Although I have been traveling California wine countries since 1997, there were still are still some rarely talked about ones that I have not yet toured – Clarksburg, Lake County, Mendocino, and The Madera Wine Trail just to name a few. Everybody has heard about Napa, Sonoma and Santa Barbara but there are many more little ones tucked away here and there that need to be explored.
So I decided that this Summer I would make it a point explore all four of these. Knowing that Madera gets extremely hot in July and August, I ventured down last Saturday to this little known wine region while the temperature were still relatively comfortable (about 89 degrees).
Settled in Madera County, at Yosemite’s southern gateway, the town of Madera was laid out by the California Lumber Company in 1876. The name “madera” is the Spanish term for wood which is not to be confused with Madeira which is a fortified Portuguese wine made in the Madeira Islands.
The Madera American Viticultural Area (AVA) is located in both Fresno County and Madera County, in central California. Established in 1984 and recognized as an AVA in 1985, it consists of 230,000 acres, 38,000 of which are planted to vineyard. The wineries of the Madera Wine Trail are part of the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance (CSWA) which is committed to better stewardship of the land and vineyards.
The Madera microclimate is aided by cooler evenings provided by the San Joaquin River on the southwest and the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the east. Warm summer temperatures combined with varied soil types provide a foundation for the full development of the grapes. With one of the hottest climates in the state (averaging 96 degrees in July, frequently reaching 110 degrees and only cooling down to 95 degrees at night) grape growers in area can achieve very large yields, but such heat presents challenges as well.
In cold wine regions the challenge to making wine is getting the grapes to naturally develop enough sugars to generate sufficient alcohol. In such regions wines tend to be high in acidity and make excellent white wines, such as Sauvignon Blanc or Riesling. But, because they are lacking in sugar foreign countries often permit wine makers to add sugar to their unfermented grape must in a process called chaptalization.
In hotter regions, however, high sugar levels are easy to obtain but achieving desirable levels of acidity can be a real challenge and without it wines can seem flabby. While adding acid make it legal, it often results in a wine being perceived as artificial as the acidity is not well integrated into the wine. Consequently, extremely hotter regions such as Madera tend to make better Ports and dessert wines than they do table wines.
Although some wineries in along the Madera Wine Trail produce table wines from grapes resourced from Napa or from along the California Coast, I was only interested in seeing quality of wine can be produced from the Madera American Viticultural Area (AVA). Consequently, some of the wineries I visited offered more wine than I sampled.
After about a 2 ½ hour drive from the San Francisco East Bay down Highway 99, my first top in Madera was a family-owned operation, Birdstone Winery. A long dirt driveway past a pasture of absolutely beautiful horses on the right and 4-5 year old vineyard on the left brought me to the tasting room where the staff was preparing for a wedding.
The tasting room is also where the wine is made so as you enter you’ll see the equipment on your right and the tasting bar and an assortment of nick-knacks for sale on your left.
At this time Birdstone’s does not have any estate wines available as their first crop has yet to be bottled. So, all of their grapes for the wines I tasted are from other resources in the Madera area, but not from the vineyard pictured here. I tasted one dry white, one rose, 4 red wines, 1 dessert white wine and 1 dessert red wine.
My first 2006 Alegria Reserve Chardonnay ($15). Somewhat aromatically challenged, had to work hard in swirling the glass to coax anything out of it. On the palate I picked up some slight almond, dried apricot, pie crust and baked apple. There are plethora of California Chardonnays in this price range or lower (Bogle for $8) that are far more impressive.
My second wine was the Merlot Rosé. Another aromatically challenged wine, slight cranberry and orange peel, a lot more pepper and spice on the palate.
My first red wine was the Alegria Reserve Dolcetto ($25). Another aromatically challenged wine, slight raspberry, blackberry, soft tannins, very earthy with anise and a little black pepper on the finish.
My first red wine was the Tempranillo ($20). This wine is very earthy on the nose and palate, with a rusty nail minerality followed by Dutch licorice, toasted almond and cinnamon stick. I wasn’t particularly fond of this wine, but there were others in the tasting room that were raving about it and bought a case.
My second red wine was the Winemaker’s Reserve Zinfandel. Another aromatically challenged wine. On the palate I picked up mostly dried fig, spice with a long peppery finish.
My third red wine was the Winemaker’s Reserve Primativo ($25). A lighter cousin of the Zinfandel in every way.
I then tasted the Muscat Canelli ($10). Layers of honey, melon, and dried peaches. Sweet but not syrupy and it had a prolonged finish. It was the first wine to truly impress me and so I brought one home.
My final wine was the Winemaker's Reserve Tinta Madeira Port ($25). A tawny port, golden in color with layers of caramel, butterscotch and hazelnut with a prolonged finish – NICE! I brought one of these home as well.
