Gold fever gripped California in the 1850’s, along with those who flocked to the area hoping to strike it lucky were many European immigrants. They bought carefully transported vine cuttings from France, Spain and Italy plus the knowledge to implement new wineries using old vines in the Californian promised land. Italians likened the rolling Sierra Nevada foothills to wine growing regions of Tuscany.
With a temperate climate and volcanic decomposed soil, wine making flourished in California until the Gold Rush era was over at the end of the 19th century and was put on hold during the prohibition years of the 1920’s. But in the 1960’s new wine makers migrated to the region, now there are progressive evolving family owned vineyards transforming the regions wine country.
The area is famous for Zinfandels, Italian varietals of Sangiovese and Barbera. Other classic French varieties such as Syrah and Viognier are also popular.
We visited Amador County, which has a reputation for producing robust medium to full-bodied Zinfandels. These small berried, extra-ripe wines have flavours that are jammy, berrylicious and spicy, there are also subtle hints of aromas of the dry soil the vines grow in. Sun drenched vineyards are lined with great oak trees providing a blast of green in the Californian dry parched golden fields around them.
When in the Sierra Foothills it’s practically the law to sample some of the local grown wines and we had a good go at tasting quite a few..
My novice connoisseur tasting tips:
1. Don’t be scared to sample, all the tasting rooms we visited were super friendly and there wasn’t any trace of wine snobbery exhibited to us!
2. Don’t go when hungry – nibble on the complimentary crackers especially when sipping dry wines.
2. Easy tasting directions: Sniff for aromas, swirl for airing, sip taking in the flavours and then repeat!
3. Dump bucket any you don’t like – they won’t be offended.
4. Buy any you like or if none take your fancy don’t feel you have to buy. Some tasting rooms charge a tasting fee, which is deducted from bottles you purchase.
5. Absolutely have a DD – thanks Willy for being our designated driver!
In Amador Wine Country, Willy and Susan our excellent Californian hosts took us to visit tasting rooms in Sutter Creek, Amador City and the Shenandoah Valley.
In Sutter Creek our first stop was at Avio, estate wines. In the Mediterranean bright tasting room, Kristen was super friendly and helpful. She explained the Zinfandel grape is bigger than the Cabernet Sauvignon grape that they grow and provided grape samples for my photos. As expected on this Tuscan styled estate, Avio wines were smooth Italians. We bought a raspberry champagne to drink by the pool under the Californian sun. We also purchased the 2012 Zinfandel Estate, well when in Zinfandel country why try anything else!
During our visit to gorgeous Amador City we visited Feist Wines, sampled a few wines and chatted with the lovely, knowledgeable, owner grower Susan Feist. The Feist family is producing innovative award-winning, small lot artisan wines from the region’s vineyards. Their wine tasting room is situated in a 150 year old building that was once a saloon. I’d like to think that maybe they served whisky and sarsaparilla with piano Johnny playing the tunes! We enjoyed sampling their fruity bold Barbera and their punchy rich fruity Cabernet Sauvignon, which we of course purchased.
Our big wine tasting day was in the Shenandoah Valley where we visited 3 tasting rooms and were beyond tipsy!
First up tasting a flight of wines with Samantha at Wilderotter Vineyards in their stunning Tuscan style estate. Fee tasting was $5 with refund on any purchases. We pretty much liked all the wines we sampled here and enjoyed the complimentary sampler cheese plate. We purchased a tasty Estate Syrah with flavours of cherries and chocolate.
Next stop was to Terra D’oro Winery the largest estate vineyard in the region with over 500 acres. Their Montevina wines are produced on site using grapes sourced from outside the valley, specialising in Barbera and Sangiovese grapes. They also have a great selection of delicious Italian estate wines including an old Italian Aglianico which is 99% Zinfandel and 1% Barbera, which was originally grown on the volcanic soils from Mount Vesuvius.
Complimentary wine tasting with Linda with no tasting fee was a joy. We all voted Linda the most informative and friendly wine concierge of the day.
When sampling wines it’s great to ask questions to learn more about this vast subject. Susan was intrigued why growers in the region plant roses at the end of the row of vines. Linda gave us a few explanations:
1.They look pretty with choice of roses down to growers preference.
2. The roses are a good indicator of any localised bugs or mildew on the leaves which could be cause vine damage.
3. The 3 rose colours symbolise the Italian flag giving respect to the 150 year old Italian vines.
As we were coming to the end of the tasting afternoon, Linda suggested trying a creamy blue cheese with their Zinfandel Port and we were blown away, it was delicious! We kind of lost track of what we liked, however between us we purchased White Zinfandel, the Port and a sweet Moscato dessert wine.
Our final stop of the day was to the family run Deaver Wineyards they have 300 acres with 150 year old Zinfandel vines and 1854 mission vines. We tasted wines with Norina, who was very friendly and informative. Although we enjoyed the Orange Muscat Port paired with caramel sauce, we didn’t make a purchase. I’m guessing this was as we were a tad tipsy at the end of the day. Sorry Deaver we’ll have to return.
On another day, Willy drove us down to Calaveras County, while in Murphys we sampled wines from Zucca Mountain Vineyards in a mining cave styled cellar tasting room. There was a $5 tasting fee with refund on purchases , so we put all our Zucca fivers together to purchase a bottle of 8 month oaked creamy Touriga Port. We sipped this at home with tasty dark Brookside chocolates.
While wine tasting (as I’m a nerd) I jotted down a few notes of how they tasted. To finish up my Californian wine tasting blog and so I don’t forget the wines we sampled here they are:
Zinfandel – full-bodied, hearty, raspberry fruits, oaky, vanilla flavours. Red dirt and hot sunshine.
Cabernet Sauvignon – hearty, vanilla tones, spicy and delicious.
Barbera – dry hearty wine from aged grapes.
Sangiovese – dry wine, cherries, spice & berries. We didn’t find any we liked to purchase.
Primitivo – Dry smooth wine, flavours of fruity ripe plums with a spicy finish. This grape is a Zinfandel clone.
Estate Syrah – yummy cherries, tasty chocolates and cloves.
Malbec – dry wine with hints of vanilla, cocoa and tobacco.
Grenache – Smooth, light red with flavours of blackcurrants, hints of vanilla, smooth.
Pinot Grigio – Very light, creamy & refreshing. Cut grass, citrus lemons & hints of apple.
Chardonnay – smooth buttery oaky, lemon citrus with tropical flavours.
Grenache rose – bright & fruity with hints of strawberries. A dry wine nice to drink on ice by the pool in the summer.
And if you’re wondering what we did with our purchases…we drank them of course, so cheers, chin chin, salud and bottoms up!!
(I started to write this wine blog in California, but had to abandon it a few times…hic)