Located in the heart of the Sierra Foothills appellation ( an hour from bustling Lake Tahoe), El Dorado wine country represents a beautiful and untouched part of Northern California. Here, large pine trees, flowing streams, and pastoral settings harken back to a simpler time when nature reigned supreme.
El Dorado County’s history dates back to 1848 when James Marshall discovered gold at Sutter’s Mill on the American River in Coloma. By 1855, the gold rush had brought more than 300,000 people had arrived in the area from all over the world.
European settlers recognizing a climate similar to the Meditteranean planted wine grapes. By 1870, El Dorado County was one of the largest wine regions in California, trailing only Sonoma and Los Angeles.
Rhone Varietals Planted In El Dorado County
In the 1970s Dr. John MacCready, then a professor at California State University, Sacramento, determined that the soils, as well as the climate and elevation of El Dorado County, were similar to the Northern Rhône Valley. Due to his research, he is recognized as the forefather responsible for planting Rhône grapes in El Dorado County.
In 1979 MacCready planted Syrah at his Sierra Vista Vineyards and Winery. The winery is still open today with new owners… a testament to his legacy.
Today, El Dorado wine country has about 70 wineries. Many are producing Rhone-style wine and continue to carry the torch that MacCready lit.
What Is Rhône-Style Wine?
The Rhône is a river that rises from the Alps in France and flows to the Mediterranean Sea. It lends its name to the Rhone Valley and Côtes du Rhône, both appellations in the southern part of the Rhône Valley. Often referred to simply as The Rhône, it is one of France’s premier wine regions. Indigenous grapes of the region include Syrah, Marsanne, Mourvedre, Syrah Grenache, and Roussane. They are often referred to as Rhône-style grapes, and no matter where in the world you find them growing, the wines produced will be referred to as Rhône-style wine.
When Tom Sinton started Starfield Vineyards he had already honed his experience in the family vineyards decades earlier. Along with his son Rob, who has a degree in viticulture and enology from UC Davis, he began searching for a property on the west coast with high elevations, rocky soils, moderate climate, and plenty of water, in a scenic setting. He found it in El Dorado County.
In 2012 they acquired two properties in the Apple Hill area. “The Starfield Vineyard extends across a steep hill that reminds us of the hill behind Tain l’Hermitage [in France], where Chapoutier and others make great Marsannes and Syrahs,” said Sinton.
Realizing that many of their guests are not familiar with Rhône wines, a tasting experience at Starfield Vineyards focuses on education and awareness. A good introductory tasting is their “Hope Rising” Rhône-based white blend, with just a touch of Vermentino, technically not a Rhône grape. “Hope Rising is our classic Rhône white blend, usually produced with a base of Marsanne and Roussanne grapes along with smaller amounts of Viognier and Vermentino. Marsanne brings intense tropical fruit flavors, while Roussanne adds structure and green apple notes. Viognier contributes floral aromas, and Vermentino lends acacia-like qualities,” said Sinton.
Edio Vineyards At Delfino Farms
Edio Delfino’s adventure began while working on the family’s dry-farmed vineyard in Napa Valley. In 1964, after graduating from California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, he moved to Apple Valley in El Dorado County and started Delfino Farms. Delfino Farms began as a family farm that included a bakery where today they still sell amazing homemade baked goods including fresh apple pies.
Although Edio grew up on a vineyard, it was not until the early 2000s that his children planted wine grapes. In 2017, Edio’s son Chris, along with his grandchildren established Edio Vineyards at Delfino Farms. It was a natural progression for his grandchildren as three out of the four followed in their grandfather’s footsteps, obtaining degrees in agriculture and wine.
For the Delfinos, growing Rhône grapes just made sense. Similar to the Rhône Valley their soils are rocky with granite parent material, allowing for good drainage. At 2800 feet elevation, the vineyard has steep slopes throughout the property. The warm days and cool nights preserve acidity, allowing flavors to ripen at a slower natural pace.
