More than spring flowers are blooming along the slopes of the Sierra foothills. New, bright and intriguing wines also are unfolding, as we discovered during a recent swing through the backroads of El Dorado and Amador counties.
Gwinllan Estate Vineyard and Winery
Gordon and Chris Pack are from England, where Champagne has been appreciated long and passionately. Little wonder, then, that they are pursuing sparkling wines with uncommon ambition at their Gwinllan Estate Vineyard and Winery at Somerset in El Dorado County.
And though their sparkling-wine output is young — they made their first bubbly only in 2014 — they are seeing impressive early results. For one, their first small experimental lot of blanc de blancs won best-of-class and a President’s Award at the Orange County Fair wine competition, judged only by winemakers and winery principals.
Thus encouraged, they expanded their stands of the traditional sparkling-wine varieties chardonnay and pinot noir, and began to dig another cave solely for the production of sparklers. (Up to now, they have fermented the base wines on site, then shipped them for finishing at the custom house Rack & Riddle of Healdsburg. Starting this fall, production is to be entirely on the Gwinllan estate.)
And the awards keep accumulating. Early this spring, the Gwinllan Estate 2016 El Dorado Methode Champenoise Rose ($48) was elected the best sparkling wine at the California State Fair commercial wine competition. Made by the couple’s son, Jonathan Pack, it’s pretty, vibrant and enduring, with a dry fruitiness distinguished by notes of black cherries.
The rose, with the equally vivid and brisk Gwinllan Estate 2016 El Dorado Methode Champenoise Blanc de Blancs ($36), are to be released officially this Mother’s Day weekend.
While the Sierra foothills commonly are perceived as too hot for such cool-climate grape varieties as chardonnay and pinot noir, Gordon Pack credits the estate’s 2400-foot elevation and the family’s canopy-management practices — which shield clusters of grapes from intense summer sun — for fruit with the pointed acidity required for such refined sparkling wines.
The tasting room at Gwinllan Estate (7060 Fair Play Road, Somerset) is open 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Friday through Sunday.
Iron Hub Winery and Vineyards
The view of surging spring growth in the foothills is captured most dramatically at the new tasting room of Iron Hub Winery and Vineyards in Amador County’s Shenandoah Valley.
Whether standing at the tasting counter — facing windows tall and wide — or lounging on an adjoining patio, visitors look north and northeast across a panorama that includes historic gnarled vines in the foreground and the staggering peaks of the Sierra in the far distance.
All of which makes concentrating on the wines at hand a challenge. Fortunately, the focus and drive of the wines soon have visitors again pondering and discussing the contents of their glasses.
Tom Jones and his wife Beth Goodlin-Jones, former principals in Lava Cap Winery on Apple Hill in El Dorado County, bought the Amador estate in 2014 and have been industriously re-imagining it ever since. (It formerly was Amador Foothill Winery.)
Now, in addition to the striking new tasting room, they are introducing the first portfolio of wines for which they are solely responsible.
As winemaker, Tom Jones is keen on intricate blending, resulting in wines almost invariably balanced, seamless and liltingly true to both grape and place. And his blending decisions aren’t limited to grapes alone. The bright, perfumey and sweetly fruity Iron Hub 2014 Shenandoah Valley Estate Grenache ($25), for example, not only includes 9 percent mourvedre for its thread of earthiness and licorice, but it was aged for nearly two years in a combination of French and Hungarian oak barrels.
Similarly, the fresh, supple and pronounced Iron Hub 2014 Shenandoah Valley Sangiovese ($24) includes dashes of barbera and grenache, while the freshness and smoothness of the Iron Hub 2014 Shenandoah Valley Barbera ($29) is underscored with a generous dollop of sangiovese.
Being in Amador, Jones naturally has three zinfandels in his lineup, all zippy with raspberry fruit and dashes of black pepper, but the wine that most distinguishes the site is the sturdy and layered Iron Hub 2014 Shenandoah Valley Estate Resolute ($28), a rare blend mostly of aglianico but also including sangiovese and grenache.
