, special-occasion wine comes on steady and strong in flavor. Blueberry and black cherry notes pick up more raspberry and red cherry with each sip. In addition to fruit complexity, it has a full body, sleek texture and lingering finish. Best now through 2020.
Boeger 2014 Walker Vineyard Zinfandel (El Dorado); $20, 92 points. Editors’ Choice.
Brilliant strawberry and raspberry aromas, bright and effusive fruit flavors, and a sense of freshness and purity make this wine from one of El Dorado County’s oldest wineries a pleasure to drink. It’s full bodied, has a smooth texture, mild tannins and a lingering finish.
Built for aging, this tightly wound, elegant and yet grand wine is sure to develop more nuances and smoothness with time. It smells enticingly like cedar, tobacco and dark chocolate-covered blueberries, yet retains a firmness and reserve that doesn’t let those melt into richness on the palate quite yet. Store this confidently in a cool place and enjoy it 2020–2025.
Very dark, very full bodied and very flavorful, this dry wine combines aromas like blackberry jam and blueberry syrup, a rounded mouthfeel in spite of assertive tannins, and a lingering fruity finish. It will taste great now with big, meaty dishes, and is sure to improve through at least 2020.
Rich, balanced and complex, this offers lots of drinking pleasure. Aromas are lightly earthy and smoky, while flavors are full, layered, ripe but subtle enough to require more and more sips. The mouthfeel is the ideal combination of smooth juiciness supported by lots of fine tannins to give it a palate-cleansing effect.
This has a very deep, dark color that goes almost to the rim. It smells like blackberries and black pepper, tastes exotic and almost full-bodied but stays quite dry. It gives the sense of being well-stuffed with flavor but keeps a rather lean, lighter texture. Firm tannins give it structure and suggest drinking now through 2019.
A tasty array of delicious fruit flavors merges with meaty, savory, smoky nuances in this full-bodied, bold-tasting and very enjoyable wine. It smells like blackberries, blueberries and oak smoke, and tastes more wild and beefy until a wave of fruit envelops the finish. It shows interesting complexity along with lip-smacking allure.
A deep yellow-gold color and rich aromas of fig, marzipan and pear indicate this will be a concentrated, full-bodied wine, which it is. Flavors layer peach, pear and toasted almond. The texture is very creamy and smooth, and the finish lingers a long time. It’s a great example in the full-bore mode.
Be prepared for a murky visual in this unusual, concentrated and complex wine. The appearance is hazy and the color brassy, but the flavors are vivid, fresh and bracing. The mouthfeel has great acidity, an unusually thick texture and fine tannins. A sense of layering and intensity develops with more sips, and lingers on the finish.
Made in a deliciously oaky style, this smells like melted butter and toasted baguette, tastes like ripe pears drizzled with crème anglaise and feels almost sweet. The toasted oak component adds a touch of bitterness to balance the richness, and it all works beautifully for this approach.
If You Go...
Choose carefully if you seek a luxurious stay in the Sierra Foothills. But if you don’t mind creaky floors, outdated plumbing and the occasional ghost of a grizzled claim jumper, then almost any of the 19th-century hotels on the Wild West-looking main streets (the Imperial Hotel in Amador City, for example) will take you back in time.
Make your base in Placerville, adjacent to Highway 50, to explore El Dorado County. Walk the classic Americana Main Street to see everyday treasures like the oldest operating hardware store west of the Mississippi and the local newspaper office, where Mark Twain would feel at home. Heyday Café serves fresh, produce-driven food, and it pours well-chosen local and out-of-region wines. The Eden Vale Inn offers elegant interiors and pampering service inside handsome wood-beam and stone architecture.
The next stop south is Amador County, where you can lodge in style in the middle of eight-and-a-half acres at the Inn Behind the Wall. It’s outside Plymouth and close to the numerous tasting rooms in Shenandoah Valley that include stars like Easton, Turley, Helwig, Renwood and Montevina. Winemakers here say Taste Restaurant, on Plymouth’s short Main Street and on Wine Enthusiast’s list of Top 100 wine restaurants in 2014, is the best in the region for sophisticated cooking like roast guinea hen with toasted faro polenta, braised leeks and fava beans.
To explore Calaveras County further south, book a room in the tree-lined, comfortable town of Murphys, which has a particularly old-timey vibe. Alchemy Market and Café will fill you with comfort food like rib-eye steaks and iron-skillet mussels. There are 12 taps to quench your thirst, plus dozens of other bottled beers.