El Dorado AVA: wines with altitude – and challenges

   About 14 months ago, I participated in a short press trip to California’s Sierra Foothills with the theme “El Dorado Rising.” A collection of eight wineries in the El Dorado AVA were aiming to elevate the reputation of their relatively high-altitude (1,200 to 3,500 feet) appellation. They wanted consumers to understand that their appellation produces a lot more than the big, ripe, jammy zinfandels for which the foothills are so well known. Everything from sparkling to albariño to riesling to, yes, zinfandel was on display.

   In the months since, the wineries have faced a string of challenges, starting with the Caldor fire, which began in El Dorado County last August. It burned more than 220,000 acres and led to widespread evacuations. The fire burned some vines at Miraflores Winery. Many vineyards in the area were under a thick haze of smoke for weeks, and some vintners lost much of the crop to smoke taint. Some went ahead and made wine and waited to see whether the smoke problem made the wines unsellable. Still others believe their grapes escaped any damage. (Hard to say. I haven’t tasted many 2021 wines.)

   The 2022 season has brought new challenges, starting with damaging frosts in some areas. Madroña Vineyards, for example, suffered through three frost events and lost 50 percent of its riesling crop, according to owner/winemaker Paul Bush. Earlier in the summer, smoke from several fires in and around Yosemite National Park drifted into the area, though there appears to have been no effect on the vineyards.

    The lineup of wineries in the group has changed slightly since last year. But on a return trip in late spring, I found that these wineries are rising above the challenges and producing an array of very good to outstanding wines.

Starfield Vineyards, near Placerville. (Photo courtesy of Starfield Vineyards)

   The El Dorado AVA is home to an estimated 60 or so wineries. Vineyards are planted with nearly 100 grape varieties, according to the El Dorado Winery Association. “That’s the beauty of this region,” said Greg Boeger, owner of Boeger Winery. That huge range of grape varieties is possible because of all the variations in slopes, exposures, soils and elevations.

    An international panel studying vineyards and climate change noted recently that grapes grown at high elevations have thicker skins to protect against the stronger UV radiation, which results in greater structure and color. Budbreak is also delayed at higher altitudes; the later growing season means peak ripening takes place when temperatures are milder, preserving acidity.

   Wine production in El Dorado County dates to the Gold Rush days of the mid-1800s. (Gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill in the county in 1848.) But the wine industry had virtually vanished by 1920. The establishment of Boeger Winery 50 years ago marked the beginning of the appellation’s modern history. Vines from the 1870s and ‘80s still grow along the driveway at the Boeger property, and there’s a Gold Rush-era building that housed a winery and distillery.

A Gold Rush-era building at Boeger Winery. (Photo courtesy of Boeger Winery)

    Greg Boeger grew up around wine: His grandfather founded the Nichelini Winery in the Napa Valley. At his property outside Placerville, Boeger started with 11 acres of vines in 1972. Now he grows more than 30 grape varieties at the estate vineyard and an adjacent property, as well as two leased vineyards. Italian varieties, such as barbera (which Boeger has been making since 1976), aglianico, negroamaro and refosco, are a specialty.

   Winemaker Justin Boeger, Greg’s son, said most of the 2021 whites, except for riesling, were unaffected by smoke. I tasted a 2021 sauvignon blanc ($20) that displays peach and melon flavors and no evidence of the smoke. The reds, he said, were “a mixed bag,” depending on grape variety, harvest timing and vineyard location. “Our barbera, in particular, turned out well,” he said. “Some zinfandels, too.” Others, such as pinot noir and charbono, had to be dumped, and about one-third of the grapes weren’t even picked.

   Highlights among the current reds included a juicy, easy-to-drink 2019 estate barbera ($27) and a round, spicy blend of mostly charbono and refosco, the 2018 Migliore ($30).

Paul Bush of Madroña Vineyards. (Photo by Lisa Jesse)

   Not long after the Boegers got their start, Dick and Leslie Bush founded Madroña Vineyards in the high-elevation (about 3,000 feet) Apple Hill area of the county. Their son Paul and his wife, Maggie, now run the unassuming winery and 80-plus acres of vines in three locations.

