White wine from Sierra foothills
There are lingering remnants of the usual fare up here: too much Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc that took a road trip toward Tahoe and got stuck in a new-oak hot tub. But also a bounty of Rhone-native grapes, from Grenache Blanc to Vermentino, that thrive in the higher altitudes. When farmed well and picked at the right time, these provide nothing short of a new frontier for California white wines. They can show just the right mix of lavishness and energy - no different than in the best examples from their native land.
2011 Skinner El Dorado Viognier ($24, 13.9%): This ascendent winery in Fair Play shows a particular strength with a grape that can too often be steered wrong. It's both vibrant and florid in that Viognier way - with hyacinth and dark stone aspects, plus remarkable acidity and rich nectary fruit. A brilliant example of the grape, although Skinner's 2011 Grenache Blanc ($22, 13.7%) is a deft, sasparilla-accented example of that variety.
2010 Terre Rouge Enigma Sierra Foothills White ($25, 14.5%): Bill Easton's Rhone fondness in the foothills is on display with this mix of Marsanne, Roussanne and Viognier from the Sumu Kaw vineyard, above 3,000 feet. The elevation captures both freshness and size in the wine. It's rich but remarkably balanced, with almond-extract opulence, lime leaf, yellow apple and peach. The 2011 Terre Rouge Grenache Blanc ($22, 14.6%) is almost tannic, like chewing grape skins, with yerba buena and apricot aspects.
2011 Donkey & Goat Coupe d'Or El Dorado White ($32, 13.1%): Jared and Tracey Brandt continue their string of eloquent whites from the mountains, here from two vineyards at 2,400 and 2,800 feet. Partially skin-fermented, it brings out a funky, tactile side to its exotic scents (wintergreen, lemon pith, olive pit) and flavors. The intense acidity of a cold year is on display right now; in fact it could use another few months to fully mellow.
2011 Cedarville Vineyard El Dorado Viognier ($20, 14.3%): Jonathan Lachs and Susan Marks farm fruit that goes into some top El Dorado wines, and their own Viognier is lavish and blossomy. The ripe peach and honeysuckle are balanced by mineral tension, and the sort of firm texture that elevates better French versions from the Condrieu area.
2011 David Girard El Dorado Viognier-Roussanne ($20, 13.9%): A curious mix of two opulent grapes from this Placerville property. The luscious texture might be too much, if not for a pretty orange-blossom scent and vivacity to the fruit that provide just the right balance for its richness.
2011 Amador Foothill Shenandoah Valley Sauvignon Blanc ($13, 13.5%): Perhaps not the most obvious place for this variety. But the inclusion of 25 percent Semillon, and a wise decision to keep the winemaking in check and let its grassy side show, make for an example that shows both pretty snap-pea accents and a depth of fruit that reveals the value of foothills soils.
Panelists: Jon Bonné, Chronicle wine editor; Greg Peters, buyer, Solano Cellars.