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Amador County (California) Wineries:
Amador County has made some of my favorite big red wines, especially Zinfandel, Barbera and Mourvedre. My visit in December '02 found a few disappointments, though. Several of the wineries seem to have slipped into an overripe style which creates flabby smells that remind me of boiled vegetables (brocolli, cauliflower). I consider this a big fault, although some people don't seem to mind it. Some of the wines that had this fault actually tasted good on the palate, but it's hard for me to get past the nose. On the other hand, Amador still has dozens of brilliant wineries (such as Story, Terre Rouge, Karly, etc.), and the grapes here can achieve an astonishing massiveness of flavor.
Dobra Zemlja Winery
12505 Steiner Road
Plymouth, CA 95669
Owner and winemaker Milan Matulieh presides over one of the more unique wineries in the area. His grapes give him some impressive ripeness and good varietal character. My only complaint is that (what I guess to be) the low-toast American oak profile tends to dominate many of his wines with a dry splintery wood finish, rather than the sweet or spicy character of medium-toast French or better quality American oak barrels. Many of these wines could benefit from less heavy-handed oak treatment.
2002 Viognier ($16) (tasted 6/04)
For my tastes, the best wine at Dobra this year, with a softly spicy and floral nose resembling honeysuckle and Christmas stollen bread (a Scandinavian sweet bread with dried fruit and spices.) Fragrances of lemon, nutmeg, allspice and citrons permeate this wine. Clean and dry on the palate, with lemon custard and those same Christmas spices, it shows an excellent expression of this very complex grape.
N/V Milan Ruz ($16) (tasted 6/04)
Blended Solera-style between different years, this red table wine includes Sangiovese, Syrah and Zinfandel. It has a light nose but shows big fruit in the mouth, with ripe cherry and berry, pepper, sweet oak and a tobacco finish, with strong tannins.
2002 Sangiovese ($24) (tasted 6/04)
Clean light earthy nose, showing hints of olives with ripe fruit, and structured acidity. The finish ends up splintery like oak sawdust, overpowering the fruit.
2001 Syrah ($24) (tasted 6/04)
A hint of dirty socks, lightly oceanic, black cherry with oaky peppercorns and splinters. Tough and tannic in the mouth. Probably needs a few years to soften into warmer fruit while the oak hopefully subsides.
2001 Zinfandel ($24) (tasted 6/04)
Musky sweaty smells combined with chocolate cherries, strawberry and cinnamon. Very dry oaky finish fights a bit with the giant tannic fruit, leaving behind some puckery woodshop dust.
Domaine de la Terre Rouge and Easton
Tel: (209) 245-3117, Fax (209) 245-5415
I am beginning to consider Terre Rouge as one of the best wineries in Amador county. They show consistent high quality throughout the line, and with reasonable prices considering the quality. I especially like their Rhone varietal blends.
2001 Terre Rouge Vin Gris d'Amador ($12) (tasted 10/03)
A dry rosé blending grenache, mourvedre and syrah, with a toasty nose, a bit smokey and spicy, with lots of glycerin on the palate, a hint of strawberry?
*2001 Terre Rouge Enigma ($18) (tasted 10/03)
A wine that blends several white Rhone grapes, marsanne, rousanne, and viognier. Spicy fruit nose dominated by apples, with apricots and peaches. In the mouth it tastes very dry and a bit oily, with more apple fruit characters.
*1998 Terre Rouge Noir ($22) (tasted 10/03)
An approach toward a Chateauneuf style blend, with grenache, mourvedre, and syrah. Quite lovely and balanced, dominated by a silky smooth fruit profile, with cherry palate, pepper and cinnamon, spices and liquorice. Might be my favorite from this winery.
1998 Terre Rouge Syrah ($30) (tasted 10/03)
Blue/black fruits, smokey nose with large dose of caramel oak. Still tastes young, a good sign for a 5 year old release.
1998 Easton Merlot ($20) (tasted 10/03)
Large ripe fruit character, but also brambly in the mouth, a bit minty with cedar and black tea.
1999 Easton Merlot ($20) (tasted 6/04)
Lots of sweet oak, big tannin in the mouth, but center-palate fruit seems slightly thin.
1999 Easton Zinfandel, Fiddletown ($25) (tasted 6/04)
Portlike nose, slight hint of VA, with dry oaky profiles of tobacco and cinnamon, with cassis-like fruit. Dry in the mouth despite the sweet nose, quite large and structured.
1999 Easton Zinfandel, Estate ($30) (tasted 6/04)
Nose of dry grasses, strawberry, chocolate. Tannins seems soft in the mouth until the long grippy finish with a lot of spicy oak.
