There Is More Than Gold in El Dorado

By Robert White

When most people think of fine California wines, Napa and Sonoma generally come to mind; however, there are other areas in California making beautiful wine that we will likely never find in Ontario. I recently had an afternoon to explore just such an area.

El Dorado County is just about an hour west of Sacramento in the foothills of the Sierra, Nevada mountains. It is famed for the mineral deposits and gold mines that attracted waves of immigrants, known as the 49ers, during the 1849 California Gold Rush. Wine grape growers in the El Dorado AVA region produce Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Rhône varietals. The vineyards are found at elevations between 1,200 feet (366 m) and 3,500 feet (1,067 m) above sea level and benefit from the cool breezes that come off the mountains. The soils of the region are magma based with high levels of acidity.

For the most part, the climate in this part of California resembles that of Italy or Spain, making wine grapes and vineyards one of the region’s primary crops and industry. Over 100 wineries are found throughout the Gold Country. Winters are cool and damp, averaging around 30 inches of rainfall and occasional snowfall. Winter temperatures range from the upper twenties to mid- fifties. Summers are dry and hot, but cool in the evenings. The climate, while fickle at times (cold summer and late rains), generally allows the grapes to ripen well and the cool evenings allow the development of good acidity.

While a few vineyards started just after the gold miners had come and gone, it is only in the past forty years that winemaking has been revived. The wineries we visited were family run and produce between 2,500 and 10,000 cases per year.

One of the largest wineries is Boeger Winery which has been doing some innovative aging in oak barrels from different regions of the world. They produce a large number of varietals including a very good Barbera and estate bottled Zinfandel.

As noted, several wineries are focusing on Rhône varieties. Holly’s Hill at 2,700 feet has planted its vineyards exclusively to Rhône varietals including Mourvèdre, Rousanne and Viognier. The Hill Top Syrah was excellent.

Sierra Vista, producing wines since 1977, also “specializes” in Rhône style wines, and produces their own version of a Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Narrow Gate, a smaller winery, more rustic, produces an excellent Cabernet Sauvignon/Cabernet Franc blend—it was interesting to see how good this can be when all the grapes that go into the wine are fully ripe!

So if you find yourself in the Sacramento or Lake Tahoe area, take a drive to El Dorado. The scenery is quite spectacular and the wines equally captivating.