If you are in the area and want to check out the winery, you may want to do so in the fall or winter when it isn’t so hot. I am also curious to see what their first estate release will be like.
9400 Rd 36
Madera, CA 93638
Phone: (559) 974-4440
My next stop was at Ficklin Vineyards, which has been producing wine for over 50 years. Walter C. Ficklin and his wife Mame purchased the farm land in 1918 and after World War II did they transitioned from raisins and fruit to producing wine. Ficklin Vineyards cover some 35 acres planted to the same varietals that were planted in the 1940s.
Although they produce table wine from Madera grapes as well as outside the region, they are more well known for their port style wines and for good reason – they are excellent!
Their annual production is nearly 10,000 cases of the non-vintage “Old Vine” Tinta Port, which they consider to be their “flagship wine,” and in exceptional years they also produce a vintage-dated Port in limited quantities of about 1,000 cases. When I visited they were sampling a 1996 Vintage Port.
They also produce an “Aged 10 Year Tawny Port,” which I preferred to the NV Port, which they first released in the Fall of 1995.
Winemaker Peter Ficklin has also set aside a group of special barrels for a 20 year old Tawny Port.
Because I wanted to stick to the Madera grown wines, the only not port wine available that I tasted was the 2009 Touriga Rosé ($14). This was the first time I had ever tasted a Rosé made from this Portuguese grape. Frankly, I wasn’t too thrilled with it.
I then went on to the 1996 Vintage Port ($36). A blend of the traditional grapes - Tinta Cão, Tinta Madeira, Cinsault, and Touriga Nacional – it is aged 3 years in the barrel and the rest in the bottle. This wine is sort of root beer in color, it has a complexity of dried fruits (plums, raisins, figs), plenty of acidity and a lingering clean finish.
My next wine was the Old Vine Tinta Port ($15) which they consider to be their “flag ship” wine. This port is made in the solera method in which a succession of wine barrels are filled with wine over a series of equal aging intervals (usually a year). One barrel is filled for each interval. At the end of the interval after the last barrel is filled, the oldest barrel in the solera is tapped for part of the wine which is then bottled. Then that barrel is refilled from the next oldest barrel, and that one in succession from the second-oldest, down to the youngest barrel, which is refilled with new wine. This procedure is repeated at the end of each aging interval. The transferred wine mixes with the older wine in the next barrel. No barrel is ever drained, so some of the earlier product always remains in each barrel. This remnant diminishes to a tiny level, but there can be significant traces of product much older than the average, depending on the transfer fraction. In theory traces of the very first product placed in the solera may be present even after 50 or 100 cycles. This port is a little darker, than the previous and has a silkier texture. I picked up dried fruits, caramel and butterscotch and a little brown sugar on the nose and palate. What’s not to love?
My final wine was the “Aged 10 Years Tawny Port” ($28) which is a light toffee in color, significantly nuttier than the previous port and in addition to the dried fruit, caramel and butterscotch there was some velvety vanilla lingering on the finish. This was my favorite in the line up so I brought one home.
For more information check out their web site at: http://www.ficklin.com/
After lunch I made one final stop to sample some local table wines to see if I could find anything that impressed me from this region. So, I dropped in at Chateau Lasgoity which had some enormous head pruned vine along the entrance way. The server at the counter was just “filling in” so he didn’t know anything about the wine or the vines, but presumably they were zinfandel grapes.
Since I only wanted to taste wines made from local grapes I may have passed over some of their better wines for what I did taste wasn’t impressive.
The 2009 Blanc du Val ($10), a blend of French Columbard, Malvasia Bianca and Chardonnay was a simple wine with some citrus notes, but lacked crispness.
The 2009 Chardonnay ($12) had a soapy feel to it on the palate and lacked any real character.
The 2008 Zin Rosé ($10) was okay, but failed to impress me.
The 2006 Rouge du Val ($12), a Rhone style blend of Grenache (40%), Syrah (40%), and Alicante Bouschet (20%) this is an earthy dense, dark fruit forward wine but it lacked acidity and any backbone.
My final wine was the 2008 Pinot Noir ($15). This wine lacked any complexity or that one hopes to find from this varietal which is undoubtedly due to the unsuitability of the Madera terroir for this grape. It is a simple jug wine that one would expect from wine makers like Gallo.
There are some other wineries along the Madera Wine Trail that I hope to visit in the future, some are far off the beaten path up in the hills (such as Westbrook Wine farm) and others that produce primarily dessert wines (such as Quady Winery) which so far from my experience the most well suited style of wine for this region. If you want more information about this wine country, check out their web site: