Calaveras County continues to make a name for itself as the "Iberian connection" with its success in developing Spanish and Portuguese grape varieties.
Over the past five to six years, winemakers have quietly made a stylistic statement through winemaking efforts focusing on varietals including tempranillo, grenache, verdelho and, more recently, albarino. But it actually stretches beyond that, as more and more foothill winemakers have success with Italian and southern France grape types as well.
Consultant and winemaker Chuck Hovey, former winemaker at Stevenot Winery, has been a pioneer in promoting Mediterranean and Iberian grape types in the region. Hovey is involved in several new projects that include making wine from grape types new to the area including a foothill vermentino, a grape type common to the Italian island of Sardinia.
But several foothill winemakers raise caution on our connection to the styles of the Old World and duplicating their efforts.
"We should not compare our Italian and Spanish varietals to the wines of Europe," said Gary Zucca of Zucca Mountain Winery. His winery makes highly regarded sangiovese, barbera and syrah, workhorses in the Mediterranean wine regions.
"We have warmer weather, better irrigation and make wines that are riper," said Zucca.
At a recent Calaveras tasting event, he went on to observe that Americans treat wines as aperitifs or cocktail wines while the Europeans think more about how the wines work with food. This was echoed later at the tasting by winemaker Rod Ruthel of French Hill Winery, who was pouring his award-winning barbera. The wine showed ripe full fruit flavors without losing the classic acidity associated with Italian barbera.
"That's the trick" said Ruthel. "Most consumers don't realize how important the acidity is to complementing food flavors."
I find that the new emerging foothill wines are built more for the California palate with their forward fruit and softer acidity. In any case, the region is one to watch over the coming years.
You have a chance to become better acquainted with the region's Mediterranean connection on the weekend of June 20-22 when Calaveras County wineries participate in their 12th annual Passport Weekend.
Wine tasters are issued "passports" that are stamped at each of the wineries visited, and are all entered in drawings for special prizes. Each passport holder will have access to special wine tastings, gourmet foods and special wine discounts.
For more information and reservations, contact the association at 866-806-9463 (wine).
With 21 wineries and only three traffic lights, this foothill wine region is filled with new discoveries. Here are a few to look for on your search.
French Hill 2005 Barbera
Lots of spice and baked blackberry pie aromas are followed by more berry; a nice tartness in the finish makes this red a perfect Italian food companion. At more than 15 percent alcohol, the French Hill 2005 Barbera is not a lightweight. About $35.
Hatcher 2006 Mourvedre
Pleasant drinkable red that works as a perfect match with Mediterranean food, especially grilled lamb with rosemary. Crushed berry aromas give way to red currants and raspberry flavors. About $20.
Zucca Mountain 2005 Syrah
From the secluded Canterbury Vineyard's Block 2; the Zucca Mountain 2005 Syrah exhibits lots of ripe fruit flavors with blackberry jam aromas and a long finish. A great depth of richness that is unlike the Rhone reds from France. About $30.
Solomon Wine Co. Garsa
A nice thread of spice and elegance shows up in this 2004 tempranillo that is more fruit forward than its Spanish counterpart. Plum and spice aromas carry over to the easy-drinking flavors. About $20.