The El Dorado AVA was officially designated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in 1983. El Dorado is a sub group of the larger Sierra Foothills AVA and contains an additional sub group identified as the Fair Play Appellation. The El Dorado AVA contains all the portions of El Dorado county between 1,200 and 3,500 feet. The local winery associations will feature the distinct ‘altitude’ of the AVA.
Grape growing and wine production has been a feature of the area since the 1840’s. There are a few vineyards producing Zinfandel from 100 year old vines. It is these vines that sparked the renewed interest in wine production for the area. With a diversity of altitudes and soil profiles, growers have been successful with almost all the well known grape varieties. Many of the French varieties are represented by plantings in the county. Initially, growers focused on the better know varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot and Petit Syrah. Recently, growers are finding success with Italian varietals like Sangiovese, and Barbera. You can also find Spanish grapes like Tempranillo. The Burgundian grape Malbec is growing in popularity in the area.
Irrigation is now used in most vineyards, but head pruning and dry farming is still used for some Zinfandel vines. If you see the designation Sierra Zinfandel, it usually signifies a dry farmed vine that will produce a rich, concentrated wine.
I divide the county into several areas. North of Highway 50 is the Camino/Apple Hill area. Here you will find Boeger Winery, who reestablished the area as a premier wine producing area beginning in the 1970’s. Because the Apple Hill area is a destination spot for many visitors to the area, the wineries in this area may charge for tasting or limit the number of tastes. When we taste, we try to buy a couple bottles of wine in return for the wineries hospitality. If you take an interest in the wine, and do not try to act like a know it all, the wineries in this area will often waive the tasting charge if you buy some wine.
South of Highway 50, off Pleasant Valley Road, is the Pleasant Valley area., The Pleasant Valley area growers have focused on Rhone varietals such as Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, and Viognier. A popular yearly event is Rocks and Rhones, paying homage to the grapes and the rocky soil in the area.
At the south of the county is the Fair Play Appellation, where the bulk of the county’s wineries are located. The combination of the area’s deep granitic soil and high elevation produce a unique terroir suited for the production of dry table wines. Vines are often planted on ridge tops to allow the cold air to drain off the vines. The area is known for late spring frosts that can damage early budding grapes.
The smallest area for wine production in the county is the Coloma/Gold Hill area, home to two wineries. Gold Hill Winery produces Chardonnays and Bordeaux reds close to a site that produced wine 150 years ago. David Girard grows Rhone varietals on 38 of his 85 acres and also has an event center.
While wine production has been going on in the Sierra Foothills for over a hundred years, it is only within the last 40 years that scientific study and experimentation has resulted in the successful production of new varieties of wine to the area. I would recommend you try Petite Syrah in wineries producing it. It has become one of my favorite varieties for the area. Growing wine at one of the State’s highest elevations (3000 ft), Madroña Winery produces some excellent dry Rhine varieties. Do not pass up the opportunity to try the dry Riesling.