The following is an abbreviated excerpt from the chapter on Gold Country wines in Pour Me Another: An Opinionated Guide to Gold Country Wines. (c)2011 David Locicero, all rights reserved.
A Little History
Gold was discovered in 1848 on the South Fork of the American River at Sutter’s Mill. The gold attracted people from all over the country and from all over the world. The Gold Rush put this area on the map and determined the character of the region that still exists.
The Spanish missionaries who traveled up California establishing the chain of Missions along the El Camino Real brought grape plants with them for the production of sacramental wine. It wasn’t until after the start of the Gold Rush and the massive influx of miners and prospectors to the region that a market for wine, to quench the thirst of all the rowdy miners, that grapes were planted in any significant numbers.
In the 1850’s and 1860’s vineyards were planted for commercial wine production. In addition to cuttings from the Mission grapes, cuttings were brought in from the east coast of the United States, including the now dominant Zinfandel varietal. Italian miners, realizing the similarities between their native Mediterranean climate and the Gold Country climate sought out and planted Italian grape varietals.
For a short time this was the location of the first commercial winery in the United States, established in El Dorado County by James Skinner in the 1850’s. By the 1870’s El Dorado County was the third largest wine producing area after Los Angeles and Sonoma counties.
After the turn of the century, wine making started to decline in the area and the passage of prohibition put an end to most commercial wine making. Some families continued to make sacramental wine for church use, as well as making wines for personal consumption. Vineyard were torn up and replaced with orchards.
It wasn’t until the late 1960’s and early 1970’s that grape growing and wine making returned to the area. In 1973 Boeger was one of the very first vineyards and wineries to open up commercial production after prohibition.
There are about 200 American Viticultural Areas, refered to as AVA’s, in the United States. This is the system of wine appellations of origin used in the United States. AVA’s are recognized wine growing regions which are based on geographic, climate and soil characteristics. AVA’s can be and are subdivided into smaller AVA’s.
The boundaries of AVA’s are defined by the Alcohol and tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, an office within the United States Department of the Treasury.
In most Europe an appellation designation not only limits the grapes to those grown within the geographical area, but also what grape varietals can be used within the wine, methods of growing and crop yields. American AVA’s are more like the Italian system, which only requires that 85% of the grapes used to make the wine be grown within the appellation.
The main AVA in Gold country is the Sierra Foothills AVA. This AVA includes all of Amador, Calaveras, El Dorado, Nevada and Placer counties. If a wine has “Sierra Foothills” on the label, 85% of the grapes used to make the wine must have been grown in these 5 counties.
Amador County and El Dorado County are each Sub AVA’s of the Sierra Foothills AVA. When a label has the name of one of these counties on its label, at least 85% of the grapes used to make the wine must have been grown in the named county.
To add to the confusion, sub-AVA’s can be and are further subdivided into even smaller AVA’s based distinct, recognized variations in the geography, climate and soils. The El Dorado AVA contains the smaller Fair Play AVA. The same 85% rule applies to wines that say “Fair Play” on the label.
The list of grapes grown in Gold Country is really long. Because of the climate, soils and elevation, a wide range of grapes from many different wine making regions can be grown here. This provides the wine makers with many options for not only what to grow, but what styles of wines to make.
The king of the grapes in Gold Country is the Zinfandel grape. The grape is genetically related to two European grapes, the Italian Primitivo and the Croatian Crljenak Kastelanski (try saying that 3 times fast!). The clippings were brought here originally from plants on the east coast of the US, via Austria, and later directly from Italy. The plant thrives in our hot days and cool nights with hot summers and relatively mild winters. Nearly every winery in Gold Country makes at least one Zinfandel.
Mission grapes have been matched genetically to an obscure Spanish grape, Listan Prieto. It is now uncommon in Spain, but is grown in the Canary Islands as Palomino Negro. The grape is a good producer and is adaptable to many different climates, making it the ideal grape for missionaries to carry with them around the world. The grapes were planted throughout California by the Spanish missionaries for making sacramental wines. Only a few Gold Country wineries still grow and make wines from Mission grapes.
The geology, climate and soils in Gold Country primarily are similar to the Rhone and Italian regions, as well as to Bordeaux and Spain. Many of the wineries here specialize in Rhone varietals, Bordeaux varietals or Italian varietals. Most of the grapes in these categories are reasonably well known now, so I will list the major grapes from each of these areas so you’ll know what to expect when a winery says they specialize in Rhone wines or whatever.
The major Bordeaux grapes most commonly grown in Gold Country are:
The major Rhone grapes most commonly grown in Gold Country are:
The major Italian varietals most commonly grown in Gold Country are:
The major Spanish varietals most commonly grown in Gold Country are:
There are vineyards growing other grapes from each of these regions as well as grapes from many other wine regions of the world.
Chardonnay is a grape varietal originally from Burgundy in France. The French version of Chardonnay is called Chablis. It is the most common grape used to make French Champagne.
While many Gold Country wineries are making Chardonnay, and it is grown in Gold Country, I personally feel that it is not an ideal grape to grow in Gold Country. It thrives in climates with which are characterized by higher humidity, hot days and cool nights with morning fog. Napa and Sonoma counties are ideal places to grow Chardonnay. In my opinion most of the Gold Country Chardonnay’s just are not quite as good as those from Napa and Sonoma.