Tuesday, November 9, 2010

El Dorado Wine Country: A Toast to the Underdog

When most people think of California’s El Dorado County, they think of small, dusty ghost towns and of the region’s once-flourishing mining history during the Gold Rush. As a wine region, however, El Dorado is relatively unrecognized. Which is a shame when you consider the fact that not only was El Dorado County the third largest California wine producer in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but that today, many of California’s top winemakers are drawing inspiration from the broad range of grapes being grown in the El Dorado appellation.

The draw?

“Mountain Fruit!” says Vinum Cellars and Horse & Plow Winery owner and winemaker Chris Condos. An El Dorado expert, Chris says he ventured into the region over ten years ago when he began looking outside of Napa and Sonoma Valleys for unique varietals such as Mourvèdre, Cabernet Franc and Grenache being grown at elevations between 1800 and 3300 feet. Perched as it is in the higher elevations of the Sierra Foothills, nearly every vineyard in the region, Chris discovered, is planted on hillsides rich with high draining volcanic, decomposed granite and shale soils. For Chris, El Dorado was, and is, a viticultural home run.

Days in the El Dorado hills tend to be long and intensely sunny, but at night cool, even cold, breezes drift in from the Sierra Nevada Mountains and settle over the vines. Because El Dorado is cooled not by fog but by high elevation winds, vines planted here receive more direct sunlight than vineyards in nearby regions like Napa Valley, so grapes experience long, even hang-times that don’t ramp up sugar (and alcohol) levels in the resulting wines. It’s the perfect setting for a variety of grapes, including Mourvèdre, Syrah, Grenache and Cabernet Franc, all of which, as Chris says, need a lot of sun but also need the balance that comes from cold nights.

In fact, balance could be the key to El Dorado’s success. Well, that and diversity. Over 50 grape varieties are grown in the small Sierra Foothills sub-appellation. While each variety expresses its unique personalities, the region’s consistency in producing grapes with balanced sugars, acid and tannin makes it the ideal source for blending fruit. In the last few years, if you’ve enjoyed a Rhône or Bordeaux-style blend with a California or Northern California designate on the label, there’s a good chance you’ve enjoyed a wine at least partly comprised of El Dorado fruit. In fact, the Cabernet Franc for Vinum Cellars’ The Scrapper (call 800.943.9463 to inquire about availability), one of the Bounty Hunter’s most popular table reds, comes almost exclusively from El Dorado’s dramatic mountain vines. Chris calls it their “shout out to the wines of Chinon.” We call it an early autumn porch pounder and a tasty salute to one of California’s underdog wine regions.

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