Once a small but booming industry around the turn of the century, El Dorado wine had essentially disappeared following prohibition and the end of the gold era. Growers re-discovered this region located at the ascent of the foothills in the 1970’s and El Dorado County is once again finding itself noted for it’s many wines. The reason is simple. Area winemakers, consumed with a spirit of experimentation are learning which varieties grow best in each vineyard much like the French have done over the last several hundred years. El Dorado’s climate has been compared to the Northern Rhone valley of France. Sloped vineyards and widely fluctuating daily temperatures due to the high elevation help the grapes reach ideal physiological maturity resulting in great wine. These intrepid explorers have also learned to keep crop levels down concentrating flavors and coaxing the maximum richness out of each grape. The soils of El Dorado vary dramatically and range from volcanic ash to nearly solid granite that must be blasted with dynamite before vines can be planted. What once was has now come full circle.
At a time when grape prices have been dropping throughout the state, the price per ton of grapes in El Dorado County have remained relatively steady. Others have seen the popularity of the Sierra Foothills and are purchasing El Dorado fruit for their own use. One major California winery has begun using the name Sierra on one of their lines, exploiting the popularity of the region as a marketing tool. While this practice may be legal, the grapes used in these wines are not from the Sierra Foothills and may lack the complexity and enjoyment of the real thing, much like gluing a Cadillac emblem on a Yugo
he rich and robust zinfandel the area is known for is now sharing the spotlight with several European varietals. As you wind your way into many of these wineries the lush green gardens and grounds will brighten your soul even before you take your first sip. On a recent trip we tasted many wines that have found their place and many others that will continue to evolve. The zinfandel, syrah, barbara and sangiovese were wonderfully structured, with spicy red berry and cherry fruit flavors with underlying notes of minerals indigenous to the region’s soil. The sauvignon blanc, pinot gris and marsanne offered good acidity, fruit and floral tones redolent of a citrus grove in the spring. (Danger: Addictively delicious!)The wineries are spread throughout the county with friendly tasting rooms and complimentary wine tastes. In total, there are of over 20 family wineries that make up the El Dorado Winery Association.
A short drive over the hill will find you in wine lover’s paradise and we have no doubt that after your visit, you will be singing the praises of El Dorado After a few glasses, you may be singing a few old miner’s songs too.
For more information and maps, visit www.eldoradowines.org.
Most wine lovers have probably never heard of the winery association known as the Rhone Rangers. We can assure you that it is not a renegade vigilante group aspiring to police the wine world. The Rhone Rangers is a consortium of American wineries producing wines made from the traditional grape varieties of France’s Rhone Valley.
The Rhone’s white varieties include viognier, marsanne and roussanne. The red wines are primarily made from syrah, petite sirah, grenache and mourvedre in addition to several minor varieties used in blends.
Every year the group hosts a tasting giving the wine trade and press a chance to taste hundreds of current releases and barrel samples. This year’s tasting reinforced what we have known for some time, Rhone varietals are well suited to the climate of the west coast. The diversity of the wines was astonishingly different depending on the climate where the grapes were grown. Syrah grown in cool climates, as a general rule, offered notes of fresh dark fruit with good acidity plus hints of mineral and spice. Warm climate syrah was more about ripe berries and big fleshy wines. While different, there were dozens of great wines in each style.
Of the three white varietals, viognier is our consistent favorite. Marsanne and roussanne have typically used as blending grapes to add complexity but there are a few wineries producing great wines exclusively with each varietal. Viognier is known best for its floral aromas of orange blossoms and honeysuckle. It makes a great accompaniment to spicy dishes such as Thai and stir-fry. Viognier is a wine that should be drunk young as it often begins to lose its aroma profile within a year or two from bottling.
Try a few Rhone varieties and you don’t even need a mask.
Imagine having 35 glasses of wine placed in front of you, each labeled with a number waiting for you to decide whether it is worthy of an award. The only information you will be given is the grape variety and the vintage. Repeat this scenario three or four times a day for three days strait. Yes, you must spit out all the wine, even the good ones! Major wine competitions require panels of four or five judges to evaluate over a hundred wines each day giving the best wines medals of gold, silver or bronze.
Each year over 2000 wines are submitted to the California State Fair of which only a few hundred will receive medals. Judges are wine professionals who must pass a rigorous all day test involving the identification of wine quality, faults and varietals. The competition is exhausting but one we enjoy.
Wineries submit wine to these competitions hoping to gain the marketing advantage a medal brings. There is an old saying in the wine industry that “gold means sold!”A medal winning wine must be free of faults, balanced and typical for the varietal.
A gold medal tells the consumer that the judges felt the wine was exceptional. Silver is given to very good wine lacking the completeness of gold quality. Bronze indicates an enjoyable wine, free of faults but without complexity.
A medal is no guarantee that you will like a wine but you will know that someone did.
Our wine journey has been one of exploration as we continue to learn and experience new wines. Each new vintage brings something new and unique that will never be duplicated again. The excitement of constant new discoveries is the catalyst behind the column as we travel the world’s wine growing regions, sharing our experience with our readers.