Sierra Foothills Zinfandel is Ready
Are we overlooking one of California’s great Zinfandel resources or are the Sierra Foothills simply not keeping up with the times?
I believe that folks might already have gleaned that I am somewhat of a Zinfandel fanatic but some of my previous posts. In truth my job has resulted in my drinking less, not more Zin but left to my own devises that would not be the case. Zinfandel remains for me the greatest American wine, both for the sheer joyousness of the wine and the history that comes with them.
Today’s Zinfandel landscape is the richest in history, filled with old vine lots, amazing field blends, and some of the most talented winemakers in the industry, which is not surprising when you consider what terrifi expressions of terroir fine Zins can be. Yes it is true, Zinfandel is a great terroir wine. Just taste a few examples from Sonoma or Napa and it will become instantly obvious. And of course the many regions beyond the familiar that continue to produce world class Zins all have their own terroir to expres. Just this summer I’ve reported on the wines of Lodi, Mendocino, and Lake counties. All fabulous regions for Zinfandel, and great value Zins at that. Today I turn the spotlight on what might very well be the black sheep of the Zinfandel family: Amador and the Sierra foothills!
Now these are regions with rich and varied histories. producers of some classic Zins across the decades, and yet they fail to get the notice of some other regions and in fact seem to be falling behind regions like Lodi and Mendocino. That’s not because the wines are in anyway inferior, it’s simply economics. Land and farming costs are cheaper elsewhere, and so the big boys tend to have turned their attention away from the Sierra Foothills. It is possible that the wineries from the Sierra Foothills have also not been making the best case for their wines.
The reputation for Zins from these regions seem to be built on wines that were produced some time ago, though it also seems that more Zin producing regions has changed as little, or as slowly as these two have. When I think of Amador Zins, the most common and well distributed wines of the Sierra foothills, I tend to think of wines that are rich, chewy, chunky and rustic. Certainly apt descriptions for wines say of the 1970s, but not necessarily apt today. I also think of wines that express a warm climate, though in reality what I, and you might be tasting are late harvest wines instead.
The wine industry in this neck of the woods has tended to be rather small, family owned and local. that explains the reluctance to adopt a more modern, perhaps lower alcohol, but certainly more elegant style. It’s not as if the region is incapable of producing these types of wines. Amador is not, after all, a truly hot climate, these are afterall foothills with their diurnal shifts that can approach 50 degrees in the heat of the summer Vineyard elevations vary roughly from 1000 to 3000 feet of elevation and soils tend to be predominantly the decomposed granite of the mountains to the east. The truth of the matter is that many small wineries have continued to make wines the same way for years if not decades simply because the local economy that had been the support structure for these wineries was built on that style of wine.
You can not fault small wineries for being cautious but at the same time there has been both precedent, a 1968 Amador county Zinfandel made for Darrell Corti by Bob Trinchero at Sutter Home that is legendary, as well as recent events, Teagan Passalaqua and Bill Easton have both been staunch supporters of the region producing wines that are uniquely Sierra Foothills but at the same time in a more elegant and refined style than has been the norm in this neck of the woods. These modern examples of Amador Zinfandel are serving to open doors for both the current and future generations of producers in the region. No longer simply surviving, Sierra Foothills producers are now both thriving and learning that their cool hillsides, benefitting as they do from lots of sun and moderately long seasons, can be farmed to produce wines that are fresh, bright, and easy to drink. The days of power monsters, tannic Zins, and franky sweet wines is receding into the past as Amador and the sierra Foothills strides into the 21st century.
Today the Zins of the Sierra Foothills are increasingly about the terroir of the Sierra Foothills and less about the techniques of the 1970s. red fruit, structured wines, based on those granitic soils and wind swept slopes are creeping into the market. For a lover of Zinfandel it’s a welcome sign. Another aspect of Zinfandel revealed, and usually at a very attractive price. With the sumer slowly creeping towards its inevitable conclusion allow me to implore you to grab one or a few of the se wines to share with simply seasoned ribs right off the grill. Not only will the wine pair magically with your food, but the scenario is one that will no doubt be played out over and over again in the foothills themselves. It remains after all a casual place where folks eat with the hands, share food and wine among friends in the backyard, and learn to be increasingly confident in their unique and distinctive expressions of Zinfandel, and Barbera, but that is a story for another time!