Amador County, in the heart of California's once-thriving gold-mining country, basks in its history and holds on to the promise of a newly growing industry which might prove to be its next precious commodity: wine. Although the county AVA is seldom used, all local vineyards qualify for the well-known Sierra Foothills AVA and those which fall within the Shenandoah Valley and Fiddletown AVAs enjoy the privilege of using these more 'niche', location-specific titles.
Here in the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, 40 miles (64km) east of the state capital, Sacramento, the landscape is classically Californian: rugged and picturesque, elevated and undulating. Most vineyards in Amador County are planted at altitudes of 1200–2000ft (365–609m) on sun-drenched hillsides. Hot, sunny days turn to cool evenings, bringing breezes which blow down from the Sierra Nevada. This drop in temperatures allows the grapes time to close down their ripening processes overnight, retaining the acidity required to create balanced wines. The freshening breezes are also essential for ventilating the vineyards and helping keep fungal diseases at bay.
© Giacomo Panicacci
The most noteworthy soils in Amador are of iron-rich decomposed granite. They are often laced with sandy clay loam, enabling them to retain water and stay hydrated despite the area's limited rainfall. These are ideal conditions for cultivating high-quality wine grapes, as the vines are forced to grow deep, strong root systems. A high percentage of the area's vines are grown organically.
Wine growing has been an important part of the local economy for more than 150 years, and currently accounts for roughly 50% of the county's agriculture. The first wineries in Amador County were established in 1849, riding the wave of the California Gold Rush. Today there are many ancient Zinfandel vines still producing ripe, robust, earthy and spicy wines with an added dose of chocolate and dark-red berries.
Barbera wines from Amador County tend to be full and round, with notes of black cherry, plum and blueberry, silky tannins and toasty, nutty characters. Syrah tends to be ripe and jammy, and more like Australian Shiraz than classic Rhone Syrah. Interestingly, the region also makes dessert wine from various members of the extended Muscat grape family, and port-style wines from Portuguese varieties as well as Zinfandel.