Mention El Dorado County to most wine lovers and the typical knee jerk response among those who heard of it is, “that’s Zinfandel country.” Well, yes and no. It is part of the Sierra Foothills AVA which includes Amador, where Zin is well-established. And it too makes outstanding Zin. But as I have discovered recently, there are many other exciting wines being made from El Dorado’s high elevation vineyards.
Every winemaker in the region emphasizes elevation. That makes sense because it is one of the few U.S. appellations defined entirely by elevation, which ranges from 1,200ft-3,500ft. The region's elevation and proximity to the alpine terrain of the Sierra Nevada Mountain strongly influences grape growing. Factor in the region’s unusual rocky, volcanic soils and growing season, and well, we may be entering the terroir zone.
Though more sensory research awaits, I’m beginning to think a great case can be made that El Dorado, still a well-kept secret, may be the real deal, and a mother lode of terroir-driven wines.
Yes, wines. Now with over 80 varieties being cultivated, there’s much more than Zinfandel in “them thar” hills. Gold was discovered in 1848 and those old mining towns later remained alive as vineyards caught on and grew to over 2,000 acres. Then Prohibition came along. Vineyards were abandoned and its wine history buried.
El Dorado, 40 miles or so east of Sacramento and within driving range of Lake Tahoe and Reno, was left behind in the 1970s when the rest of California was booming. The first sign of life in El Dorado was the founding of the family owned Boeger Winery in 1972. Boeger Winery led the revival, and Greg Boeger whose family owned the Nichelini Winery in Napa, became a true pioneer by experimenting with lesser-known varieties such as Barbera, Carignane, Refosco, Charbono, and Aglianico, to name just a few of the thirty-plus varieties that the winery grows today.
In 1980 Madrona Vineyards settled in to offer several El Dorado grown wines, including remarkable vintages of Riesling and Gewurztraminer. Today Maggie and Paul Bush, the second generation, continue with their winery’s outstanding Rieslings, but now cultivate 25 varieties at their 3,000-foot elevation vineyards.
As the region slowly came back to life, these pioneers set the tone for taking the less traveled road. Both remain family owned, and today Barbera is Boeger’s flagship wine, one that sets a high bar for first rate Barbera. Meanwhile, Madrona offers a Grenache and Syrah that are at the top of their class. With their help, the El Dorado A.V.A. was established in 1983, and has since grown to encompass 3,000 acres of vineyards and is now home to over 70 wineries.
In 1988, Steve Edmunds, one of the original “Rhône Rangers,” was looking for new sources of Mourvèdre and Syrah. Madrona’s founder, Richard Bush, introduced him to a nearby grower, and soon Edmunds St. John was making an El Dorado Syrah. Compared to the Syrah made from Sonoma, Steve explains: “Those El Dorado grapes produced wine that was much prettier, much finer than what came from Durell Vineyard, though perhaps not as immediately dramatic. It was almost shy, by comparison to the more assertive, bold Durell wine. I asked a colleague to come taste it and tell me what he thought; his response was that it reminded him of Côte-Rôtie from Frederic Jasmin.”
More recently, other winemakers looking for special wine have discovered El Dorado. A few like Marco Capelli, long time Swanson winemaker now with Miraflores, and Joe Norman from Heitz Cellars have settled in. And nowadays more and more outsiders like Helen Keplinger, Donkey & Goat, Jolie-Laide, Belong Wine, Tank Garage Winery, and Edmunds St. John—to name only a few—regularly source El Dorado varieties that offer something not found elsewhere.
However, it is the many newcomers to the region, the fresh young new voices that are leading the charge to define what the region has to offer. Most are mavericks such as Gwinllan Estate, which among other wines makes a methode champenoise Brut from early-picked Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. And surprise…it is excellent. Today, winning over customers through wine clubs and wine tourism is the way for new, family-owned wineries to succeed. Many in El Dorado picked up on that message and there’s a solid core of newbies working the direct to consumer approach. Among them are Starfied, Edio at Delfino Vineyards, Element 79 and Miraflores.
Rhône lovers have many new wineries to check out, such as Element 79 and Holly Hill’s Vineyard, both merit your full attention. In only its second vintage, Edio’s Vineyard offered a lovely Rhône-style white. Within its full range of Rhône-style wines, Holly’s Hill is brazenly going all out to explore Mourvèdre. I have long thought Mourvèdre wasn’t getting enough attention. Right now, Holly Hill’s offers six wines made entirely or in part from the variety, including a Vin Doux dessert wine. The real attention getter is its 2020 Patriarche, a GSM blend that is 41% Mourvèdre.
So, in order to get the inside story to help explain this new interest in El Dorado, I asked Paul Bush what he has learned from the family’s 40 years of experience as growers. He focused on the key aspects.
