Guide to the El Dorado AVA

Guide to the El Dorado AVA

Just a few of California’s wine regions receive most of the state’s acclaim (here’s looking at you, Napa, Sonoma, and Paso Robles!), but the entirety of California has regions rich with history and fantastic wines. Thanks to its diverse topography, soil, and climate, the El Dorado AVA is a prime example of a lesser-known region producing stellar wines. What do you know about this region?

The El Dorado Wines of Yesterday and Today

El Dorado County’s winemaking history is as old as the official state of California itself. The region’s population (and wine production) grew in the mid-1800s thanks to the California Gold Rush, which attracted settlers from around the world. By 1870, El Dorado County was the third largest wine producer in California, behind LA and Sonoma counties. There were roughly 40 wineries in the region at that time.

The end of the Gold Rush and the beginning of Prohibition spelled disaster for El Dorado County’s wine industry. From 1920 to 1960, winemaking in El Dorado was virtually non-existent. In the 1960s, winemakers recognized the region’s potential and planted experimental vineyards; in 1973, the region’s first official winery opened its doors.

Today, the region has more than 2,000 acres of vines producing roughly 6,000 tons of grapes each year (and it continues to grow: over the last 10 years, wine grape acreage and the value of the region’s grapes have doubled). The region received its official AVA status in 1983.

Climate and Geography of the El Dorado AVA

The American and Cosumnes Rivers serve as the respective northern and southern borders of the El Dorado AVA, which is technically a sub-appellation of the Sierra Foothills AVA. At 2,600,000-acres, the Sierra Foothills AV––which includes parts of Yuba, Nevada, Placer, El Dorado, Amador, Calaveras, Tuolumne, and Mariposa Counties––is one of the largest in the state. The El Dorado AVA, meanwhile, has a little more than 2,000 acres of planted vines.

El Dorado County vineyards are located on steep Sierra Nevada hillsides at elevations of 1,000 to 3,500 feet, which creates many diverse microclimates. (It’s no wonder the El Dorado AVA uses the slogan “Winemaking at a Higher Level!”) This topography also creates a diverse range of soil types, each of which offers the drainage and nutrients required for rich, deeply flavored grapes.

Many regions in California are famed for their coastal fog that enters during the evening and cools the grapes on hot summer nights. Conversely, the El Dorado AVA relies upon its elevation to cool its grapes. The absence of fog allows the grapes to receive more direct sunlight, which causes full ripening without the retention of excess herbaceous characters or acidity and leads to more well-balanced wines. The cool temperatures (relative to the hotter valley floor) also allow the grapes a long “hang time” for uniform ripening.

Wines from El Dorado AVA

The El Dorado AVA is known for wines with good levels of fruit, balance, gentle tannins, body, and depth. The diversity of soils and microclimates allows for a diversity of grape varieties in the AVA. The region is home to more than 50 grape varieties (25 major and more than 30 lesser-known!) Winemakers predominantly produce Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Merlot, Syrah, Petite Sirah. It is not uncommon for winemakers to experiment with other varieties as well, making this region the perfect place to sample high-quality wines from relatively unknown varieties. In short, it is a fantastic place to encounter cutting-edge wines from exclusive, small-production wineries.