We all know that Zinfandel is the star of the Sierra foothills. The grape has a long heritage and is part of most winery portfolios. Old-vine examples of this variety provide us with wines of immeasurable depth and character of place, while more recently planted Zin vineyards give us plenty to look forward to as the young wines mature.
As the wine-consuming public embraced Chardonnay and Cabernet as the most popular varietals, foothill producers have done their best with those two varieties. While local producers have had some success with these grapes, they are seemingly overshadowed by other regions and the massive number of choices available to consumers.
More recently, we have seen several wine types emerge and our area wineries become the leaders of the pack for these varietals. Consider Barbera among these winners; it has emerged as an attention-getting foothill wine and it’s produced by several wineries.
But there are several other wines that are ready to make statements for the Gold Country cause. Before we get to specific varietals, I feel compelled to give a shout-out to the two fastest-growing wine categories among our winemaking community. On the national scene we have seen an explosion in the growth of dry Roses and red blends, and our wineries have also realized their growing popularity. Judging by the number of local wine entries and medal winners in foothill and statewide wine judging competitions, along with increased sales and good press, these are two styles that will continue to play bigger roles in many wineries’ lineups.
Several winemakers and vineyard managers have noticed an upswing in requests for local grapes for making Roses.
“I have had numerous inquiries from wineries outside our area about our Italian varietals for making Roses and, in particular, our Sangiovese,” observes Cody La Pertche, winemaker at Gianelli Vineyards near Jamestown. “It seems like more and more winemakers are fascinated by Italian varietals in general and are surprised to learn what is being grown up our way. ‘Wow! You grow Greco and Fiano?’ is a common line I heard this past harvest, although I think the two grapes are mostly being used in white blends as winemakers learn more about how to use them on their own.”
Nearby Hurst Ranch vineyard owner Leslie Hurst is experimenting with making her first Rose utilizing Sangiovese fruit from her vineyard near Jamestown. She was busy picking grapes with her crew when I caught up to her. She grows Cabernet Franc, Barbera and Sangiovese at her ranch and seemed happy with this year’s fruit, despite losing about a quarter of the grapes to a spring frost.
“We are picking a little earlier than usual as the sugar levels are good with the acid levels tending to be a little higher than normal,” Hurst said.
Growing challenges seem to have ramped up throughout this past year, with wineries up and down the foothills dealing with a number of problems, from a wet spring that included hail storms and frost in some areas to record-breaking heat for most of the summer. Couple that with the shortage of work crew pickers that necessitated night picking in a number of vineyards and the stress level and ongoing exhaustion for winemakers and managers is off the charts this harvest.
A few growers had to deal with fires that crept close to their vineyards. From the top of Gianelli vineyard you can literally see where firefighters stopped a major fire a couple hundred yards from rows of grapes. Early summer fires burned close to vineyards in nearby Mariposa and El Dorado counties, too.
Some white wine types that are gaining interest and are currently in limited production include the Italian varietal Vermentino, along with two Spanish varietals, Verdelho and Albarino. Several area vineyard managers have mentioned that wineries from Napa and Sonoma counties have reached out to foothill growers to request some of these varieties. While our regional examples of Vermentino tend to be slightly fruitier than their Italian counterparts, check out this refreshing white from Indian Rock Vineyards and Gianelli Vineyards in the south of the Mother Lode, along with Bella Grace and Wilderotter vineyards’ versions in Amador County. Terrific examples of Verdelho can be found at Bray and Deaver vineyards in Amador’s scenic Shenandoah Valley, and at Ironstone Vineyards outside Murphys in Calaveras County.
Albarinos from Twisted Oak and Bodega del Sur wineries in Calaveras are worth seeking out. Also, check out Hovey Winery’s C2 White Blend, a combination of Albarino and Verdelho.
With many more reds in our regional watch, one that is becoming more widely produced and appears ready to make a breakout move is Petite Syrah. Its inky, boldly spiced character has garnered many fans and offers a wide range of styles throughout our winemaking community. Often used as a blender with Zinfandel to boost color and complexity, Petit Syrah is gradually emerging as a favorite on its own. Seek out terrific examples from Cooper Vineyards, Sobon Estates, Borjon Cellars, Drytown Cellars and Convergence Vineyards in Amador County. In Calaveras and Tuolumne counties, try Petite Syrahs from Locke Vineyards, Inner Sanctum Cellars or Lavender Ridge.
While Barbera and Primitivo get plenty of love, two other red Italian varietals, Dolcetto and Montepulciano, are flying under the radar with limited plantings in both Tuolumne and Amador counties. Dark and bold with firm tannins, look for winning examples of Montepulciano from Amador Cellars and Gianelli Vineyards. Softer in style, Dolcetto from Jeff Runquist Wines in Amdaor and School Street Wines in Calaveras County are sound reds.
A number of other Italian varietals are also gaining in interest, such as Aglianico and Teroldego.
In any case, the foothills remain a region that is expanding and exploring the possibilities with interesting and rewarding results for the growing number of fans.