Preserving the family legacy, the Delfinos created a white Rhône blend called “Robyn’s Rhône White Blend” dedicated to Chris’ wife Robyn. The wine is a 75% Viognier and 25% Roussanne blend. It pays homage to the family-centric environment the Delfinos have created in Apple Hill.
David Girard Vineyards
In 1994 David Girard purchased 87 acres of rolling hills overgrown with wild blackberry bushes with the intention of growing grapes. The location, on the American River, was within a mile of where gold was first discovered in California. At 1400 feet elevation Girard knew the topography was critical to future success.
Girard initially planted 14 acres of Merlot grapes which he sold to Robert Mondavi. After the contract with Mondavi expired ten years later, Girard pivoted toward planting Rhône grapes. “ After consulting with Ron Mansfield of Gold Bud Farms and visiting a number of Rhone wineries, along with Steve Edmunds of Edmunds St. John Winery, the consensus was that Rhône grapes were right for the decomposed granite soil,” said Girard.
Girard plants Grenache and Mourvedre, on the warm, south-facing slope The cooler climate Syrah is planted on the east-facing slope in a concerted effort to bring out the spiciness. Winemaker Jorden Mingle explains, “This allows for our Syrah to express dark berry notes of plum and boysenberry accented by spice and violet floral aromatics.”
Lava Cap Winery
In the late 1970s, David Jones was near retirement as a geology professor and researcher at UC Berkeley. Interested in farming wine grapes he began looking for suitable sites to plant a vineyard. Extensive climate and geological research ultimately led him to purchase a 60-acre property in Placerville.
The location meant that the climate was moderated by elevation, while the topography and soil were ideal for premium viticulture. This combination resulted in grapes with greater phenolic maturity at lower sugar levels, and higher acidity/ Today, Lava Cap Winery remains very much a family affair and has grown to over 100 acres with 65 planted to vines.
Elevations at Lava Cap are between 2400 and 2700 feet–a defining feature of the estate. Within the vineyards are a variety of microclimates that dictate how each grape variety will respond.
Due to the higher elevation at Lava Cap, Jones chose to plant Syrah first, which he felt was a success as the wine showed the savory characteristics reminiscent of the wines of the famed Côte-Rôtie region in the Northern Rhone Valley.
The Future Of Rhône Wines In The Sierra Foothills
Visitors who find this bucolic and untouched slice of wine country heaven will discover elegant, nuanced Rhône-style wines that have a lower alcohol content along with balanced fruit and acidity. Rhône wines in the Sierra Foothills appellation are today’s Gold Rush.
Lava Cap 2017 Syrah– flavors of raspberry and blueberry with just a touch of bacon and black pepper. This bold wine showcases a great tannic structure with a nice long finish. Drink now or hold back for several years.
Lava Cap NV Mourvedre- Combining vintages from 2017 and 2018 as a result of the local bears eating many of the grapes from these blocks, this wine has flavors of cherry and spice revealing complexity while maintaining vibrancy.
Edio Vineyards at Delfino Farms 2019 Mourvedre- flavors of strawberry and raspberry with a touch of spice. This medium-bodied wine has a silky smooth tannin structure with a nice long finish.
David Girard Vineyards 2018 Grenache– beautiful translucent red in color with black cherry aromatics. Flavors of strawberry and raspberry while maintaining a great overall balance.
Starfield Vineyards 2018 “Bronson Bros” Red blend is named in honor of the first winemakers in Placerville. It has aromatics of lush dark fruit with flavors of black cherry and cocoa, as well as tobacco, followed up by a smooth and voluptuous finish.
Edio Vineyards at Delfino Farms 2020 “Robyn’s Blend”- beautiful lavender aromatics with flavors of citrus, a touch of almond, and a hint of toast. This wine shows bright acidity while maintaining balance.
David Girard Vineyards 2019 Viognier-Roussanne blend– with flavors of apricot, peach, and a hint of spice, this white wine blend maintains a nice balance while being light on its feet.
Starfield Vineyards 2019 “Hope Rising” White blend has flavors of green apple, pear, and pineapple rounded out by beautiful acidity with a nice clean, savory finish.
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