Escalating land and grape prices in Napa and Sonoma have led many North Coast vintners to Lake County grapes, which typically sell for about one-third of Napa’s top varieties. Easy math means the wines can sell for about one-third as well.
Lake County is an old grapegrowing area due north of Napa Valley and east of Mendocino. Its viticultural history dates to the 1870s and it fell on hard times during Prohibition, only to recover in the 1980s. Still, despite gains in wine-grape quality, it has always lived in the shadow of Napa Valley.
The star white grape is Sauvignon Blanc, which makes a supple, flinty, easy-drinking style with the grapes requisite herb, citrus, yellow apple and spicy pear notes; Viognier is also promising.
The red grape stars are a mix, with Cabernet Franc holding an edge over Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. But the dark horse is Syrah, which is producing some impressive wines.
All of the Lake County red wines are lighter, less intense and less tannic than those grown in Napa. But with a grape like Cabernet Franc that works just fine and in my blind tastings this week I found a few excellent Syrahs at great prices.
My favorite was the Gregory Graham Syrah Red Hills Lake County Crimson Hill Vineyard 2004 ($20, 350 cases made), which is richly fruity, with plum, blackberry, milk chocolate and cedary lead pencil notes. It also has more tannic muscle than most Lake County reds.
Anther winner, for $18, is Jade Mountain Syrah Red Hills Lake County Snows Lake Vineyard 2005 (2,841 cases made). It offers a complex mix of dark blackberry and blueberry flavors with a peppery edge.
The Spencer Roloson Syrah Clear Lake Madder Lake Vineyard 2004 is $32, with 300 cases, is made in an easy-drinking style, with plum, wild berry, herb and sage notes.
Perhaps the biggest champion of Lake County wines is Jed Steele, who’s been making wines from there since the 1980s. His 2005 Steele Syrah Clear Lake 2005 ($16, 2,000 cases made) exhibits loamy earth, wild berry and fresh herb and thyme notes.
Steve Ritchie — Atlanta, GA — November 7, 2007 10:06pm ET
Steve Ritchie — Atlanta, GA — November 7, 2007 10:07pm ET
Chris Baker — Charlotte, NC — November 15, 2007 11:03am ET
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