2000 Easton Barbera (tasted 10/03)
Earthy smells, with blueberry in the nose. In the mouth it shows relatively low acid for a barbera, with a lush smooth palate. Quite nice.
2000 Terre Rouge Muscat-à-Petits Grains ($15) (tasted 6/04)
A sweet muscat without being cloying, showing lovely citrus and minty overtones, with no trace of the paint-like terpines that sometimes plague sweet whites in Amador. Excellent.
2000 Terre Rouge Mourvedre, Amador County ($20) (tasted 6/04)
Interesting austere nose hinting at oregano, cedar, pine resin and pencil shavings. Not what I would expect from Mourvedre, almost like a Cabernet. Hints of cocoa tannin in the mouth but quite soft. Unique expression of this varietal.
2000 Terre Rouge Syrah, Sierra Foothils ($24) (tasted 6/04)
Rich ripe nose with slightly medicinal undercurrents hinting at iodine. Round and oaky in the mouth with big lasting tannins.
*2000 Syrah, Sentinal Oak - Pyramid Block ($35) (tasted 6/04)
The best wine I tasted this day, a huge and juicy complex syrah. Nose of oily spices, tar, black tea. Palate with lingering soft tannins, not tough, but ripe and sensual. The finish shows balanced tobacco oak which doesn't overpower the fruit. Excellent!
2001 Terre Rouge Tête-à-tête, Sierra foothills ($13) (tasted 6/04)
Soft rose-petal smells of Grenache, with hints of green olive in the mouth, soft with low tannins.
2002 Easton Zinfandel ($13) (tasted 10/03)
Charred oak in the nose, with cinnamon and green pepper. Indications that the fruit wasn't fully developed at harvest? Strawberry finish, and more oak at the end. Maybe will settle down in a couple years.
11076 Bell Road
Plymouth, CA 95669
This small friendly family-run winery has made some affordable and balanced zinfandels (their Pokerville in particular is easy to find and quite good.) At the tasting room you can find small runs of vineyard designate zinfandels that tend to sell out quickly. These vary in quality from good to excellent, with prices that have climbed a bit in the last few years. However, the last time I visited the tasting room, all the wines had a strong smell of Brettanomyces. I think this secondary fermenting yeast has been growing in their cellar.
2000 Rousanne ($20) (tasted 3/03)
Beautiful floral nose, dusty orange oil, like fine French perfume. Soft fruit, tropical and nutty in the mouth. Dryness wil pair well with many foods.
2001 Zinfandel Buck's Ten Point ($18) (tasted 3/03)
Big and spicy, Amador zin profile of sweet raspberry/strawberry, pepper, and chocolate. Palate but a bit thinner in the mouth than indicated by the nose, with high acidity and tannin, and almost a chalky finish. Fireplace toast smells towards the end complement this burly wine.
*2001 Warrior Fire ($24) (tasted 3/03)
Very ripe nose hinting at dark deep fruit, with some grassy/barnyard qualities (Brett?) Palate is tannic and intense, serious and (for lack of a better term) "masculine". A powerful earthy zinfandel.
2001 Zinfandel Sadie Upton ($26) (tasted 3/03)
Big nose with pepper and cinnamon, an aromatic explosion of red fruit and spice. High acidity with a chewy feel in the mouth, slightly bitter unresolved (oily liquorice) tannins in the finish. Might need a few years to soften.
2002 Orange Muscat ($16/375ml) (tasted 3/03)
Mechanically frozen grapes to concentrate sugars like an icewine. Very complex nose of flower blossoms. Hints of citrus terpines, almost like paint. Very oily but not too sweet in the mouth.
2002 Zinfandel Buck's Ten Point ($18) (tasted 6/04)
Burly wine with a slightly Bretty nose, eathy musk and strawberry. Subtle oak treatment highlights the grapes, with big dry tannins and a finish of strawberry fruit esters.
2002 Zinfandel Sadie Upton ($26) (tasted 6/04)
Brett and plummy fruit, more acidic and more ageworthy than the Ten Point, with black olive and oily tannins in the mouth.
2003 Chateau Blanc ($20) (tasted 6/04)
Clean and light, with fragrances of sweet apples, bread and French perfume. A delicate and smooth white table wine.
2003 Orange Muscat ($17/375 ml) (tasted 6/04)
Yum. Better than the 2002, with none of the paint-like terpines. Peaches, pears and perfume. Viscous and sweet on the palate, with good clarity - not cloying, with a slightly spicy lingering finish.