The tasting room at Iron Hub (12500 Steiner Road, Plymouth) is open 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Friday through Monday.
As wine, the zinfandel grape is interpreted in all sorts of ways, from playful white zinfandel to somber port. Somewhere in-between is a style fresh, frisky, lean and quaffable, but it isn’t easy to find, in large part because winemakers recognize that consumers generally expect their zinfandel to be muscular and blustery.
Yet, once in a while, a winemaker will make a stab at this more accessible, refreshing and versatile style of zinfandel. Call it claret, call it Beaujolais, or call it something else. At Easton Wines in Shenandoah Valley, winemaker Bill Easton calls his “Lot 1852,” referring to the date that zinfandel arrived in California, according to wine historian Charles Sullivan.
The Easton Wines 2017 Amador County “Lot 1852” Zinfandel ($22) is a positive delight — light and bright in color, lean in profile and shy in tannin, but informed with surprising substance. It also carries more suggestions of berries than generally evoked by zinfandel — raspberries, cranberries and strawberries as well as cherries. Put a little chill on it and serve it with roast chicken.
Easton said he was inspired to make the wine after imagining how winemakers would have handled the grape soon after its introduction to California. “I assumed that people would want a quick-to-the-table drinkable wine and that equipment that was available to make the wine would have been primitive,” Easton said via email.
Half the wine was fermented traditionally, half as whole clusters on their stems, producing a carbonic fermentation that gives the wine its youthful fragrance, fruitiness and vitality. It is zinfandel made for springtime drinking.
The tasting room at Easton Wines (10801 Dickson Road, Plymouth) is open 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Thursday through Monday.
Since their start in the foothill wine trade early this decade, Andy and Janis Friedlander, founders of Andis Wines in the Shenandoah Valley, have shown themselves to be early adopters, eager to embrace new technologies (concrete fermenters) and relatively new grape varieties for the region (cabernet franc, grenache, malbec) as a way to set apart the Gold Country in general and themselves in particular.
Now, with a new winemaking team, the group Atelier Melka of St. Helena, led by director-of-winemaking Maayan Koschitzky, Andis is experimenting with unprecedented styles of wine for the foothills.
There are three of them:
▪ The Andis Wines 2015 Shenandoah Valley Acacia Semillon combines a historic if underappreciated California grape variety (semillon) with a technique common to wine regions in Spain, France and Australia but rare in the United States (aging of the wine in barrels of acacia wood). The resulting wine is fragrant, light- to medium-bodied and dry, the acacia adding floral, smoky and caramel notes to the wine’s basically citric flavor.
▪ The Andis Wines 2016 Amador County Apetahi Vineyard Orange Wine of Viognier has nothing to do with oranges other than the name, despite its deep and brilliant blood-orange color and its suggestions of orange blossom in aroma and orange rind in flavor.
The “orange” of the name refers to a small but fashionable category of white wines whose deep color and dense body is due to fermenting the juice with grape skins, a practice common with red wines but not white. The wine isn’t as frankly floral, fruity and viscous as viognier customarily can be, but in its density, earthiness and dryness it is a serious novelty wine bound to generate buzz around the dinner table.
▪ The Andis Wines 2015 Estate Schioppettino reinforces the Mother Lode’s reputation for red wines ripe, rich and robust. The grape, most closely identified with the Friuli region of northeast Italy, is rare to California. The Friedlanders planted a few rows to blend with barbera, but liked it so much on its own they agreed to bottle one barrel as a stand-alone varietal.
This initial release is akin in boldness and weight to foothill zinfandel and syrah, but a barrel sample of the 2017 take on schioppettino indicates that the varietal has potential for its lively acidity and spirited cherry flavor.
Each of the three wines is packaged in a 500-milliliter bottle instead of the standard 750-milliliter bottle, and costs $30.
The tasting room at Andis Wines (11000 Shenandoah Valley Road, Plymouth) is open 11 a.m.-4:30 p.m. daily.
Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at email@example.com.