Secluded high in the mountains of the Sierra Foothills, Miraflores Winery has gone quietly about the business of making great Zinfandel for a decade now.
Foothills wineries often have trouble getting the attention they deserve in the California wine industry, and none are more deserving of a higher profile than Miraflores. Of the nine Zinfandels I've reviewed, seven received outstanding ratings, and that includes tough vintages like 2010, for which I gave Miraflores' Zinfandel 91 points on Wine Spectator's 100-point scale.
Right now, the 2011 Miraflores Zinfandel El Dorado ($28) is arriving on the market. It's impressive for its intensity, offering rich black currant and loamy spice flavors. It doesn't lack ripeness, carrying an alcohol of 14.9 percent, but there's such a dense core of lively acidity and structured tannins that it remains balanced.
The two players behind Miraflores are owner Victor Alvarez and winemaker Marco Cappelli. Alvarez, who grew up in a farming family in Colombia, owns 254 acres in El Dorado County, not far down the mountain from Lake Tahoe. He farms 40 acres of vines, including Syrah and Petite Sirah and Zin, and the elevation varies from 2,500 to 3,000 feet.
I've known Cappelli since his days as winemaker at Swanson in Napa Valley, where he made memorable Cabernets and a dry rosé, as well as some delicious sweet wines. André Tchelistcheff was one of his mentors. In 2004, Cappelli packed up and moved to the mountains, buying Herbert Vineyard and launching a busy career as a consulting winemaker in the Foothills.
My first experience with the Miraflores Zinfandel was the 2005. I'd never heard of the winery, and when I found out Cappelli was making the wine, it all made sense. Add to that the distinctiveness of the wine, its sense of place. It didn't taste like a Zin from anywhere else. It had the bold fruit of Paso Robles, a touch of spice like Dry Creek, the structure of Napa and the loamy acidity of a Russian River Zin.
Cappelli gives the credit to Alvarez. While Alvarez spends the week working as a pathologist in Arizona, he commutes to the winery on weekends and is quite hands-on during crush, making all the picking decisions. "We make the Zinfandel that Victor likes to drink," Cappelli said. "The vineyard is farmed like a Napa Valley vineyard, with all the attention to detail."
The Zin vineyards average about 3 tons an acre and the fruit is typically picked on the ripe side, about 28 or 29 Brix. "The wines hold the alcohol well. Even with that ripeness, the wines still come off as structured because of the acidity," Cappelli said.
The main challenge for the winemaker is layering in more breadth and fullness to the Zin, which he typically does by blending in about 10 percent Petite Sirah. Also, as the vineyards mature—they were planted 12 years ago—the wines are developing more complexity.
Only 631 cases of the 2011 Zinfandel were made, but it will be available soon through the winery's website.