Throughout the modern wine era, Lake County has been synonymous with feisty yet refined sauvignon blanc, and not much else in varietals and styles.
To look at the results of this summer’s Lake County Wine Awards Competition, however, you have to acknowledge that this perspective is dated.
Granted, the best white wine was a sauvignon blanc, Jed Steele’s Shooting Star 2013 Lake County Sauvignon Blanc, a representative of the varietal not only tantalizingly aromatic and rich with peachy fruit but at $13 an everyday bargain.
Beyond that, the awards show that Lake County isn’t a one-trick pony, and that prospects for other varietals and styles are as bright as the sunshine that the enclave’s grape growers frequently point to as one of the area’s principal assets, along with moderate temperatures and diverse soils, exposures and altitudes.
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The sweepstakes red wine, for one, was a varietal that is just starting to gain traction in California generally: grenache. The lean, lively, fruity and peppery Gregory Graham 2011 Red Hills Crimson Hill Vineyard Estate Grenache ($22) could have taken that honor on the attack and clarity of its floral and spicy aroma alone.
Lake County has nearly 9,000 acres planted to wine grapes, with an additional 1,600 acres approved for vines, reports Terry Dereniuk, executive director of the Lake County Winery Association.
For years, the county’s farmers and winemakers have been talking up cabernet sauvignon as the most promising red-wine alternative to sauvignon blanc’s standing among white wines. Indeed, cabernet sauvignon is now planted to more vineyard acreage in Lake County than even sauvignon blanc, with cabernet accounting for 32 percent of the acres compared with 30 percent for sauvignon blanc.
So far, however, cabernet sauvignon from Lake County hasn’t exactly seized the imagination of wine buyers, though growers both new and seasoned are showing confidence in the lean, firm and fruity cabernets that the area yields by planting ever more vines.
Indeed, 22 of the cabernets in this year’s competition won medals, compared with 18 sauvignon blancs, seeming to reinforce the view that cabernet sauvignon in Lake County is rising in polish and esteem. Alas, the panel on which I sat wasn’t assigned any cabernet sauvignon, but I got to taste the two in the running for best red wine and was especially impressed with the dusty and elegant Langtry 2012 Lake County Tephra Ridge Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon ($40).
Cabernet sauvignon also may have potential in Lake County as a rosé wine, given that the bright, sleek, dry and zippy High Valley Winery 2014 Rosé of Cabernet Sauvignon ($25) was the competition’s top pink wine.
Two conclusions can be drawn from the results. For one, all of Lake County is a veritable experimental vineyard as farmers and vintners plant a wide range of grapes to determine which will flourish in the area’s diverse topography. In addition to the usual suspects – such as cabernet sauvignon and zinfandel – the red-wine sweepstakes drew such surprisingly strong contenders as the husky and complex Moore Family 2012 Red Hills Carly’s Block Charbono ($30), the spirited and remarkably spicy Fore Family 2013 Red Hills Mourvedre ($38) and the layered and stylish Brassfield 2013 High Valley Volcano Ridge Tempranillo ($35).
Secondly, the results shake up the view that Lake County is too hot for green grapes other than sauvignon blanc. Chardonnay, for one, accounts for just a little more than 5 percent of the county’s grapes, yet our panel tasted 11 of them, and gave three gold medals, including a rare double-gold medal for the lemony and long Vigilance 2014 Red Hills Chardonnay ($25).
Even more astonishing, all three rieslings we tasted got gold medals for their overall power and persistence, though they represented widely varied interpretations. The styles were so diverse that we couldn’t decide on a single best of class, and split that award between two of them, the rich and slightly botrytised Robledo 2012 Lake County Seven Brothers Dry White Riesling ($25) and the lean, frisky and persistent Jed Steele’s Shooting Star 2013 Lake County Riesling ($13).
To end with a local note, the best dessert wine in the competition turned out to be the luscious, layered and spicy Chacewater Winery & Olive Mill 2000 Lake County 15 Year Old Tawny Dessert Wine ($75). While Chacewater is in Kelseyville, its owners, Paul and Kellye Manuel, live and farm at Nevada City.
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.