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Vines & Vittles: Wines of the Sierra foothills are varied, delicious

By John Brown

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- I have long been a fan of wines made from grapes grown in the Sierra foothills of California, particularly bottles produced from vineyards in Amador County.

The Sierra Foothills American Viticultural Area is made up of five counties in the shadow of the Sierra Nevada Mountains between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe and about two hours east of Napa Valley.

More than 100 wineries are located in the AVA, and I am particularly fond of zinfandel grown in Amador County. Without giving away my advanced age, I still have a couple of bottles of Sutter Home Amador County zin I purchased in the 1970s.

Surprisingly, those old bottles have held up well, morphing into wines with similar taste characteristics to mature Bordeaux. I'm sure that comparison is considered heresy by wine traditionalists (can you say "snobs"?) who put zinfandel in that category of beverages fit only for the unwashed masses.

Well, consider me filthy, because I dearly love that plebian beverage!

But the Sierra foothills are no one-trick pony when it comes to producing delicious bottles of wine. Over the past few decades, the area has also developed an excellent coterie of both whites and reds with particular emphasis on Rhone varietals.

Among the most consistently excellent wineries in the Sierra foothills are Easton and its Rhone-style sister winery, Terre Rouge. Just recently, I attended a tasting of Easton/Terre Rouge wines hosted by the Wine Shop at Capitol Market.

Bill Easton, a California native and lover of Rhone wines, founded his eponymous winery in 1985 after spending years in wine retailing in the San Francisco Bay Area. He chose Amador County and the Sierra foothills because the region seemed to have many of the same geologic and climatic conditions of France's Southern Rhone Valley.

It is not uncommon now to find wines such as Grenache, syrah, mourvèdre (reds) along with marsanne, Grenache blanc and viognier (whites) along side the traditional zinfandel, sauvignon blanc and barbera on wine shop shelves.

A perfect enigma

Here are notes for some of the wines I tasted. All of them are available locally and are exceptional values given the excellent quality to price ratio.

2009 Terre Rouge Enigma ($26): This white Rhone blend of marsanne, rousanne and viognier has aromas of anise and peaches and flavors of tropical fruit, minerals and citrus. Very complex and layered, this would pair nicely with chicken Cordon Bleu.

2011 Terre Rouge Vin Gris Rosé ($19): Very pretty salmon-colored wine with aromas of fresh strawberries. This blend of Grenache, syrah and mourvèdre is among the best rosés I've tasted in a long while. On the palate, the wine exhibits ripe cherry flavors with excellent balancing acidity and finishes dry. Great as an aperitif or for picnic foods such as barbecue.

2010 Easton Amador County Zinfandel ($19): Deep, dark blackberry flavors are enhanced by excellent balancing acidity to highlight this full-bodied wine best served with fuller-flavored foods such as beef stews or roasted pork loin rubbed with garlic, black pepper and olive oil.

2009 Terre Rouge Tête-à-Tête Red ($20): Don't let the cute label fool you, this is a seriously good wine made in the style of a fruit-forward Cotes du Rhone. Plum and blackberries combine with earthiness in this Grenache-syrah-mourvèdre blend. Try it with grilled rack of lamb seasoned with rosemary, garlic and black pepper.

2009 Terre Rouge Cotes de l'Ouest Syrah ($29): Made in the style of a northern Rhone where the emphasis is on syrah, this one has just a touch of viognier added to soften it up a bit. Dark and brooding at first, the wine opens up in the glass with a mouthful of black cherry and cola flavors. I suggest you try this with slowly smoked beef ribs that have been rubbed with cumin, chili powder, garlic and chipotles in adobo sauce.

2007 Easton Old Vine Zinfandel Fiddletown Vineyard ($30): This one reminds me of the old-vine zin I mentioned earlier because it has the staying power to continue to age gracefully for a decade or two. From a legendary California vintage, this wine has teaberry mint and berry aromas along with blackberry, chocolate and coffee flavors. If you drink it in the next five years, decant it for at least three hours and pair it with grilled double-cut pork chops stuffed with chèvre and chives.

For more on the art and craft of wine, visit John Brown's Vines & Vittles blog at thegazz.com.


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