Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Sobon Estate Vineyards, Dobra Zemilja Winery, Amador Foothill Winery and Karmère Vineyards

This summer I am traveling around California, exploring wine countries up and down the coast and in the central valley. Last Saturday I made a trip up to Amador County, about 45 minute drive east of Sacramento, where you’ll find about thirty wineries in the heart of the historic Sierra foothill Gold Country. The Amador Vintners have tasting rooms in the Shenandoah Valley, Fiddletown, Sutter Creek, Willow Creek and Ione areas.

Most of the vineyards are planted on hillsides ranging between 500 and 2,300 feet, with most between 1,200 and 2,000. The vines are planted in well-drained, volcanic, decomposed granite soils, which limit vegetative growth and result in small crops of intensely flavored grapes. This area gets a lot of heat and sunshine so many of the wines are a bit high in alcohol (15 percent or more is not uncommon) and they tend to be very fruit forward with dense concentrated flavors.

The nice thing about this area is that it doesn’t have the hectic tourist traffic of Napa or Sonoma. The long winding roads provide a scenic drive with beautiful vistas of oak covered rolling hills and the atmosphere of the tasting rooms are very relaxed with a lot of “out in the country” hospitality. You also don’t have to spend a ton of money on tasting fees and the wines are generally reasonably priced.

Since this is hot climate you won’t find much Cabernet, Chardonnay let alone cool climate grapes like Pinot Noir. What you will enjoy here is Rhône varietals such as Viognier, Syrah and Petite Syrah as well as a few Italian wines such as Nebbiolo and Sangiovese but more than anything else – loads of Old Vine Zinfandel.

Sobon Estate Vineyards and Winery

My first stop on this hot Saturday (101 degrees!) was at Sobon Estate a family-owned winery that also owns Shenandoah Vineyards. Adjacent to the tasting room there is a small museum with some very interesting antique wine making equipment.

The Sobon Estate winery started in 1989 when Leon and Shirley Sobon bought each other a second winery for their 30th wedding anniversary present. They purchased the historic D'Agostini Winery, one of the oldest in the state.

I sampled the 2008 Viognier which is 96% Viognier and 4% Grenache Blanc, barrel Fermented and Sur Lie aged in older French and American Oak. Viognier is by nature an intensely floral wine and so the little bit of Grenache Blanc helps rein it back and brings out its spicy notes. This is an excellent wine at this price ($16).

The next wine was the 2008 Rousanne which is comprised of 85% Roussanne, 9% Viognier and 6% Grenache Blanc. It was fermented and aged in 50% new French and American Oak barrels. This wine is more complex than the Viognier with layers of floral aromas, butterscotch, honey and caramelized pear. At only $14 this is a great wine so I brought two bottles home.

My first red was the 2007 “Cougar Hill” Zinfandel (14.9% alc.). It is 95% Estate Zinfandel 5% Petite Syrah, aged 12 months in 30% new French & American Oa., It is a smooth medium bodied wine with plenty of cola, cedar, a wisp of cigar box and tobacco on the nose. Lush with a bit sweetness and plenty of black and red berries palate, well balanced acidity and refined tannins with a lightly spiced white peppery finish. At $18 it is a fair price.

My second red was the 2007 "Old Vines" Zinfandel which consists of 100% Estate Zinfandel (97%) from various estate vineyards and a little Petite Syrah (3%). This is a good everyday drinking table wine. It has lots of oak, soft and fruity on the nose and palate with fresh blackberry pie and a touch of chocolate. Not as spicy and peppery as some their other zins. At only $12, this is a great buy.

My next red wine was the 2007 "Rocky Top" Zinfandel which is 96% Zinfandel and 4% Petite Syrah. This is an excellent example of the “Amador” Zinfandel style with intense and concentrated aromas of ripe blackberries, cherries, and cocoa. This wine is made entirely from their estate owned CCOF certified organically grown grapesThis is a classic zin blackberries, cherry cola and black pepper, with a touch of honey sweetness on the nose. On the palate the nose is confirmed but with more dominant cherry cola, violets and black pepper on the finish. . It is five bucks cheaper ($17) than the “Fiddletown” Zin and yet this one was my favorite.

My final red wine was the 2007 “Fiddletown” Zinfandel ($22) which is 91% Zinfandel from the Lubenko Vineyard, Fiddletown and 9% Petite Syrah (15.2% alc.). It is aged 14 months in 40% new American and Hungarian Oak barrels. This is a multilayered wine, with loads cherry on the nose and palate with earthy dusty on the back end. Plenty of Spice, moderately complex with full concentrated fruit form start to finish.

Dobra Zemilja Winery

My second stop was at Dobra Zemlja (pronounced: dobra zem-ya), which means means "Good Earth" in Croatian. The winery and tasting room are housed in a restored late-19thcentury facility, complete with wine cave where you can taste the wines with a view of their barrels. The grounds are beautiful and there are plenty tables enjoy a picnic lunch, sip a bit of wine with a view of the garden and a nearby duck pond.

