El Dorado County is one of America’s hidden gems that is increasingly being talked about in wine circles. Located in California’s Sierra Foothills on the road between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe it is a high elevation region that, despite its lengthy history, is only just being discovered.
Eldorado County is a sub-AVA (American Viticultural Area) of the larger Sierra Foothills AVA, located in Northern California, inland from Napa and Sonoma. The County covers 1,786 square miles. It is beautiful country characterized by mostly agricultural and park land over rolling hills at the base of the Sierra Mountains, dotted with many rivers and lakes. The wine producing area sits primarily in the western half, just above Amador County, a highly-regarded viticultural region in its own right. The County’s population is less than 200,000 that are mostly residents of small towns. The largest town is Eldorado Hills whose population is 42,000. Placerville, where we stayed, is at the heart of wine country and has a population of 10,000.
The County has historical significance as it was a focal area of the 1848 Gold Rush. The County’s many riverbanks held plenty of free gold which miners would pan for. Placer mining, from which the town derives its name, refers to mining the alluvial deposits of streams. El Dorado is Spanish for the golden. Though gold mining is no longer prevalent in the area, it was very much a part of the County’s beginning and formed a basis for its culture.
Winemaking has been practiced in the County for more than a century, however, its focus on premium, artisanal wines has occurred over the last 30 years. El Dorado gained its status as an AVA in 1983. Today El Dorado is home to over 70 wineries, a number that is double what existed 10 years ago.
Perhaps the most distinguishing feature of this region is its high elevation. Vineyards can be found at 1,200 to 3,500 feet above sea level. At this range of elevations, it exceeds that of Napa, Paso Robles, Santa Barbara County, the Willamette Valley and Walla Walla, making it the highest elevation significant wine-growing region in the US. Why is that important? “Bacchus amat colles”. This ancient Latin phrase translates to “Bacchus (the God of wine) loves hills”. For centuries wine makers have known that high altitude vineyards often produce the very best wine. There are three primary reasons for this. First, as any sunburnt skier will tell you, the sun is more intense at higher altitudes. The greater concentration of sunlight at higher elevations causes the grapes to develop greater pigment concentration. To protect themselves against burning and shriveling in the concentrated sun, the grapes will grow thicker skins. The grapes flavour compounds (phenolics) are found mostly in the skins. Thicker skins mean more flavour. The same is true of the structural compounds (tannin). Thicker skins also mean more structured and age-worthy wines. The second benefit of higher altitudes are greater diurnal (daytime to nighttime) temperature shifts. At high altitudes you have cool evenings which preserve acidity and slow down maturity, allowing for a longer growing season (longer “hangtime”) that allows for greater flavour development. The third benefit of higher elevations is that rocky hillsides give greater drainage. This is important to forcing the grapes to struggle in their growth which results in smaller berries of greater concentration.
El Dorado County has good climatic conditions for premium winegrowing. On average there are 246 days per year of sunshine, mostly occurring during the growing season. Annual rainfall is 36 inches, mostly falling outside of the growing season. This means that most vineyards will need some irrigation for a successful crop. Warm, sunny days during the growing season encourage growth in the vineyards. Heat spikes of greater than 100 degrees F are rare which is a benefit as vines will usually shut down during excessive heat. There are three basic soil types found in the region: fine-grained volcanic rock, decomposed granitic rock and fine-grained shale. Each type is good for vine growing as they provide sufficient nutrients for healthy vines without promoting excess vigour.
These climatic and soil conditions coupled with high elevations allow for a wide variety of grapes to be grown successfully within the AVA. Grapes originally from Italy, Bordeaux, the Rhone Valley, Germany and other regions have been planted with great success in El Dorado County. Over 50 grape varieties are grown there. Principal red varieties are Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Barbera, Merlot, Syrah and Petite Syrah. Though less in acreage than the red varieties, white grapes grown include Chardonnay, Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc and Roussanne.
With such diversity, is there a regional signature? That is, can the wines of El Dorado be identified as having their own terroir? We think yes. The wines we tasted showed medium body on top of good structure. We generally encountered intense flavours. The wines were generally fruit driven with complex flavours that had a slightly savoury, mineral note. In the hands of the best winemakers this resulted in balanced wines that at the table complimented the food rather than pushing their way to center stage. We found the majority to be structured somewhat like old world wines but definitely showing new world fruit in terms of ripeness. If a comparison helps, we would see similarities between El Dorado County and the wines of Walla Walla or perhaps what some of the more modern bodegas are doing in Rioja. To our tastes we thought Zinfandel showed particularly well and we were also impressed with Grenache and some Barbera. Viognier stood out for us within the white varieties.
We interviewed four winemakers on our trip which will form the basis of subsequent articles. We also tasted at several wine bars and restaurants giving us the opportunity to evaluate over 30 wines from the region. This not only expanded our overview of the area but also showed us how remarkable Eldorado County is a travel destination. We were very impressed with the winemaking scene in El Dorado County and we are convinced that this is a high quality viticultural region that will increasingly catch the attention of the wine press and consumers alike. It is also a beautiful and fun region to visit.
For more information on El Dorado County and a list of its wineries, the El Dorado Winery Association has an excellent website.