In the Mayacamas Mountains on the southwestern corner of Lake County, the Red Hills appellation features a mixture of deep red volcanic soils with high levels of shiny black obsidian, quartz crystals and gravel mixed in the topsoil or lodged beneath the earth’s surface. The area overlooks Clear Lake, the largest natural body of water in California. Most of the vineyards are planted at elevations above 2,000 feet, which makes it one of the highest winegrowing areas on the West Coast.
Together, this unique combination of elevation above the fog line, and cleanest air in the state, allows for greater exposure of UV light on the vineyards, which helps produce thicker grape skins, deeper concentration of tannins, and intensive flavors in the wines made from the region.
Prior to the 1990s, the area was best known for walnut and pear orchards. Starting in the 1990s, the Roumiguiere, Meyers, Bartolucci and Greer families began making significant investments in planting grapes on their properties. Once established, the majority of this high-quality fruit was sold to big names like Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Cakebread, Rosenblum, Hess and Chalone.
Over time, the success of wines made with Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and other red grapes grown in the marketplace inspired other brands like Beringer, E & J Gallo and Kendall-Jackson, as well as star winemakers like Nils Venge, who received the first 100 points from the wines he made at Groth in Napa Valley, and Gregory Graham, who was the winemaker at Rombauer for many years, to invest in the appellation as well.
Currently, there are over 3,000 acres of vines planted in the appellation. Another large-scale developer in the region is Andy Beckstoffer, the largest independent grape grower in Northern California. After planting over 1,000 acres of vineyards in Mendocino from 1973 to 1998, Beckstoffer started searching for properties in the Red Hills district in 1995. Since then, his company has gone on to plant more than 1,300 acres of vineyards at the Amber Knolls, Red Hills and Crimson Ridge vineyards over the past two decades.
According to Beckstoffer, innovative technology has been a key to Red Hills’ quick road to success. “In Napa Valley, growers were able to reach a higher level of quality based on a ‘physical’ technology. We learned to manipulate vines, adjust spacing and select the appropriate clones for the conditions the vines were grown in,” said Beckstoffer. www.lakecountywinegrape.org.
Whites: Sauvignon Blanc is the dominant white grape in this region. Since the area is above the fog, the vines get plenty of morning and afternoon sun. In the early evening, Clear Lake acts like an air conditioner that draws in cool temperatures that help preserve the acidity in the clusters. Smaller portions of white grape varieties include Semillon and Viognier, which are also used to make delicious sweet wines.
Reds: Although there was Zinfandel planted in the region at the turn of the last century, the newest fad is to work with Cabernet Sauvignon and smaller amounts of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Petite Sirah, Barbera and other red grapes that thrive in the rocky volcanic highlands.
White Wines: Sauvignon Blanc vines in the region produce wines with lavish notes of ripe melon, peaches, figs, citrus, sage, lanolin, and bright acidity. The wines are fresh, aromatic and appealing to a wide range of consumers and generally sold at a very affordable price or used as expressive components in unique white wine blends from Lake County.
Red Wines: With high exposure to UV rays, the Cabernet clusters are generally tight and compact with tiny berries that typically feature mountain fruit flavors of wild berries, cherries, dark chocolate, spice, and earthy or flinty notes associated with the rich volcanic soils. The red wine blends made with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Syrah and other red grapes grown in the region often feature elegant notes of violet, blackberry, blueberry, boysenberry, black raspberry, plum, bright acidity, and spice. And the Zinfandels are dark colored and notable for their distinct characteristics of raspberry-cherry, black plum and black currant; spicy accents of clove, pepper, baking spices, chocolate and forest floor; juicy mouth feel and soft tannins.
Sauvignon Blancs and white wines from the region are fantastic with oysters, asparagus, gourmet salads, grilled veggies with herbs, prawns, poached scallops, and roasted chicken. The Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux blends from the region are ideal for pairing with Ahi tuna with espresso rub, pasta with wild mushrooms or morels, juicy burgers with blue cheese, roasted short ribs, filet mignon, and lamb with mint or currant sauce. For Zinfandel, try barbecued meats, five spiced baby back ribs, lamb skewers, smoked salmon, curry, mole, tangy cheeses, and chocolate. And with Syrah and Grenache, try medium cheeses, spicy olives, rosemary skewered eggplant, roasted beets, grilled salmon, turkey, duck confit, braised pork tenderloin, and grilled meats. Heartier styles of cuisine, like winter stews, rare lamb loin, elk, venison and spicy sausage, are great to pair with the Petite Sirahs from Red Hills Lake County.