Amador County, California, USA

When the California Gold Rush hit in the 1850s, immigrants from around the globe rushed to the Sierra Nevada mountain range in hopes of striking it rich. Many main hubs of activity were located in areas that would later become important towns within When the California Gold Rush hit in the 1850s, immigrants from around the globe rushed to the Sierra Nevada mountain range in hopes of striking it rich. Many main hubs of activity were located in areas that would later become important towns within Amador County. When the Mother Lode ended, people who stayed in the region made money on timber, cattle, and delicious wines, made with fruit from some of the first Zinfandel vines planted in America. But by the 1890s, only a handful of the precious old Zinfandel vineyards, and one winery survived.

Ironically, the next grape boom wave was started by home winemakers, who began making distinctive wines with fruit from the 500 acres of vineyards planted during Prohibition. After Repeal, the numbers rose to 900 acres, and most of the fruit was used as special ingredients in some of California’s finest jug wines. In the 1960s, home winemakers from the Bay Area started sourcing fruit from the county, particularly Shenandoah Valley, a charming hillside area east of the small town of Plymouth.

Beginning in the 1970s, a new revolution took place in the region. Some of this movement was fueled by youngsters of multi-generation families. In other cases, it was the result of a new breed of winemakers, who began working with precious fruit from legendary old Zinfandel vines, and newer experimentations with French, Italian, and Spanish grape varieties.

By 2008, 3,700 acres of grape vines were planted throughout the county. Today, grapes represent the largest single agricultural commodity in Amador County.

At elevations of 1,200 to 2,000 feet, the region is warm, but not hot. The temperature is controlled by breezes, which come in from the Bay Area around 3 pm daily. Most of the vines are planted in the volcanic Sierra Series soils, a combination of sandy clay loam, quartz, and decomposed granite. Although the region is very dry in the summertime, there is plenty of water. Nearby snowcaps, creeks, rivers, springs, bring an annual average of 35 inches of rainfall in the winter and spring months. Together, these balanced weather conditions and degenerative soils, put favorable stress on vines, which help create concentrated flavors in each cluster leading to harvest.

Currently, there are 40 members of the Amador Vintners Association. Sub-appellations inside the county are Shenandoah Valley, Fiddletown, and Willow Creek. New tasting rooms in the quaint towns of Sutter Creek and Lone are less than an hour away from the state capital of Sacramento.

Grape Expectations

Whites: Diverse plantings of Pinot Grigio, Viognier, Marsanne, Roussanne, Muscat, Verdelho, and Sauvignon Blanc.

Reds: Zinfandel is the cornerstone of red wines in Amador County. Currently, there are over 2,000 acres of this historic varietal planted at different sites, slopes and exposures. The county is also home to some of the finest Italian varietals planted in California, particularly Barbera, Sangiovese, Aglianico, Teraldago, and Primitivo (the Italian cousin of Zinfandel). Other special red grapes include: Rhone varietals such as Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, Carignane, Cinsault, Alicante Bouschet and Petite Sirah; traditional Portuguese varietals; and there is an exciting new emphasis on working with Tempranillo, a unique Spanish variety that performs well in warm, dry conditions.

Taste Sensations

White Wines: Pinot Grigios are clean and crisp with notes of melon and apple. The Rhone varietals are more fragrant and sassy. Viognier, for example, has a great range with tropical fruits, apricot, peach, orange peel, pumpkin spice, vanilla, with a tangy finish. Most of these wines are delicate and light on the oak. Verdelho, a special Spanish variety, features notes of peach skin, exotic melon, brown sugar, and spice.

Red Wines: In general, red wines from the region feature generous flavors and resolved tannins. But until the past decade, most of the Zinfandels were big and jammy with a wide range of 13% to 17% alcohol. Since then, Zinfandels have become more concentrated with robust flavors of briary blackberries, sarsaparilla, dark chocolate, pepper, layers of spice, and more balanced levels of alcohol. To diversify these flavors, many producers are also working with Primitivo, an early-ripening grape, commonly used in attractive blends or bottled separately. Typical highlights from this variety include: lush flavors of blueberry, boysenberry, violets, graham-cracker crust, espresso, spicy character, fleshy texture, and a round mouth feel.

In the Rhone categories, wines made with Syrah and Grenache offer aromas and flavors of ripe red fruits, blueberry, boysenberry, black cherry, olive, bacon fat, hickory smoke, orange blossom, pepper, licorice, and refined tannins. With a landscape similar to the more elevated areas of Tuscany, Italian varieties also work extremely well in Amador County. For starters, Barbera is to Amador what Cabernet Sauvignon is to Napa Valley. The flavor profiles are loaded with dark fruits, subtle spices, succulent texture, and easy to drink, with no hard edges.

Teraldago is more focused on high tone fruits and firm tannins. Sangiovese-based wines are more sensual and expressive with notes of leather, red fruits, cherry, cocoa, tobacco, Earl Grey tea, and vibrant acidity. The famous Spanish variety of Tempranillo is equally delicious, with aromas of ripe red fruits, leather, blood orange, and spice; flavors of black raspberry, cherry, licorice, molasses, charcuterie, white pepper, rosemary and other savory herbs.

Food Pairings

With the dry white and pink wines of Amador County, think fresh salads, grilled veggies, seafood, Sushi, Mexican cuisine and tangy cheeses. With the reds, think Italian cuisine, Mac n’ Cheese, mole, grilled red meats, baked beans, chili, seasonal succotash, spicy sausage, pork shoulder, oven-roasted game hen, veal, and hearty stews.