Amador County’s grape-growing and winemaking history goes back to the mid 1800s, when the Gold Rush was on and the demand for drink was high. European settlers eventually planted vineyards in the rocky rich soils throughout the Sierra Foothills. Zinfandel was cultivated and thrived in the warm climate.
At one time over 100 wineries operated in this area. After booms and busts, the area emerged once again as a wine-growing region in the 1970s, when many of the 100-plus-year-old vineyards were resurrected. Today the Sierra Foothills is once again host to over 100 wineries, with more than 35 residing in Amador County.
Around the tiny settlement of Plymouth is the largest concentration of wineries in the Sierra Foothills, with numerous small family operations nestled along scenic back roads. Unpretentious hospitality in a picturesque rural wooded setting greets visitors year-round.
It’s warm during the growing season – reaching up to 100 degrees in the summer – but cools down in the evenings, as breezes spill down from the Sierras and temperatures drop 30 to 35 degrees. This brisk cooling helps the grapes retain the acidity essential to balanced wines.
The elevation of Amador Vineyards ranges from 250 feet in the western foothills to 2,900 feet in the east. The soils are primarily sandy clay loam derived from decomposed granite. With 36 to 38 inches of annual rainfall, most growers dry-farm their vineyards, resulting in crop yields of around four tons per acre. Many vineyards are grown organically without the use of synthetic pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers.
Amador County rests within the Sierra Foothills American Viticultural Area and has over 2,700 acres in grapes, 1,700 of which are planted to Zinfandel. There are a half-dozen vineyards with 100-plus-year-old vines still producing fruit that is highly sought after by winemakers and consumers. The area also grows Rhône and Italian varietals, including Syrah, Viognier, Barbera and Sangiovese.
The California Shenandoah Valley AVA and Fiddletown AVA are sub-appellations within Amador, each with unique characteristics that influence the vineyards.
California Shenandoah Valley AVA was named by settlers from the East in tribute to Virginia’s Shenandoah River Valley. The AVA, which spreads into portions of Amador and El Dorado Counties, encompasses 13,000 acres; just over 2,000 acres are under vine, and 26 wineries are in operation. Vineyards are planted at elevations of around 1,800 feet on mostly granite-based Sierra-Ahwanee soil. The dominant vegetation throughout the area is mainly grassland and 100-year-old oak trees. The wineries make rich Zinfandel wine with classic aromas of cherry, raspberry, pepper and spice. Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Sangiovese, Syrah and other Rhone and Italian varietals are also produced.
Fiddletown AVA has less than 1,000 acres planted on the region’s southern and western hills. This area’s altitude ranges from 1,500 to about 2,500 feet, which makes it cooler than the nearby Shenandoah Valley. As a result, grapes tend to develop with more elegant fruit character and lower sugars. The appellation is responsible for about 20% of Amador’s production, growing predominantly Zinfandel, Sauvignon Blanc and Rhone varietals. At present no wineries are located here.↑ Less