12225 Steiner Road
Plymouth, CA 95669
(209) 245-6979, www.renwood.com
This winery made some of my favorite massive wines between 1996 and 1999. They still make very good big fruit-forward zinfandels, but some of the luster has worn off, perhaps because they lost their founding winemaker a few years ago? Anyway, the 1997 Linsteadt Barbera was one of my favorite wines out of Amador. I don't think they've topped it yet, but they still make some beauties. In general I find their pricing a bit steep, except for their affordable "Sierra Series" wines, which are pretty good for the price. Some of their recent efforts have tended toward vegetal characteristics. Renwood's owner has managed to annoy many of the other winemakers in the region, most of whom seem to get along with each other. I have heard stories of some rather "un-neighborly" behavior, which disinclines me towards the company recently. (Tasted 12/02)
1996 Sangiovese (Tasted 12/02)
Mineral gravelly nose, just a hint of vegetal quality but not a problem. Big dry and peppery on the palate. Otherwise the fruit is fading a bit.
1997 Zinfandel Grandmére (tasted 2/04)
Still huge and fruity after 6 years in the bottle. Some acetaldehyde blows off at first, opening up to giant high alcohol framboise-like nose, strawberry and raspberry jam, chocolate, black peppercorns with additions of brambles and pine resin, vanilla custard, caraway seed. Huge jammy palate with apparent residual sweetness, dust tannins leaning towards baker's cocoa, black pepper and capsicum. This was the immense profile that put Renwood among my favorites at one time. (15.8% alc.)
1997 Barbera Linstadt (tasted 10/03)
Alas, age has not treated this old monster well. What once showed immense jammy spice and chocolatey fruit now has smells dominated by acetaldehyde and those sweet/spicy off flavors that rotate around VA, like caraway seed and shoe polish, but it's not quite vinegar yet. Time to finish these before they all turn.
*1999 Zinfandel, Jack Rabbit Flat (library)(Tasted 12/02)
Lighter than the 2000, more balanced and higher acid. Lingering toasted oak tones like cinamon candy. Smooth and intense in the mouth, black pepper spice.
*2000 Syrah, estate vineyard ($24.95)(Tasted 12/02)
Herbal nose with black pepper and vanilla. Good balance and varietal character, big tannins.
2000 Zinfandel, old vines ($17.95)(Tasted 12/02)
Vegetal nose, a bit overripe or possibly open too long in the tasting room. Big chocolate and tannin.
2000 Zinfandel, Fiddletown ($24.95)(Tasted 12/02)
Slightly salty oceanic nose at first, then spice, pepper and raspberry. French oak cinnamon red-hot candies.
2000 Zinfandel, Grandmére ($22.95)(Tasted 12/02)
Needs some time. Nose hints of rose petals, then a bit vegetal. Soft varietal character, very ripe and raisiny, big lingering tannins.
2000 Zinfandel, D'Agostini Bros. ($29.95)(Tasted 12/02)
Nose of cinnamon spice, white pepper, brighter with more acidity than Grandmere. Chocolate hints on palate, better balance, not vegetal.
2000 Zinfandel, Grandpére ($31.95)(Tasted 12/02)
Riper, towards vegetal. Sweet on the palate, big round fruit, big tannin, tobacco, endless finish much better than the nose.
*2000 Zinfandel, Jack Rabbit Flat ($29.95)(Tasted 12/02)
More clear varietal character, with strawberry and raspberry on the nose. Palate very dry, lingering tannins, with tobacco, chocolate and brambles.
2000 Sangiovese ($19.95)(Tasted 12/02)
A touch oxidized, vanilla oak characters (American oak?). Bright Italian style and acidic, but the oak takes over a bit.
2000 Barbera ($19.95)(Tasted 12/02)
A touch vegetal but nice high acidity. Vanilla, chocolate and liquorice qualities. A bit out of balance, might need a year to come together.
2001 Viognier estate vineyard ($24.95)(Tasted 12/02)
Huge buttery malolactic qualities. Sweet nose, dry palate. Apricot, peaches and nutmeg overtones.
After tasting through the 1999 releases in 2001, I took few notes but bought only the Black Muscat, a saturated sweet dessert wine which I felt to be the best of their releases at the time.
1999 Black Muscat (tasted 6/04)
Beautiful sweet plummy nose, not oxidized like some in this style. Fragrances seem sexy, earthy, a hint of armpit sweat with redwood bark and cedar. Palate shows good balance with some residual tannins and acidity adding structure to the sugars, with sweet flavors of chocolate covered cherries, ripe plums, some berries. An almost erotic dessert wine!
