Dunne on Wine

Dunne on Wine: Calaveras about more than reds

The vines of Gerber Vineyards climb a slope in Calaveras County.
The vines of Gerber Vineyards climb a slope in Calaveras County.

As other Sierra foothill counties, Calaveras is banking largely on black grapes like zinfandel and syrah to confirm its winemaking potential.

But we’re in the middle of summer, when a trek to the two dozen or so wineries in and about Murphys begs for a cold, crisp and refreshing white wine. Save the tempranillo and merlot for winter.

Thus, in revisiting favorite Calaveras tasting rooms not long ago, I concentrated almost solely on white wines. Here were the most impressive:

Lavender Ridge/Coppermine

Two brands, two tasting rooms, but both under the direction of Rich and Siri Gilpin. They use Lavender Ridge for wines made with varieties traditionally grown in France’s Rhone Valley, and Coppermine for wines made from grapes associated largely with France’s Bordeaux.

▪ Lavender Ridge 2013 Sierra Foothills Roussanne ($28): Though barrel fermented in new French oak, this dry and snappy roussanne is all about cleansing citric fruit, with the wood a distant suggestion of tannin and smoke. Stylistically, the wine is more in line with Europe than California for its lean and angular build.

▪ Lavender Ridge 2013 Sierra Foothills Viognier ($24): Also carefully barrel fermented, thereby preserving viognier’s peach and apple fruit, rich texture, spicy note and enduring finish.

▪ Coppermine 2011 Sierra Foothills Semillon ($20): The California mystery is why chardonnay is so popular while semillon is so underappreciated. This semillon delivers the same volume of tropical and citric fruit and the same luxurious texture as many popular-style chardonnays but at half the price. Plus, the semillon has more complexity owing to its currents of earth and fig.

Twisted Oak

Beyond the zaniness of the huge flock of rubber chickens that occupy the Twisted Oak compound is some serious winemaking, celebrated largely for its lively tempranillos and downright rambunctious red blends.

▪ Twisted Oak 2013 Calaveras County Verdelho ($19): Rich yet light-footed, especially when paired with dishes such as grilled prawns or seared ahi. Not many white wines are as jolting or as protracted with welcome spice as this verdelho.

▪ Twisted Oak 2013 Calaveras County Vermentino ($19): In addition to rubber chickens, Twisted Oak draws attention with its annual summer concert series, which concludes Aug. 22 with a performance by the Australian folk rockers The Waifs. If it’s warm – and few evenings aren’t in the foothills in the summertime – this peachy, zesty and sharp vermentino should complete the night.

Milliaire/Black Sheep

Milliaire and Black Sheep are sister brands with tasting rooms on opposite sides of Main Street in Murphys. They are owned by Liz and Steve Millier, who also is the winemaker for Ironstone Winery.

▪ Milliaire 2014 Mokelumne River Pinot Grigio ($18): Grapefruit and peach provide the high notes on this unusually big yet graceful pinot grigio, which was declared the Best of Calaveras White Wine at this spring’s Calaveras County Fair commercial wine competition.

▪ True Frogs California Lily Pad White ($10): Best buy of the day for its energy, balance and focus. A non-vintage blend of mostly chardonnay with doses of symphony and muscat, the wine provides a sweet and ample glass of flowers, fruit and spice. It won a double-gold medal at the Calaveras competition, meaning all judges on the panel concurred that it warranted gold.

Four Winds Cellars

Though the Four Winds lineup runs ardently to red wines, the couples responsible, David and Helen Webster and John and Ann Gibson, recognize that wine tourists in the Mother Lode often want a white wine, so they make two.

In contrast to most Calaveras County wineries, incidentally, Four Winds doesn’t have a Murphys tasting room. It occupies the site of the former Laraine Winery along Six Mile Road at Vallecito, not far from Murphys. David Gerber, a Hollywood producer and a principal in the Murphys Hotel, founded Laraine Winery, but after his death in 2010, his widow sold the remaining inventory and leased the tasting room to the Websters and Gibsons, who subsequently introduced Four Winds. Laraine Gerber retains the brand Laraine and neighboring Gerber Vineyards.

▪ Four Winds 2013 Sierra Foothills Chardonnay ($25): Yes, it’s definitive California for its ripe tropical, citrus and apple flavors and its pronounced oak. Nevertheless, it has the spunk to refresh more than tire the palate.

▪ Four Winds 2013 and 2014 Sierra Foothills Viogniers ($23): Two vintages, two styles. The 2013 is more reserved, its suggestions of honeysuckle, lemon and peach more whisper than shout. The 2014 is bigger, softer, sweeter and more textured, with a thread of melon added to the fruit basket.

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 dmicheldunne@gmail.com.