Wine Region Profile: Sierra Foothills

This wine region deserves your attention. Featuring rocky terroirs and diverse microclimates, the Sierra Foothills AVA offers winemakers unique opportunities for experimentation. It produces an extraordinary variety of wines. The California wine region is home to the oldest Zinfandel grapes in the USA and boasts a rich history dating back to the Gold Rush era. At this time, southern Europeans settled in the area, bringing a rich winemaking tradition. Today, the Sierra Foothills AVA spans over 2.6 million acres and is home to more than 40 wineries in Amador County alone.

As interest in the Sierra Foothills has grown, larger wineries from regions like Napa and Sonoma have started moving in, leading to some tensions regarding winemaking philosophy. Despite the region's potential, locals worry about the impact of development on the area's heritage and charm. Yet winemakers like Tom Jones of Iron Hub Winery and Bob Knebel of Rombauer Vineyards remain optimistic about the region's future, emphasizing its unique character and appeal.

Unlike Napa and Sonoma, the vast Sierra Foothills region lacks a centralized wine production area, making it more challenging for visitors to find quality wines. It’s still worth a visit for the natural beauty, and this decentralized nature also allows vintners to experiment freely.

The Sierra Foothills Terroir

In general, the AVA is characterized by rocky terroirs, diverse microclimates, and high elevation. As the name suggests, the region's terroir is influenced by proximity to the Sierra Nevada mountains. This allows for sunny days and cold nights owing to alpine winds that cascade down the mountain.

Soil types in the Sierra Foothills vary, with different compositions of rock, clay, and loam. These soil variations, combined with the region's changing elevation, contribute to the unique characteristics of wines produced there. Higher elevations tend to bring greater acidity to the grapes, resulting in wines with a distinct flavor profile and freshness.

Sierra Foothills Wine Styles

Regarding white wines, the Sierra Foothills AVA is known for producing varietal wines, including Chardonnay, Viognier, and Vermentino. Consider the 2021 Cruse Wine Co. Rorick Vineyard Sierra Foothills Chardonnay, with 13.5% ABV, or the 2022 Drive Snow Crossing Vineyard Friulano from El Dorado. Such white wines are often characterized by their bright acidity and fruit-forward flavors. For red wines, the region is well known for its Zinfandel, which thrives in the warm climate. A good example is the 2019 Renwood Grandpere Zinfandel, made from 90% Zinfandel and 10% Petite Sirah. This was will age well and offers, according to Wine Enthusiast, “sage, raspberry and baked earth aromas” that compliment “lightly tangy but ripe plum, dried cherry and black-pepper flavors.” Typical to the terroir, it offers moderate tannins alongside a notable acidity that lends the wine great freshness.

The region also produces other red wines like Syrah, Barbera, and Petite Sirah, which are known for their bold flavors and rich textures. For example, the 2020 Birdhorse Amador County Barbera, which the winemaker celebrates for its cherry, rhubarb, warm stone, and dried lavender flavors. “A palate that is bright but earthy, with lively acidity and cobblestone tannins for a round, long finish.”

Tempranillo should perform well in Sierra Foothills AVA, and indeed Bottle Barn has them. The 2015 Enfield Wine Co. Shake Ridge Ranch Tempranillo features 5% Graciano, very much resembling the great wines of Rioja in Spain.

While the AVA is not as well-known for sparkling wines other California regions, there are producers experimenting with sparkling production.

In the end, this represents an exciting California winemaking region, offering superb growing conditions and lots of wineries experimenting in exciting ways. The quality of Zinfandel remains undoubted, including many wines made from old vines. The 2016 Easton Amador County Zinfandel wone accolades from both Wine Enthusiast and Wine Spectator. The latter said, “Vibrant and sleekly focused, with a lively core of acidity and tannins, layered with raspberry, stony mineral and white pepper flavors.”

But there’s so much more than Zinfandel: from Aglianico and Barbera to Trousseau and Viognier! So, next time you order from the online wine store, consider the curated Sierra Foothills collection at Bottle Barn.

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