Dunne on Wine

Are these wines destined to be Sierra foothill classics?

Zinfandel grapes at Boeger Winery in Placerville.
Zinfandel grapes at Boeger Winery in Placerville. Sacramento Bee file

A couple of months ago, Matt Kramer mused about potential “new classics” – wines of enduring greatness – in his Drinking Out Loud column for Wine Spectator.

To define what he means by classic, Kramer turned to noir writer Raymond Chandler. A classic piece of writing, said Chandler, “exhausts the possibilities of its form and can hardly be surpassed.”

That’s a high bar, but as fitting for winemaking as for writing. Kramer then assembled an extensive selection of candidates as new classic wines. Many are from Australia, and numerous others are from Spain and Italy.

Several of the world’s wine regions, such as British Columbia, New Zealand and Washington, are probably too young, with too few vintages, to offer prospective qualified candidates, wrote Kramer.

He might also have included California in that group, though he did mention four candidates, all from the Santa Cruz Mountains – cabernet sauvignons and chardonnays from Ridge Vineyards and Mount Eden Vineyards.

No quibble here with those nominations, but Kramer’s essay got me to speculating about potential classic wines closer to home, specifically candidates from the Sierra foothills.

My list, which at first ran to 38 candidates, is devoted to wines I’ve found consistently to provide quality and value, vintage after vintage. They are exceptionally expressive of what they are intended to be. They are wines of vitality, complexity and persistence. They proudly represent stewardship and place. I like to think they would be giving me as much joy 50 years from now as they do today. Here’s my mixed case:

▪ Boeger Winery El Dorado County Walker Vineyard Zinfandel ($20 for the current vintage): The Boeger family has been making an exceptionally graceful take on zinfandel from the Walker family vineyard southeast of Placerville since the 1984 harvest. The vineyard, 2,100 feet to 2,400 feet up the Sierra, invariably yields a zinfandel bright, supple and peppery, with the sort of snappy finish that makes it ideal at the dinner table.

▪ Edmunds St. John El Dorado County Bone-Jolly Gamay Noir ($22): Thanks to the persuasive skills of El Dorado County vineyard developer Ron Mansfield, who talked growers into planting the unlikely French grape gamay noir au jus blanc, Berkeley winemaker Steve Edmunds turns out Bone-Jolly, which adroitly seizes the perfume, energy and approachability of Beaujolais. Edmunds gets his gamay noir from the Barsotti Ranch on Apple Hill.

▪ Fiddletown Cellars Amador County Old Vine Zinfandel ($20): For a zinfandel with sunny suggestions of strawberry as well as boysenberry, Reno Farinelli and Joe Shebl look to Fiddletown grapes, in particular fruit from the Zanini Ranch, which yields an especially bright, lithe and zesty take on the varietal.

▪ Holly’s Hill Vineyards El Dorado Grenache Noir ($22): At Holly’s Hill Vineyards in the Pleasant Valley district of El Dorado County, the Cooper and Bendick families are showing that grenache can give up a wine of remarkable layering and force, fresh and fruity with suggestions of cranberry, strawberry and plum, punctuated with dashes of peppery spice.

▪ Madroña Vineyards New-World Port ($28): For nearly two decades, the Dick Bush family has been tending seven Portuguese grape varieties at their Apple Hill estate. In the cellar, the fruit comes together seamlessly to form a faithful emulation of traditional port – deeply colored, exceptionally fragrant and exquisitely unfolding as it releases suggestions of blackberry cobbler, holiday pie spices and chocolate-dipped nuts.

▪ Milliaire Winery Calaveras County Heritage Old Vine Ghirardelli Zinfandel ($26): From vines more than a century old, Steve and Liz Millier are lucky if they get a ton of fruit per acre from the Ghirardelli plot in the hot and flat fringes of western Calaveras County. With it, however, they make a glorious old-school zinfandel – beefy, jammy and peppery.

▪ Newsome-Harlow Calaveras County Dalton Ranch Donner Party Zinfandel ($38): Calaveras County native Scott Klann loves zinfandel and the cherished old foothill vineyards to which it is planted. Of the half dozen or so zinfandels he makes each harvest, the Dalton Ranch Donner Party is a well-structured, reservedly tannic and astutely oaked interpretation of the varietal, memorable mostly for its wild boysenberry fruit, peppery spice and invigorating acidity.

▪ Scott Harvey Wines Amador County Vineyard 1869 Zinfandel ($38): Scott Harvey applies a European consciousness to his winemaking, even when working with the intense fruit off a Shenandoah Valley vineyard dating to 1869. The result is a zinfandel that couples the ripe, rich and flamboyant articulation of old-vine zinfandel with the tautness, vitality and angularity associated with classic European wines.

▪ Sobon Estate Amador County Rocky Top Zinfandel ($18): Under their brands Shenandoah Vineyards and Sobon Estate, the Sobon family releases around eight zinfandels each harvest. By tenure and individuality, several of them could be among tomorrow’s classics, in particular the Special Reserve, the Fiddletown and the Paul’s Vineyard, but my money is mostly on the Rocky Top for its finely cut lines, authority and symmetry; it’s a downright noble tribute to a ridgetop stand of older vines.

▪ Sierra Vista Vineyards & Winery El Dorado Fleur de Montagne ($29): John and Barbara MacCready were early proponents of Rhone Valley grape varieties in the foothills, and their most embraceable and enduring contribution to that genre is Fleur de Montagne – “flower of the mountain” – a model of balance, layering and character in an astutely blended wine.

▪ Terre Rouge Shenandoah Valley Sentinel Oak Vineyard Pyramid Block Syrah ($38): Since 1991, another team to pioneer Rhone Valley varieties in the foothills – Bill Easton and Jane O’Riordan – have been turning out one of the more stable, forthright and multidimensional syrahs in the state in the Sentinel Oak, one of several takes on the variety they make each vintage.

▪ Vino Noceto Winery Amador County Sangiovese ($19): Jim and Suzy Gullet also are pioneers, but instead of France they took their cue from Italy, specifically Chianti Classico. They planted their first sangiovese in 1987, and since then have been releasing a take that captures both the rich fruit for which California is celebrated with the traditional leanness, snappiness and accessibility identified with Chianti Classico.

Matt Kramer didn’t mention that Raymond Chandler also said that there really are no “classics” of crime and detection. No story or novel of mystery had yet met his definition of classic, Chandler wrote, but he added an apt denouement: “Which is one of the principal reasons why otherwise reasonable people continue to assault the citadel.” He could just as well be talking of winemakers as writers.

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 dmichaeldunne@gmail.com.