California’s Central Coast is very much the opposite of its Sierra Foothills: Maritime climate on the coast ~ Continental climate in the mountains; minimum diurnal fluctuation at the coast ~ big daily temperature change in the mountains; very little rain in the Central Coast ~ lots of it in the Sierra Foothills; most of all a very long growing season on the coast ~ very short one in the mountains. Comparing these differences to other international growing regions may help us identify certain types of wine which will do well in the Foothills. At least the differences can help explain why certain grape varieties grown in the Foothills produce styles of wine more akin to regions in northern Europe than to the Central Coast or to Napa.
Cabernet Franc is an excellent example. Cab Franc, when grown in the middle Loire Valley of France in districts such as Chinon and Bourgueil, produces a uniquely lifted aroma with floral notes of lavender. It does the same thing at higher elevations in the Sierra Foothills. It does not do the same thing in Napa near San Pablo Bay, nor does it in St Emilion near the huge estuary which modulates the climate of Bordeaux. We can debate whether or not the floral-middle version of Cab Franc is an improvement. But there can be little argument about the floral-middle version being the more unique expression. It is lighter-bodied and perfectly matched to grilled chicken. If you have a garden, put some herb sprigs on the coals. I personally believe Cabernet Franc has huge potential above 2,000 feet of elevation in the Sierras.
Although growing conditions of the Sacramento Delta are quite a bit different than at elevation in the Foothills, Chenin Blanc grapes grown in the Delta do seem to bear a remarkable stylistic resemblance to Chenin Blanc grown in the Vouvray district of the middle Loire Valley near Tours in France. Although not much remarked by general wine business types, connoisseurs have long recognized California Chenin Blanc from Clarksburg (functionally a diked island surrounded by sloughs of the Sacramento River) to be uniquely fragrant, with a honey-almond scent. It is hard to develop this distinction very much in a wine for which consumers refuse to pay more than $10 per bottle, but the distinction exists nonetheless.
Two Italian grapes appear to do quite well in the Foothills: Barbera and Sangiovese. Understand that conditions in the Foothills are dependent on elevation. Both of these grapes have made their bones in Amador County, and between about 800 feet and 1,500 feet of elevation. Those altitudes are warm growing conditions, much like the hills in Tuscany, about halfway up the Italian peninsula. Foothills Sangiovese is stylistically similar to Tuscan Sangiovese in the tradition of Chianti, i.e. medium-bodied, medium-colored, complex flavors, gains from a little bottle age, Foothills Sangiovese is not like Brunello di Montalcino, a special Sangiovese clone grown at higher elevation in Italy on south-facing slopes closer to the coast.
Italian Barbera comes from Piemonte, an area of high hills in the northwest near the source of the Po River. Prior to the unification of Italy in the 1860’s Piemonte and Tuscany had precious little intercourse. Didn’t talk much; didn’t like each other very much. Different foodstuffs; different rulers; different climate; different wines. Very little wine commerce over the Apennine Mountains which rise to over 7,000 feet. Barbera is kind of the everyday grape/wine in Piemonte, where Nebbiolo is the special occasion grape (Barolo and Barbaresco wines are made from Nebbiolo). That means Nebbiolo gets planted on the favored south-facing hillsides, while Barbera must make do with north-facing slopes and less prestigious locations. Italian Barberas are stylistically different animals than Foothill Barberas, which are generally grown in warmer, low elevation, Tuscan-like conditions. Both types of Barberas can be very impressive, just for different reasons. Piemonte Barberas are medium-bodied. The best ones have pronounced pomegranate aromatics. Great Foothills Barberas, and there are more than a handful, are studly wines with the nose of long-simmered Bolognese sauce (meat, tomato concentrate, dried mushrooms). Like a martial artist, Foothills Barberas have great balance, but they are not pretty boys. Think Mohawk haircut and multiple tattoos, but limbs settled into a relaxed symmetrical posture.
Argentina’s two most famous grape varieties, Malbec and Torrentes, deserve an examination in the Sierra Foothills simply because of the high elevation comparison. Exceptional Malbec is routinely grown in the Argentine Andes between 3,000 and 4,000 feet. That would work in the Foothills. Right now the highest vineyard in California is 3,600 feet in El Dorado County (owned by Madroña). In most places the limiting factor is the boundary of the National Forest at the 4,000-foot contour line. The comparison is not entirely apt though. Argentina is in the lee of the Andes, so it doesn’t receive much rain. The Foothills are on the front face of the Sierras, so they get a lot of rain. Exceptional Malbec in Argentina benefits greatly from older vines. That won’t be the case in the Sierra Foothills. It’s an interesting comparison, but not an easy one to make, because there simply aren’t many Malbec vines growing at any appreciable altitude in California. There are interesting Malbecs from the Foothills, but they are grown at less than 1,500 feet of elevation. In general, those wines are more full-bodied, fruitier, and less varietally distinctive than their Argentine counterparts. At least so far. They are also not produced in large quantities at bargain prices, a trick Argentina has apparently perfected.
Torrentes is just not produced in enough quantity in California yet to know what potential it has. Interesting speculation though. Superior Argentine Torrentes comes from 8,000 to 11,000 feet in the northwest corner of the country (near Cafayate). The characteristics which make it superior are a lifted floral note and bracing acidity. Elevation in the Foothills seems to favor those characteristics too. Certainly that is the case with Viognier. The Foothills seem to do Viognier particularly well. It has wafting, orange blossom aroma there, but none of the cosmetic, plasticizer overtone frequently found in warmer climates. I would call the Foothills Viognier style extremely Rhônish. By that I mean long, earthy finish with high-toned aromatics. Refreshing acid. Condrieu? Maybe not. At least not yet, but a strong step in the right direction.