I tasted the Milan Ruz (non-vintage) ($16), the 2008 Viognier ($18) which has lots of fresh peach flavors, it is floral but not overly so and it has a nice minerality. I also tasted the 2007 Sangiovese ($26), the 2006 Syrah ($26), the 2006 Barbera ($26), the 2007 Sangre De Toro Tempranillo ($26) and finally the 2007 Kikas (or “kick ass”) Zinfandel Style Port ($26). Of all the reds I preferred the Barbera and brought one home.

Amador Foothill Winery

My third stop was at Amador Foothill Winery which is located at 12500 Steiner Road in Plymouth. While tasting their wines I had the opportunity to chat with the owner-winemaker Katie Quinn. Amador Foothill Winery produces three classic vineyard-designated Zinfandels and as well as Sangiovese and Aglianico, Sauvignon Blanc, a Late Harvest Semillon, and an Rhone-style blend called Katie’s Cote.

I tasted the 2006 Esola Vineyard Zinfandel ($18) which comes from Lena Esola's gnarly, 65 year old vines. It has intense and luscious spicy, dark fruit aromas and complex raspberry and plum flavors as well as supple, ripe tannins and firm acidity, and exceptional balance. I bought a bottle and enjoyed it the following evening at a barbeque with some friends.

I then tasted the 2006 Ferrero Zinfandel ($18) which comes from a 50 year old section of John Ferrero's head-pruned, dry-farmed vineyard. Plenty of black cherries, tar and chocolate with well integrated spice, vanilla and subtle oak. 

My final wine was the 2006 Katie's Cote Rhone style blend which consists of 51% Syrah and 49% Grenache. They have planted some Mourvèdre which they intend to add to the blend to make it a classic GSM, but the vines are too young at this time. The wine has raspberry and blackberry fruit on the nose and palate and a touch spiciness on the finish.

Shenandoah Vineyards

My fourth winery was Shenandoah Vineyards, founded by Leon and Shirley Sobon in 1977. They were one of the first four wineries in Amador County's now well known Shenandoah Valley appellation. I visited this winery a couple years ago and in my opinion they make the best wines in the area. Their wines come from all estate grown grapes from their sustainably-farmed vineyards. They have an impressive line up of wines and for $5 you can taste their reserve wines and take a souvenir wine glass home.

I first tasted the 2007 ReZerve Paul's Vineyard Zinfandel which consists of 96% Zinfandel and 4% Petite Sirah. The fruit is concentrated, ripe and intense. It has a prominent character of old leather, blackberries and oak followed by a touch of cola, pepper and on nose and palate, with a prolonged spicy finish. A great wine for only $24 so I brought one home.

My second wines was the 2006 ReZerve Tempranillo which is 82% Tempranillo, and 18% Cabernet Sauvignon ($24). Deep, red-purple color, very approachable with an intriguing nose with spice, berry and herbaceous notes. The tannins are supple and yet firm, with a medium finish, nice balance of fruit, spice and acid.

My third wine was the 2006 ReZerve Barbera which consists of 92% Barbera, 4% Sangiovese and 4%Syrah ($24). Rich fresh nose of mint, cherry, and subtle wild flowers. Lively raspberry, plum, and cocoa flavors. Balanced and tart with refreshing acidity, and a bit of heat in the finish (14.5% alc.).

Shenandoah Vineyards also has an nice line up desert wines and I tasted the 2007 ReZerve 30th Anniversary BZP Port 500ml ($18) and the 2007 Vintage Port 375ml ($14).

All of these wines are impressive and I brought a ReZerve Paul's Vineyard Zin and BZP Port home with me.

Karmère Vineyards

After enjoying a picnic lunch my final stop of the day was at Karmère Vineyards and Winery at 11970 Shenandoah Road in Plymouth. The name "Karmère" (car-mare) is in honor of co-founder Marilyn K Hoopes’ mother Karma Hoopes: "mère" is the French word for mother. Marilyn is an attorney and her husband Todd is an optometrist and they have three grown children, Josh, Jared, and Hayley (who was my server) all of whom are involved in the winery or vineyards. Todd continues to practice optometry and Marilyn works as a part-time Administrative Law Judge devoting the majority of her time to the winery and vineyards. The have 67 acres planted on their 105 acre estate consisting of Zinfandel (planted in l994) Syrah, Barbera, Viognier, Primitivo and Nebbiolo.

I tasted the Drew's Syrah ($19.31), the Rachel’s Syrah ($21.15), the Morgans Nebbiolo/Syrah ($24.83), and the Daisy's Zinfandel ($19.31). The temperature outside by this time was 101 degrees and the inside of the tasting room wasn’t too much cooler. The result was that the wines seemed a little too warm. I had visited this winery a couple years ago and was impressed then so I didn’t want to judge their wines based on their exaggerated room temperature. They seemed to have a little too much heat, felt slight flabby on the palate and yet maintained their fruit quality. I bought two bottles of their wine and tasted the Morgans Nebbiolo/Syrah the following day at a barbeque under better temperature conditions and there was a noticeable improvement.

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