El Dorado AVA has vineyards at a high elevation, microclimates and granitic soils to define their terroir. The region's roots go back to California's Gold Rush era in the mid-19th century, but as gold fever waned, so did El Dorado’s wine trade. What phylloxera didn’t kill, Prohibition did. It would be 1972 before the rebirth of the area started and another decade before El Dorado would be given official status as an AVA, an American Viticultural Area..
There are now over 60 wineries in El Dorado producing wines made mainly from Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Rhône grape varieties. Vineyards in El Dorado benefit from the cooling effect of the ocean breezes that are channeled up the Carquinez Strait. These breezes, along with the altitude, help produce the diurnal swing that brings the warm temperatures of the afternoon down by as much as 50 degrees.
I received samples of a half dozen El Dorado wines for the purpose of this article, and all six were produced in the eastern portion of El Dorado, where the elevation is at its highest. The western border of the AVA sits 1,200 above sea level, while the eastern boundary is around 3,500 feet high.
Mount Aukum Winery
The top line on the Mount Aukum Winery website reads, "Elevation Matters." At 2,615 feet above California's Central Valley, they say their Zinfandel vines grow "between outcroppings of crumbling granite in a perfect world for wine grapes - a little red dirt here, a rocky drainage there - what the experts call "Holland Series", thirty-six inches deep." Like other wineries in the Fair Play sub-region, they rely on ground water to make their grapes grow. Michael Prod'hon turns that fruit into wine.
Mount Aukum’s 2009 El Dorado Zinfandel has a brawny 15.7% abv number, reflecting the ripeness of the grapes. They made 542 cases and the wine retails for $26.
This medium-dark Zin carries a nose worth noting. It's huge - plummy and laden with black cherry. All sorts of spice aromas leap out, from clove to vanilla to allspice to sage. A gorgeous caramel note comes out just as I drop to one knee. This is one of those wines I could just sit and smell all evening. The palate is just as explosive, bursting with big, ripe cherries and plums, toothy tannins and ripping acidity. Brawny is an understatement.
There is an elegance to the wine, but that white glove goes hand in hand with one made from rough leather. The refined essence of the Zin is carried in a rustic straw basket. It’s a great way to experience California’s heritage grape.
Specializing in Bordeaux and Italian grape varieties, Jodar Vineyards also produces a Zinfandel from among the pines of the Sierra Foothills, in the sub-region of Apple Hill. Vaughn and Joni Jodar's steep, terraced vineyard sits at an altitude of 2,400 feet, overlooking the American River canyon.
The Jodar 2009 Zinfandel is aged for 24 months, hits an alcohol number of 14.7% and sells for $24 per stylish bottle. That 14.7% may seem high by some standards, but after sampling the Mount Aukum Zin, it comes off as positively tame.
It has slightly less perfumed aromas than the Mount Aukum, but still brings forth a potent bouquet. Oak spice in the form of vanilla and cinnamon present a beautiful cover for the brambly cherry notes. The palate shows a dusty, sagebrush essence and firm tannins. The fruit flavors last a long time and turn a little towards raspberry on the finish. This Zinfandel's rustic side is up front, so it really feels like the frontier.
Victor and Cheryl Alvarez own the 254-acre spread, of which 40 acres are planted to grapes. The hillside vineyards lie at elevations from 2,500 to 3,000 feet in the Pleasant Valley sub-region of the El Dorado AVA. Winemaker Marco Capelli makes wine from these vineyards, as well as from his own.
The Miraflores 2010 Méthode Ancienne Syrah retails for $25 and brings in an alcohol content of only 13.5% - extremely low for this AVA. The ancient method on the label refers to the foot stomping the grapes receive to free their juices. Shades of "I Love Lucy" come to mind.
The wine colors up as a deep ruby in the glass and shows a nose of blackberry, blueberry, cherry and vanilla spice. The palate comes forth with dark fruit - blackberry and black plum in the forefront. Really fine tannins and a brilliant acidity make for a wonderful mouthfeel, and the flavors head toward the tart side on the finish.
Located in the Apple Hill sub-region, winemaker Paul Bush works the Madroña Vineyard the way his family has done since 1973. That's virtually the stone age for the El Dorado AVA. His father - who started the whole thing - and his brother, and all the wives, are involved with the winery as well.
Two other family vineyards - Enyé and Sumu-Kaw - are in the Pleasant Valley area. The 3,000 foot elevation of the estate was once the highest altitude for a vineyard in California. Altogether, 26 grape varieties are planted on the property.
Madroña's 2010 Signature Cabernet Franc has a fairly dark garnet tint in the glass and a nose full of dark fruit and spices. Black cherry and blackberry aromas turn into the corresponding flavors on the palate. The nose also sports a good portion of cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice, while the flavor profile features a great slice of El Dorado dirt. At 14.5% abv, it's not the strongest quaff in El Dorado, but the grip is good, the acidity is first-rate and the tannins are steak-worthy.
The Boeger Winery estate was a vineyard site during California's Gold Rush and eked through Prohibition by producing sacramental wine. Most of the vines were uprooted in favor of orchards through the years, but some of today's vines date back to the 1800s. Greg and Sue Boeger are pioneers of the El Dorado AVA’s modern era. They set up shop in the Apple Hill region in 1972. The winery's website says Boeger was "one of the state's first producers of a varietal Merlot when it was virtually unheard of in California. Today he is a pioneer of innovative blends, drawing from over twenty-nine varieties of grapes grown at the estate."
The Boeger Milagro Reserve 2009 is made of 91% Graciano, 7% Cabernet Sauvignon and 2% Tempranillo. It's part of Boeger's M series, which tips the hat to old world wine regions. Graciano and Tempranillo are both big figures in Spanish wine. The wine clocks in at 14.5% alcohol and it retails for $25.
The Milagro is as black as ink in the glass with dark, earthy aromas and flavors and a brawny tannic structure. Blackberry and brown sugar dominate the nose, while the palate is a riot of raspberry, blackberry and oak spice. A peppery vanilla note rings on the finish. This wine spent 30 months aging in barrels, and it wears that oak effect well.
Lava Cap Winery
The Jones family - geologists by trade - liked the volcanic soil of this spot in the Apple Hill area so much, they literally put down roots on the early 1980s. Winemaker Tom Jones went to his Granite Hill vineyard for his Petite Sirah.
Lava Cap’s 2010 Petite Sirah uses 75% Petite Sirah grapes, 19.5% Grenache, 4% Merlot and 1.5% Barbera for the old-world blend done in new world terroir. The Lava cap Petite Sirah stands at 14.9% abv and is quite dark in the glass, an inky purple hue. Aromas of blueberry, vanilla spice and a lovely cedar note define the nose, while the palate shows ripe berries and plums, black and white pepper and tobacco. Fine tannins and a brilliant acidity finish off the experience nicely. It's a really astounding wine, but be forewarned - it's big, brawny and very masculine. Pair it with any kind of grilled meat.
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