“Now to the uniqueness of the region. As I mentioned, harvesting the grapes in the fall is an important aspect (I think) of our region. We bud later due to our colder winter up here (we’re preparing for snow again in late February). Since we have no marine layer to moderate our summers, we have long full-sun days during the summer. The Sierra Nevada Range is our moderating “unit,” allowing cool breezes to come down out of the mountains at night and into the morning. But the longer duration of sunshine means the vines can catch up on maturing the fruit compared to coastal regions with foggy conditions.”
And he continues: “But once we get into fall, the days shorten, our temperatures are often cooler than other regions during the day, but our nights aren’t so cool that the vines shut down. All in all, it’s perfect—in my humble opinion.”
Then the topic turned to soils. “Now, soils. Speaking specifically about the Aiken Clay soil, it is a volcanic decomposition soil that is relatively fertile and drains beautifully. Also, for us, the topsoil area is pretty deep, giving the vines plenty of depth to work in. I’ve heard that the essence of terroir is better expressed when the roots go deeper. I don’t know if that is true or not, but…at a minimum, that’s not a bad guess.”
He then continued by focusing upon pH, which may be a key element. “Also, this soil series for us has a pH level of between 5.7 to 6.2. My understanding is that high pH soils give more mouthfeel. Low pH soils give more elegance and varietal focus. And since we have the sun, we generally already have the tool for working with mouthfeel. I’ll take elegance and varietal focus.”
Other winemakers suggest that the mountain elevations result in Increased exposure to UV radiation which leads to smaller berry size, and in turn, to a higher ratio of skin to juice for making red wine.
As Paul mentioned, the region’s unusual ripening takes place during the cooler months of September and October, rather than the mid-season heat. “This pattern of late ripening produces grapes that reach phenolic maturity without excessive sugar, losing too much acidity, or sacrificing freshness.”
However, while all of this is convincing in theory, the ultimate question is whether or not the wines are distinct in some way. When tasting through a selection of El Dorado wines, I kept noting the balance, solid structure, and concentration. All of the wines reviewed, whether full bodied reds or delicate whites seem to also share common traits of lush texture and bright, lengthy finishes.
In a time when wines are highly rated for their ultra-ripeness, sexiness, hedonistic pleasure, and all kinds of fruit compote mixed with crushed rocks. El Dorado wines are authentic wines.
In other words, wines without the bling, without the botox! Wines that, thankfully, won't knock your socks off!
And as Steven Edmunds summarizes his experiences: “Over the years Ron Mansfield, manager of Barsotti Vineyards planted, at my request, or urging/suggestion: Syrah, Grenache, Gamay, Mourvèdre, Vermentino, Grenache Blanc, Pinot Gris, Cabernet Franc. Each has performed admirably, and in some cases, spectacularly.”
The following three wines also provide good supporting evidence that, well, El Dorado has a lot to offer.
Boeger Winery, El Dorado, Estate Barbera 2019 ($25): From the pioneering winery, Barbera is made in several versions with the Estate being the standard bearer. Grown on 3 different high elevation sites, Barbera is harvested as late as mid-October, and is blended with 9% Cabernet. Aged for 14 months in neutral French and American oak, it is a big mouthful of a wine that has an amazing structure and somehow remains vibrant and refreshing. With a little airing, it displays the lovely blackcurrant, dark berry and spice side of Barbera with nicely layered flavors that are surrounded by fine grained tannins. It can be aged for many years, but I found it appealing now with its solid core of fruit and rich texture. 94
Holly’s Hill Vineyards, El Dorado, “Patriarche” 2020 ($38): For its GSM, Châteauneuf-du-Pape-styled rendition, the winery makes Mourvèdre the lead with 41% followed by Syrah at 38%, with 11% Grenache and 10% Cournoise. And the winemaker is said to get first dibs on each to assemble this blend. The wine is aged for 10 months in neutral French oak. Well, this wine is enormously appealing with lots of spice, cranberry, black pepper, and savory flavors. Medium full bodied, it has a solid core of ripe fruit that is vibrant and persistent. It unfolds with each sip, showing a slight earthiness and velvety smooth tannin. It is much more complex and refined than most GSM wines. 95
Cedarville Vineyards, El Dorado, Estate Bottled Viognier 2020 ($25):): Offering a mix of wines, Cedarville organically farms 15 acres and was the first to plant Viognier in the area. With twenty vintages now under its belt and working with Viognier on the coldest, north facing site, it has learned to harvest on the earlier side of ripeness. And the end result is a distinct, and full-bodied style. The primary fermentation is finished in barrels and with lees stirring, the wine is bottled unfiltered. In the glass it shows a bright, light-yellow color and its aroma displays Meyer lemon, lemon zest and lychee nut along with a floral note. But on the palate, this is full throttle with round, mouth filling pear & citrus flavors that are lively yet viscous. And it surprises with its lovely rich texture and a slight fresh lime and acid tingle in the finish. 94
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