Rhône reds have caught the fancy of many vintners in the Foothills, and not just recently. John McCready at Sierra Vista has been making world-class Syrah for twenty years. When Britain’s Decanter magazine did a blind tasting in London with six Australian Shiraz, six Rhône Valley Syrahs, and six California Syrahs, the big winner was McCready’s wine (from the well-respected Frank Herbert Vyd, about 3,000 feet). All six of the London Judges (writers mainly, a couple MWs) cited the wine’s crystal clear, persistent, sour cherry aromatics, which stood out from the under-ripe Rhône wines, and the modest alcohol, which they preferred to the jamminess of the Australian models, especially to the roasted notes of the Australian wines from Barossa Valley. Perhaps a Limey peculiarity; maybe an adversarial relationship within the Commonwealth. The interesting feature to me, was that two other wines scored very well. Both were from the Foothills, at lower elevation (read warmer climate) in the Shenandoah Valley of Amador County, and both were mistaken by the British judges for Australian Shiraz classics from the Barossa Valley.
Grenache is a new item for the Foothills. Because Grenache needs to get ripe in order to demonstrate its characteristic raspberry aroma, one might speculate it would do better at 1,500 feet in Amador than at 2,500 feet in El Dorado. I believe that point is accurate for GSM blends, which are basically what you get in the southern Rhône. There is a difference though. In the southern Rhône Valley, there might be any of ten other grapes in the blend, and all the vines would be growing on one property. In the Sierra Foothills vintners are much more likely to source their grapes from different vineyards: say Grenache from 800 feet; Syrah from 1,600 feet; and Mourvèdre from 2,000 feet. A much more difficult analysis for commentators. Try your own hand at it.
Spanish grape varieties have quite a bit of currency in the Foothills at present. It’s largely experimental. Twisted Oak Winery in Calaveras County and Bokisch Vineyards in Lodi are the ring leaders. El Dorado County (higher elevation) bears a resemblance to Rioja in the foothills of the southern Pyrenees. One thing that implies is Grenache grapes made as a varietal wine (Spanish old vine Garnacha from Navarre and Campo de Borja). There are not old vine examples in El Dorado just yet, but there are several successful single grape wines which deserve continued attention. Take a few bottles with you on your way home, especially if the route goes through San Jose. Stop at Woolgrowers, a Basque family-style restaurant in Los Banos. You won’t be disappointed. Tempranillo has yet to prove its usefulness, either as a single varietal or in blends. Albarino, which comes from Spain’s cold, wet Atlantic coast, probably has more potential in California’s Central Coast (try it with grilled Calamari in Monterey). An interesting wild card is a second tier Spanish grape called Graciano. I’ve tasted one brilliant example in California (from Bokisch): intense dark berry fruit with lush structure. We’ll see if it can establish a beachhead with Foothills vintners and a following amongst consumers.
Two aromatic dessert wines deserve mention in this section as well. One is botyrized Riesling grown at high elevation in the Sierras by Madroña Winery. The comparison would naturally be to German beerenauslesen (7% to 10% residual sugar; low ~ 9% ~ alcohol). Madroña has some really beautiful vintages of Late Harvest Riesling, although it must be said they are riper, and thus not as long lived, as the German models. Nevertheless they are really fine dessert wines, and early drinkability is hardly a detraction in the American marketplace. Try one with Bananas Foster flamed tableside for a dramatic presentation.
At the same time, mention should be made here of the extraordinary ageability of Madroña’s regular Riesling which is made in a Spätlesen style (2% or 3% residual sugar, balancing high ~ 0.85% ~ total acid). It sells for modest prices when first released at age two, and Americans are completely blind to the beauties of these Riesling wines. There should be many more of them made at high elevation. The secret is these wines need to be aged. Their natural acidity gives them enormous potential for bottle age. Madroña has a track record to demonstrate this fact. At age seven, the wines begin to show their brilliance. By age ten they are magnificent. They will surely last well beyond their fifteenth birthday.
The second category of dessert wines are the Muscats, famously from southeastern France, Corsica, and northern Italy. There are at least five types of Muscat (white or Alexandria, orange, red or Muscato Rosso, brown or Frontignan, and black or Hamburg) which have all been planted around California since the 1860’s. A couple producers in Madera (Central Valley) have developed enormous reputations with both Orange Muscat and the Black Muscat of Hamburg. Both have the distinctive linalool (a terpene) smell which everyone recognizes from Muscat table grapes, but the Black Muscat has a signature rose petal smell that’s uncanny. One winemaker’s technique with Muscat grapes is to pick them, then leave them for two weeks in cold storage before crushing. He says it accentuates the smell. Sounds good to me. These are great dessert wines because they’re moderately priced, and everybody appreciates them. First time; every time. No explanation necessary.
Finally let me mention a purely speculative idea for the Sierras. I don’t know anyone trying this concept yet. Sparkling wines. If getting ripe at high elevation is a risk, and it is, why not make sparkling wines in those vintages that don’t ripen adequately. Late snow; early frost; make sparkling wine. Blend from vintage to vintage for consistency. These are principles the Champenois have been applying for 250 years.