California’s nascent wine industry took flight during the Gold Rush of the 1850s, amid the rugged western foothills of the majestic Sierra Nevada mountain range. As fortune seekers, many of them European, flocked to the Sierras to prospect for gold, small wineries arose to help slake their thirst. Within a few decades, there were over 100 wineries in the area known as the Mother Lode, more than any other region of California. Some of the vineyards planted during that era survive to this day.
The decline of gold mining at the end of the 19th-century, followed by the advent of Prohibition in 1920, devastated this frontier wine community, which remained dormant until the late 1960s. Then, a new generation of pioneers began migrating to the Gold Country’s Amador County, this time drawn by the region’s rolling, sun-drenched hillsides, warm daytime temperatures, and volcanic, decomposed granite soils – ideal conditions for producing top-quality wine grapes. When their robustly flavored wines, especially zinfandel, began attracting the attention of wine lovers throughout California and the U.S., the historic Sierra Foothills wine region was reborn.
Today, where gold once reigned, some forty wineries produce a new treasure: the superb wines which have earned Amador County international acclaim.
GEOGRAPHY & GEOLOGY
Amador County is located in the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountain range in central California, approximately 100 miles east of both San Francisco and Napa Valley and 40 miles east of the state capitol of Sacramento.
The majority of Amador’s 3,700 vine acres and 40 wineries are in the northern part of the county in the Shenandoah Valley, near the small town of Plymouth. Here, vines are planted on rolling, oak-studded hillsides ranging from 1,200 to 2,000 feet in elevation. Slightly to the east is the small Fiddletown appellation, which boasts even higher-elevation vineyards.
Most Amador vines are planted in volcanic Sierra Series soils – primarily sandy clay loam derived from decomposed granite. These friable, moderately dense soils effectively retain Amador’s 36 to 38 inches of annual rainfall, enabling most growers to dry-farm their vineyards. Dry-farming, coupled with the low nitrogen and phosphorous content of the soils, results in sparse vine canopies affording the grapes excellent sunlight exposure.
Amador’s warm climate, high solar radiance (what the French call luminosity) and low humidity promote the full ripening of our grapes. Classified as a high Region 3 in the UC Davis heat summation scale, Amador is comparable to St. Helena – but cooler than Calistoga – in northern Napa Valley. While Amador heats up earlier in the day than those appellations, it rarely exceeds 100 degrees during the growing season, a frequent occurrence in St. Helena and Calistoga. Equally important, temperatures typically drop 30-35 degrees in the evening as breezes cascade down from the Sierras. This rapid cooling helps the grapes retain the acidity essential to balanced wines.
The majority of Amador’s vines are head-trained, spur-pruned and either own-rooted or on low vigor rootstocks like St. George, which provide a natural check on yields. Trained vines are primarily on bi-lateral cordons with vertical trellising. Severe pruning, cluster thinning, and dropping crop when necessary keep yields small, generally four tons per acre or less. Amador boasts one of the highest percentages of organically farmed vineyards of any wine region in California and, probably as a result of dry-farming, has been little affected by phylloxera.
Amador’s production of intensely flavored red wines also reflects its high percentage of old vines: roughly 600 acres are 65 years or older, including several vineyards dating to the 19th century. These deeply rooted, head-trained vines, found in vineyards such as Deaver, Esola, Fox, Ferrero, Grandpere and Lubenko, yield tiny crops of small-berried grapes, which produce the heady zinfandels for which Amador is renowned.
Amador County once was identified almost exclusively with zinfandel. During the past 20 years, Amador vintners have begun producing a diverse array of varieties (click here for grape acreage information), especially those of Italian and southern French origin. While zinfandel, with over 2,000 acres, remains Amador’s signature variety, the region’s wineries also vinify superb examples of barbera, sangiovese, sauvignon blanc, and syrah; limited bottlings of pinot grigio, verdelho, viognier, roussanne, marsanne, grenache, mourvedre, petite sirah, aglianico and tempranillo; lovely rosés made from a wide variety of grapes; exceptional dessert wines made from muscat grapes; and port-style wines made from zinfandel and traditional Portuguese varieties.
Amador County’s two major sub-appellations are Shenandoah Valley and Fiddletown, both in the northern part of the county near the small town of Plymouth. Stylistically, zinfandels from the Shenandoah Valley tend to be fuller, riper and earthier with a characteristic dusty, dark berry fruit character, hints of cedar, anise and clove spice, and scents of raisin and chocolate. By comparison, zinfandels from the Fiddletown appellation, a smaller, higher-elevation region east of Shenandoah Valley, tend to be lower in pH and display a fruitier, more cherry-like fruit tone.
Spotlight Varietals for Amador AVA
Sangiovese is the noble grape of Italy’s famed winegrowing region of Tuscany, where it produces the red wines of Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino, and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. Virtually unknown in California before the 1990s, it is now planted throughout the state. With myriad clonal variations, a propensity to crop heavily, and a tendency toward hard tannins, sangiovese must be managed carefully in both the vineyard and winery. When it is, the grape can produce lovely, medium-bodied red wines boasting complex plum, cherry, dried flower, and Asian spice aromas. Sangiovese’s bright, red-fruit flavors are well-suited to herb-marinated grilled chicken and simply prepared beef and lamb dishes.
Barbera is among Italy's most widely planted and popular red wines, especially in the northwestern region of Piemonte, where it produces superb wine from vineyards surrounding the towns of Alba and Asti. There is also a great deal of barbera in California, but most is planted in the Central Valley, where it is cultivated for blending into high-volume generic reds. However, when grown in premium regions like Amador County and cropped properly, barbera can produce a delicious red wine with lush black cherry and plum fruit, a velvety texture, and lively acidity, making it a perfect accompaniment to Italian and other Mediterranean cuisines.
California's signature grape variety is also Amador County's specialty, representing over two-thirds of the county's 3,330 acres of bearing vines. The region's old, dry-farmed, low-yielding hillside vines, most head-trained and on their own roots, produce robust, full-bodied, spicy zinfandels with ripe blackberry and plum fruit, cedar, clove and anise spice, and hints of raisin and cocoa. Zinfandels from Shenandoah Valley tend to be riper and earthier than Fiddletown zins, which display brighter, more cherry-like fruit tones. Amador zinfandels are versatile food wines especially well-matched with hearty dishes such as grilled red meats, tomato-sauce pastas, and flavorful cheeses.