Terroir – Rhoda Stewart's Journal on Wine

Posts tagged ‘Barbera’

El Dorado County: an historic region for wine tasting

On a gorgeous first day of spring 2014, I drove with a friend up to El Dorado County, California, for a visit to Boeger Winery, situated on a ridge rising above the historic village of Placerville.

Boeger Winery /Vineyard with Historic sheds

Boeger Winery /Vineyard with Historic sheds

Boeger Winery is a special and historic place to begin your wine tasting visit to El Dorado County. Established by Greg and Susan Boeger in 1972 with four acres of Zinfandel planted on phylloxera-resistant St. George rootstock, it is the oldest winery in the County. Greg and Susan (together with Lloyd Walker: Zinfandel planted in 1968), are also credited with re-establishing winegrape-growing in El Dorado County—some forty years after the 1933 repeal of Prohibition. Their wine offerings today are impressive, featuring in addition to a consistently wonderful Estate Zinfandel from his 1972 plantings a benchmark Barbera and, most recently, a stunning Burgundian style Pinot Noir.

It took many years for Greg and Susan to achieve such quality and consistency—twenty years, Greg would say, to the early 1990s for his winemaking and viticulture practices to evolve into the style and quality he knew was possible on that land, especially as concerning Zinfandel. While Amador County was making a big splash with its Sutter Home “Deaver Vineyard” 1968 Zinfandel, the luscious high alcohol and intensely flavored, almost overripe, style of that blockbuster wine was not the style that El Dorado County could produce. In this higher elevation (2100+ feet), cooler region with its thinner, rockier soil, Greg had no modern regional precedents to draw inspiration from.

Furthermore, Greg was also interested in discovering what other premium varieties might do well in his vineyards besides Zinfandel, and so his Zins were mostly left to their own resources. After all, his property had remnants of old Zinfandel vines dating to the mid-1800s; Zinfandel had obviously survived, even thrived, in the region for 100 years. But the results of such laissez faire practices showed in many of the early vintages: they could be a bit weak, said Greg, with a lighter, more fruity character.

By 1990, with interest in the production of premium quality red Zinfandel increasing throughout the North Coast and Sierra Foothills, Greg found himself at a crossroads with his Zinfandel: should he pull out his 1972 UC Davis clone vines; or revisit his viticulture practices. Greg opted for the latter choice, specifically, leaf-pulling, to allow for more sun exposure on the clusters; and crop thinning, to develop more intensely flavored grapes, both somewhat new practices in California viticulture. These two practices brought about the dramatic improvements in his Zinfandel that he was seeking. “We were getting more intensity, more pepper, an inkier, thicker wine,” Greg said, that came with a luscious ripe plums character, and an enviable balance of acids and sugar associated with high elevation vineyards. (A Zinfandel Odyssey 94)
These wines became something of a benchmark for El Dorado County Zinfandel.

Boeger Winery had also found white varieties such as Chardonnay suited to the region and the soils, Barbera and, most recently, Pinot Noir.

Chardonay Vineyard, Boeger Winery

Chardonay Vineyard, Boeger Winery

The Pinot Noir is after the fashion of some of Burgundy’s more elegant and delicate PNs. A bewitching wine, it’s nothing like the PN’s you will find coming out of such low-elevation American Viticulture Areas (AVA) as the Carneros of Napa County, or Mendocino County’s Alexander Valley. I found Greg’s 2011 to be an elegant wine with delicate raspberry notes balanced with some understated spices and a long finish, a wine that should do well in a cool dark cellar for a couple or three more years. It’s a wine, however, that should you today put it before guests who appreciate European style wines, I recommend you have a backup bottle or two on hand!

What is even better, perhaps, about a visit to Boeger Winery (and all El Dorado County wineries) than tasting the exquisite wines is their prices. Although the quality can equal or surpass the quality of such wines from the more famous regions of Napa and Sonoma Counties, the prices are usually a point or two below the prices of the wines of these renowned wine regions. (Remember: Price is not a score!)

I didn’t get beyond Boeger Winery on this visit to El Dorado County, since my friend and I were also taking in Daffodil Hill, a few miles to the south, in Amador County, that morning.