14430 Shenandoah Rd.
Plymouth, CA 95669
I have generally found Sobon to make some of the better low-priced Amador wines, with bright peppery profile and tannic fruit-forward intensity. I did not write down tasting notes for Sobon on my last visit, because I was very disappointed with the treatment these wines had received in the tasting room. The bottles had been open too long and showed vegetal flaws. I have since retasted at industry events, and found the wines to be very good. I hope to re-taste newer vintages in better circumstances.
10525 Bell Road
Plymouth, CA 95669
I really like this winery. While their better wines sit near the top of the Amador price spectrum, they become quite affordable when purchased as futures. Story makes very structured old vine zinfandels from their own excellent vineyard, with a profile of big red fruit (raspberry notes, high acidity, medium spiciness.) They break up their vineyard zinfandels by the section, with different vine age and soil showing character through the grape into the wine. Regardless of the good wine, they're also really nice people.
2001 Barbera ($19)
Nutty cocoa bitterness, walnuts. Palate with deep woody character, dry tannin.
2001 Sangiovese ($19)
Barnyard qualities, grassy dry hay, burlwood derived from acidity.
*1999 Mission ($19)
Good one, very much like a Rioja. From tempranillo grapes? Big port-like nose, very ripe. In the mouth it shows low acidity, sweet and smooth, but not an explosian of fruit -- rather, it delivers hints of cedar (pencil shaving.) Very nice and complex.
2000 Story Red Passion Zinfandel (tasted 1/04)
This is the low-end red table wine from Story, where they blend their extra grapes. It's a good value although a bit sweet for my tastes. Nose of dark earthy fruit, coffee and black cherry, liquorice, strawberry and mint, black pepper, brambles and alcoholic heat. Palate lingers with some potential residual sugars, sweet strawberry, black cherry, mouth-coating leathery tannins. The lasting tannins somehow overpower the sweet fruit, leaving a slightly astringent finish. (15% alc.)
2001 Red Passion ($16)
I don't quite understand this wine. I swear it shows signs of Brettanomyces, but the winemaker says it's just the quality of the phenols extracted from the fruit (strawberry notes merged with wood and tannin.) I smell a slightly skunky barnyard quality with a strong dose of cherry or dried fruit. It is extremely fruity and rich, not at all wimpy. Hmmm...dunno.
2001 Zinfandel Gold Hill Vineyard ($22)
Smells of fireplace, pondwater, "red" fruit, and a hint of that barnyard smell noted above. Not their best, but good.
*2001 Zinfandel Creekside ($26)
Now we're getting to the good stuff. More structure, with a jammy nose full of chocolate, nuts, fruit liquer, taffy, dust and toasted dark oak. Some apparent sweetness in the mouth, with a tingling hint of acidity, some mushroomy earth and lingering tannins coat the mouth. Classic Amador zin fruit.
*2001 Zinfandel Picnic Hill ($30)
Among my two or three favorites from the Story vineyard, and the most acidic of all their wines. This one needs several years to settle down and soften. The young wine (barrel tasting) smells almost exactly like excellent bitter chocolate. It developes to toasty cocoa, pepper burlwood, acidic but ripe raspberry/strawberry fruit. A big but balanced complex wine.
*2002 Zinfandel Hilltop ($16)
This one shows amplified ripeness, like fruit candy, better for dessert than dinner. At 15.8% alcohol, I assume that fermentation stuck while leaving high residual sugars. Huge ripe fruit notes dominate, with chocolate and strawberry. You could spread this on bread.
*2001 Aletia Zinfandel ($30)
Perhaps the most sophisticated and balanced of Story's zinfandels, with less acidity than the Picnic Hill, making it more accessible upon early approach. Nose begins with coconut and grass, with spicy cinnamon oak and centered red fruit. Deep spice and a hint of barnyard with ripe fruit then take over. Classic zinfandel flavors of pepper, strawberry, raspberry, chocolate. Big tannin and medium acidity make this a well-rounded heavyweight contender.
Villa Toscana Winery
Plymouth, CA 95669
A mile or so from Renwood sits a fancy new faux-Tuscan villa with chic wedding garden and now a café open on weekends. Despite the obvious influx of money, it took several years for this winery to get off the ground, with its newly planted vines. They hired winemaker Gordon Benz from Renwood (Renwood had hired him away from Ridge.) Finally Villa Toscana seems to be showing its promise in the 2001 vintage, which I tasted in December 2002. I still find the prices to be a bit high relative to flavor.