   Madroña produces a big lineup of estate wines, and there’s a sister label, Rucksack Cellars, that uses purchased fruit. Probably my favorite Madroña wine is riesling, which does well in the warm days and cold nights. Paul Bush was able to make the wine in 2021; he harvested the vineyard in two passes. Bush has been exceedingly honest about the situation: On the winery website, he describes how, through blending and some filtering, he was able to make a wine with minimal smoke flavor. Still, he’s bottling it in small lots over time so that he can check for smoke influence with each lot. So far, so good.

   The 2021 Hillside Riesling ($18) is a lovely wine that’s just off-dry, with flavors of spiced apple and candied lime and, yes, a touch of ash. If it weren’t for the smoke, Bush said, “I would have loved to see this wine with eight to 10 years of age.”    

   For other varieties, the impact was mixed. Nebbiolo and barbera, Bush said, seemed to be minimally impacted. Others weren’t so lucky. “There will be some nice wines, but many others won’t make the cut. … We’ve dumped some already.”

   Highlights among the current releases include the 2019 Hillside Grenache ($26), with its spicy strawberry flavors; the 2019 Signature Syrah ($30), a meaty, savory wine with dark berry fruit and white pepper; and the 2019 Hillside Zinfandel ($22), which is bright and lively, with spicy zinberry fruit.

The home ranch at Lava Cap has a variety of slopes and exposures. (Photo by Nolan Jones)

   The Jones family is full of geologists, and it was the soil at Lava Cap that first attracted David Jones, who was a geology professor at the University of California-Berkeley. As the name suggests, the Lava Cap soils are largely volcanic, along with some organic matter. The family planted the first vines in 1981 and opened the winery in 1986.

   Spend any time with the Joneses and you’ll hear a lot about soils and geology. Charlie Jones, David’s son, also studied geology and now runs the place with his wife, Noreen. Charlie focuses on the vineyard, along with his son Emmett, also a geologist. The home ranch has a variety of slopes, exposures and microclimates, so the family farms a wide range of grape varieties, from zinfandel and petite sirah to chardonnay and gamay.

   When I was first introduced to Lava Cap wines years ago, they were big, big, big. But recent bottlings show more restraint and freshness, even when the alcohol is a touch high. For example, the 2019 barbera ($28) clocks in at 15.1 percent, but the alcohol doesn’t stick out. The wine displays fresh berry fruit and medium tannins and is very easy to drink. I also liked the 2020 sangiovese ($28), which offers bright cherry and a note of tea, with juicy acidity and medium tannins. The 2019 reserve viognier, which is sold out, is bright and floral, with white fruit and notes of beeswax and dry honey. It’s rich without being heavy.

   According to marketing director Nolan Jones, another of Charlie’s sons, the fire had “zero impact” on the whites, but “the reds are evolving into a highly variable mix of impacted and non-impacted wines.” Some reds weren’t even picked; others were harvested but won’t make the cut. Still others, such as sangiovese, zinfandel and barbera, seem to be unaffected, Jones said. “It’s a mixed bag that, given the circumstances, could have been worse.”

From left, Derek Delfino, Christine Delfino Noonan and Peter Delfino at Edio Vineyards. (Photo by Tommy Noonan)

   The winery at Edio Vineyards is relatively new, but the Delfino family, who own and operate Edio, have long ties to the area. Edio Delfino was agricultural commissioner for El Dorado County for 33 years, starting in 1964. (He helped Greg Boeger find his property.) Delfino farmed pears on his property, then apples, and the vineyard was added in 2007. The vineyard and winery are now run by siblings in the third generation: Derek Delfino is the vineyard manager; Peter Delfino makes the wines; and Christine Delfino Noonan is the general manager.

   The 2021 vintage wasn’t kind to Edio. Derek said they picked all their estate grapes – “we were pretty optimistic” – but there was too much smoke damage, so there are no estate wines from the vintage. They were able to make some wines from David Girard Vineyards, in another part of the county. An example is the very fresh 2021 Robyn’s Blend ($34), a viognier-roussanne mix with lots of creamy white fruit.

   In 2020, the winery produced a stellar albariño, but there’s none in 2021. (Watch for it in the future.) Currently, there’s an excellent 2019 estate grenache ($40) that’s bright and supple, with strawberry and cranberry fruit and a salty minerality. And the 2020 estate primitivo ($42) is surprisingly delicate, with pretty berry flavors and medium tannins. One hallmark of the Edio wines is freshness: The brothers said they like to pick on the early side, when pHs are fairly low.