Daffodil Hill, Amador County, near Volcano

Daffodil Hill, Amador County, near Volcano

So my favorites at the end of the day were Greg’s 2012 Zinfandel Estate (the fruit from the 1972 vines supplemented since the mid-1990s by fruit from his Old Vine cuttings grafted onto French Columbard rootstock), the 2009 Barbera Vineyard Select, and the 2011 Pinot Grand Reserve.

Boeger Wines

Boeger Wines

I made my first visit to Boeger Winery in 1996, when I was launching my investigation of the Sierra Foothill Zinfandels for my book, A Zinfandel Odyssey (2002), just in time to taste the impressive results of Greg’s new viticulture practices. With its unbroken 40-year history of family ownership, Boeger Winery provides its visitors a taste of history, a taste of the evolution of a tradition, in every sip of wine. Greg and Susan’s son, Justin, now the winemaker, ensures that the family tradition continues.

Established by Greg and Susan when they were just a couple of kids with a passion for their venture, Boeger Winery is a nice place to begin your exploration of the wines of the high Sierra Foothills, and to be reminded that there still are regions in California where family-owned “estate” wineries are the rule, a way of life, and not the exception.

Today, Boeger Winery is just one of a growing collection of family-owned estate wineries in El Dorado County dedicated to making hand-crafted wines that express the piece of ground the vines grown in. A visit to any of these estates will be memorable not only for the lovely wines at affordable prices but also for the rustic charm, warm hospitality, and spectacular views from many of the ridge top locations.

El Dorado County, View of Sierra

El Dorado County, View of Sierra

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Wines That Stop Conversation – I

El Dorado Vineyard

El Dorado County Vineyard

I’ve been thinking about this for some time now, because it’s always so dramatic when it happens: you pour a glass of wine for your friends and suddenly all conversation stops. The sheer beauty and deliciousness of the stuff in their glasses has bewitched your friends’ senses. Time stands still while everyone savors the fragrant aromas wafting from the glass and the incredible sensations in the mouth . . .an experience heady and rare.
I have three distinct memories of such wines. Each is from a region best suited to the variety, and displays the central characteristics of the variety produced from vines grown in that particular piece of ground.
My first such experience happened in January 2006; the wine was a Latcham Winery (El Dorado) 2003 Special Reserve Amador County Barbera ($25). Amador County is well-known as an ideal region for Barbera as well as for its historically famous Zinfandels.
I had discovered this lovely Barbera a year earlier, when on a guided tasting tour of El Dorado County wines with Les Russell, founder of Granite Springs Winery. As partial as I am to the El Dorado Zinfandels, it was Latcham’s Amador County Barbera that stole the show for me that day. With a deep garnet purple color, bewitching aromas of black currants, black berries, plums, and rich spices, together with the big bold, succulent flavors of ripe warm blackberries and dense ripe plums typical of Amador County, yet with soft tannins and a velvety texture unlike anything I’ve ever experienced, it was a wine to set you dreaming.
So I bought a half-case, and in January 2006, took a bottle with me to Victoria, Canada, to celebrate the New Year with a couple of my favorite cousins up there.
A few days after arriving, my Victoria cousins and I drove up island to Qualicum Beach for a visit with another West Coast cousin. Lunch was almost ready when we arrived. While we were standing about in the kitchen that quiet afternoon along the Strait of Georgia, catching up on family and other news, I opened the Barbera, poured it out, and handed it around.
Although it greatly impressed me in the tasting room, I hadn’t tried it since. But before I had a chance to ask “how is it?” conversation had stopped. There was no need to ask how it was. The looks of bliss on my companions’ faces told the story! The wine was gorgeous. It was a wine to savor in silence. And a wine I still dream of.
Because wines that can stop conversation are so rare, when it happens, it reminds one of just how mysterious, almost magical, is the process of turning grapes into wine. So many factors figure in: viticulture practices, crop yield, harvest date, winemaking practices. While these factors through human intervention can be nearly replicated year after year, the effect of weather over the course of the year on the vintage produced from a particular piece of the earth is in Mother Nature’s hands alone.
These mysterious, indefinable, and unpredictable components of each vintage are Mother Nature’s gifts to the magic of wine, and help to explain why each vintage from a great piece of earth will always differ, if only slightly, from every other vintage, and why those conversation-stopping beauties that occasional materialize from great pieces of earth are as elusive and mysterious as the will o’ the wisp . . .to be enjoyed in silence, and replicated only in one’s memory.

Next posting will present conversation-stopping wines II (Madrian) and III (Zinfandel).