2001 Viognier ($18) (tasted 10/03)
Fruit forward with apricot & peaches, woody smells with buttery oily malolactic. Smokey on the tongue? A complex wine.
2001 Sauvignon Semillon ($12) (tasted 10/03)
Grapey. I'm guessing that the flavors derive from sur-lie aging (leaving the wine on the yeast for many months and stirring occasionally to increase the buttery mouth feel.) Full malolactic, very soft.
2000 Sangiovese ($24) (tasted 10/03)
Sweet vanillins hint at American oak, toffee, caramel, bread & butter. Peppery on the palate, dark and dusty oak flavors.
2001 Zinfandel Shenandoah Valley ($18) (tasted 10/03)
Restrained nose, hint of pepper and dark strawberry/cherry fruit. Acidic, buttery and light on the palate, with soft tannins. Not a huge zin, but pleasant.
*2001 Zinfandel Fox Creek Old Vine ($30) (tasted 10/03)
Very ripe smells of strawberry seeds, dusty black pepper. Big mouth feel with high acidity, tobacco, black pepper oils, dark chocolate, lingering and chewey. 15.5% alcohol. Here's what Amador can offer in a Zin! (Too expensive, though.)
2001 Barbera ($26) (tasted 10/03)
Nose gives off a hint of vegetal flaws, which thankfully blow off quickly. Light peppery palate, big round red fruit. Good balance between fruit, tannin, acid and oak.
2001 Syrah Estate ($28) (tasted 10/03)
Tight cherry nose, hint of vanilla and pepper tree sap; woodshop oak smells not well incorporated yet, needs time. Palate very tannic with smokey blueberry fruit.
*2001 Merlot ($26) (tasted 10/03)
Nose of bramble wood and peppercorns, rose petals, chocolate and tar with a hint of vanilla under berry fruit. Soft on the palate, flavors also showing wood brambles, tobacco, big tannins. Interesting.
*2001 Zinfandel "Fox" Old Vine ($30) (tasted 6/04)
Rich sweet nose of strawberry, chocolate and black pepper, with burlwood and floral honey. Rich and saturated in the mouth, with a tiny hint of residual sweetness.
2001 Syrah Estate ($28) (tasted 6/04)
Plum and cassis fruit with a quirky touch of brie cheese (malolactic or yeasty smells still around after three years?) Well integrated tannins in a big ripe black wine.
2002 Barbera ($26) (tasted 6/04)
A bright clear wine with nose of blackberry brambles, coffee and plum. Spicy on the palate, with a plummy finish.
2002 Rhapsodia white table wine ($12) (tasted 6/04)
A blend of Viognier, Orange Muscat and others offers sweet floral fragrances with citrus and spices, with a smokey dry palate. This would make a very good food pairing wine, perhaps with Asian food.
10120 Shenandoah Road
Plymouth, CA 95669
(209) 245-3005, Fax (209) 245-3004
A small family operation on Shanandoah Road, Young's usually sells out of its product each year. When I visited for a taste in October 2003, only two of its six offerings were still available. I liked what I tasted, although I find their American oak profile to impart some splintery flavors.
2001 Barbera ($26.00) (tasted 10/03)
Light and spicy, bright acidity, notes of cinnamon spiced oak. An earthy woody palate comes from varietal character (probably not oak) with clean dryness and clarity. Lingering liquorice finish, somewhat low tannin but interesting viscosity nevertheless. Good stuff!
2001 Syrah ($26.00) (tasted 10/03)
Deep smokey nose, round floral fruit palate. Oak characters are more spicy than sweet. Oily tannin and cherry fruit finish show clean ripe fruit character.
2002 Barbera ($26) (tasted 6/04)
Big ripe fruit with bright cherry and black olive, with sweet vanilla oak and a lightly tannic finish. A very good example of this variety, but not for long cellaring.
2002 Syrah ($26) (tasted 6/04)
Ripe round smokey fruit profile with blueberry overtones, some bacon fat, slight vegetal overtones, and a hint of fish. Hugely tannic on the palate, with a splintery American oak finish. This needs a few years to integrate the oak, and hopefully the acidity will be sufficient to support the wine with age.
2002 Zinfandel ($28) (tasted 6/04)
The best of the wines tasted this day, an excellent example of huge but centered zinfandel. A big earthy nose of bittersweet chocolate, dry grasses, brambles, and ruby port. In the mouth, not one dominant flavor protrudes to the top (I would expect esters of strawberry or blackberry in a wine like this), but rather a huge round ripe characteristic zinfandel fruit with chewy tannins and a lingering dry chocolatey finish. 15.2% alc., but doesn't smell hot.
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