The picturesque tasting room at Miraflores Winery. (Photo courtesy of Miraflores Winery)

    Of the wineries in the group, Miraflores Winery saw the worst of the Caldor fire. A few rows of syrah and zinfandel vines were burned, but the winery and the picturesque Mediterranean-style tasting room were untouched. General manager Ashlee Cuneo said the 2021 whites were undamaged, but the winery team is still figuring out which reds will be bottled. Syrah and malbec are likely to be released with a special fire label, she said. Any reds that aren’t released will be distilled into neutral grape spirits for Miraflores’ fortified dessert wines.

   Miraflores has 16 varieties planted on 45 acres of vineyards and also buys some grapes. The flagship wine is the estate syrah. I tasted the 2017 ($32), which has a lot of savory notes of roasted meat and white pepper. The 2019 estate viognier ($29) is very aromatic, with creamy white peach, honeysuckle and a hint of grapefruit.

   Miraflores also has a wine made from mission grapes planted at the Deaver Vineyard in neighboring Amador County. It’s a fascinating wine, with aromas of nuts and dried figs that promise sweetness, although the wine is dry, with flavors of strawberry and rhubarb. The wine is called Misión 1853 ($34), a reference to the year the vineyard was planted.  

Tom Sinton in the vineyard at Starfield. (Photo courtesy of Starfield Vineyards)

   Tom Sinton had made wine in Paso Robles and Napa before he bought property in El Dorado County. He wanted hillsides and rocky soils, “and it had to be beautiful.” The result is Starfield Vineyards, and the estate is quite beautiful.

   Sinton planted 17 grape varieties, mostly those associated with the Rhône and Italy. There are a number of blends, like the dark and spicy Jacks Are Wild ($45), dominated by petite sirah. (I tasted the 2018; 2019 is currently available.) The 2020 fiano ($30) is fresh and structured, with apple and almond paste flavors; it would reward a year or two of aging. Because of smoke, there won’t be any 2021 wines except for sparkling because those grapes were picked before the fire.

Gwinllan does all its sparkling wine operations in-house, including riddling with a gyropalette.

   Gwinllan Estate, which is in the Fair Play area of El Dorado County, produces a number of still wines, but the winery may be best known for its award-winning sparkling wines. Viticulturist and consulting winemaker Jonathan Pack said the bubbly “was like a whim for my dad” – founder Gordon Pack – who started by producing reds. The whim paid off. The 2017 blanc de noirs ($40) is round and creamy, with delicate berry fruit, while the 2018 brut ($38) is lean, racy and a little spicy, with lemon and apple flavors. Among the still wines, I like the 2018 Sceptre ($44), a blend of petit verdot and malbec that’s lively and concentrated, with spicy black fruit, a slight leafy note and fine tannins. The name of the winery pays tribute to the family’s Welsh heritage: Gwinllan means vineyard in Welsh.

A view of the vineyards from the Element 79 tasting area. (Photo courtesy of Element 79)

   The new kid on the block, Element 79 (that’s gold on the periodic table), has been open less than five years. Vintner is a second career for Les Heinsen, who retired from a 38-year career in the insurance industry. His 32-acre vineyard is also in Fair Play. The wine lineup at Element 79 includes some of the usual suspects, like the spicy, fresh 2018 zinfandel ($33) and a dark, inky, concentrated 2017 petite sirah ($39). But winemaker Scott Johnson also has some less conventional wines, like the 2020 Inside Out ($28), a pretty zinfandel make with carbonic maceration that would benefit from a slight chill. There’s also a fun canned sparkling rosé called Color ($40 for a four-pack of 375 ml cans) that’s juicy, refreshing and quite fizzy.

   With a difficult-to-terrible 2021 behind them, El Dorado vintners are optimistic about 2022. The spring frosts have reduced the crop at some wineries, but harvest has begun and quality appears to be good.

   Lava Cap had few problems with frost, and Nolan Jones is excited about the vintage. “I expect 2022 to show a lot of balance and freshness, but we will see when the fruit starts coming in,” he said. Some of the reds have a slightly larger crop than usual, a welcome development after the previous year. 

   Justin Boeger calls the frost, which was severe at Boeger, “a real double whammy, because of all the years that we needed a bigger yield, this was it. … But the quality of the remaining fruit is great, and I’m excited to turn it into wine.”

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