Now when I ask you to think of the wines of California, it would be no shock if your mind goes directly to the elegant, oaky wines of the Napa Valley or the powerful yet classy Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays of the Sonoma Coast, however the reality is that these oft-romanticised regions only produce a small percentage of all wines made in this most-productive of US states. The real engine room of California is the Central Valley, responsible for a whopping one third to half of the state’s total yearly production. Within the Central Valley is the interesting but oft-forgotten AVA (American Viticultural Area- like an Appellation) of Lodi. Today we’ll dig deeper into Lodi (pronounced low-die) to learn more about its history and whether this region will ever reach the lofty heights of neighbour Napa.
Lodi AVA is found north-east of San Francisco city in a huge, fertile valley between two mountain ranges; the Sierra Nevada mountains to the east and the Coastal Ranges to the south-west. Over the centuries the soil from these mountains has tumbled down to form a thick layer in the valley floor which contributes to the fertility of the soils. In addition to this a lot of rain falls in the surrounding mountains, and this forms into rivers which criss-cross Lodi and supply ample irrigation water. This means Lodi is responsible for a plethora of crops from walnuts and almonds to apricots and of course grapes. It was first settled in the late 19thcentury by German and Italian immigrants, who built large farm vineyards and mostly sold to larger cooperatives just like they would have back in Europe- a trend which still continues today.
Nearly 50% of vines here in Lodi are the Californian classic Zinfandel, which does well in this warm, dry region with its fertile soils. Ampelographical evidence released in 2002 from the University of California at Davis has shown that Zinfandel is the same variety as Primitivo from the south of Italy, which is probably why it does so well in the warm, dry Lodi region! Other varieties of note are Grenache, Viognier and many growers have tried their hand at the ever-popular Cabernet Sauvignon, with varied results!
Lodi is split up into seven sub-zones, known as Sub-AVAs, each with its own nuances and individual differences. The majority of Lodi wines are a blend of sub-AVAs, though as the quality of certain regions and their suitability to specific varieties is established, more and more producers are producing single AVA wines. Below is a quick summary of each of the regions from north to south;
Sloughhouse is in the very north-east corner of Lodi AVA, on the eastern outskirts of Sacramento. The largest and possibly most strangely-named sub-AVA, Sloughhouse sits on the hilly terrain at the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains as they go up into the picturesque Lake Tahoe. Whilst hot in the summer, the proximity to the mountains means the winters are cold and rainy which fills the soils up with water for the vines to survive off. Zinfandel and Petite Sirah (what we know as Durif) are the most grown varieties here, and are usually used in Lodi blends to bring rich fruit flavours due to the baking hot summers.
Cosumnes River is located in the north western corner of Lodi and whilst still very sunny, is the coolest and most maritime of all the sub-AVAs of this region. This is due to its proximity to the cold San Francisco Bay and the large river after which the region is named- the region is often covered in a fog most mornings in the summer. This climate is perfect for high-quality white wine production from Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Despite this potential, this sub-AVA is under threat due to human influence. The region lies on the ever-expanding outskirts of Sacramento as it stretches towards San Francisco, and the cooler weather is not just ideal for grapes!
Alta Mesa is on the southern outskirts of Sacramento and sits on a higher plateau (Alta Mesa means ‘high table’ in Spanish) with very little rainfall and poor, rocky soils making it one of the warmest parts of Lodi. As you may have already figured, there is a strong Spanish/Mexican history and influence in this sub-AVA, and as a result there are some interesting, hot-climate specialist varieties grown here including Alvarelhao, Verdejo, Touriga Nacional and Torrontes, each of which was most likely brought across with Iberian settlers centuries ago. Interestingly, there are no wineries in this sub-AVA, with grapes grown here sold to wineries in many different parts of California State. The most notable vineyard is called ‘Silvaspoons’ and grows about 20 ancient Spanish and Portuguese varieties, making some very unique and non-Lodi style wines!
Borden Ranch is the next sub-AVA south, as the climate becomes warmer and drier. This whole region was once one large cattle ranch though was changed into wine country with the influx of European migrants throughout the 19th century. 3 out of 4 vines here are Zinfandel, and this area is responsible for producing many high-quality Lodi Zins. Grenache grows well here and is growing in popularity.
Jahant sits in the dead-centre of the Lodi AVA, and is the smallest of all sub-AVAs. The boundaries of this unique region are defined by the soils; this small section of California is home to the incredibly rare pink-coloured Rocklin-Jahant loam soil. This has a large orangey-pink clay component with a high percent of iron in it, which makes it excellent for retaining water, and means viticulturists do not need to rely on irrigation during the summer months. These dry-farmed vines are better at producing concentrated grapes with a higher skin-to-juice ratio, leading to wines with excellent colour and firm, structured tannins. Interestingly, Tempranillo is the most-grown variety and does very well in these pink, high-iron soils, as does the next-most grown Sauvignon Blanc which achieves more complexity and structure than in the rest of the region. Jahant is the highest quality section of Lodi and several landowners here are beginning to produce single-vineyard premium wines.
Mokelumne River sub-AVA is the historical heart of Lodi, and includes the town of Lodi itself. Almost all the winery cellar doors in the whole region are located here, and this was the first section to be planted to the grapevine due to the ease of viticulture in the fertile soils, abundant water from as snowmelt from the Sierra Mountains and cool breezes. As a result, there are several ancient vineyards found here, including a handful of 120 year old Zinfandel bush vines, which still offer forth tiny bunches of incredibly concentrated berries. Many other ancient varieties are found only here and nowhere else in the USA including Graciano, and Carinena.
Clements Hills is the southern-most point of Lodi, and is the warmest and wettest part of the region. Despite this the soil here is very free-draining and the water table is very deep, meaning the vines get enough to grow vigourously, but not enough to bloat. The wines produced here are some of the most concentrated and intense in the whole of Lodi. Interestingly, Northern Rhone natives Syrah and Viognier do very well here, mainly because of their thicker skins, which are naturally resistant to the diseases prevalent in any hot, wet and humid wine region.
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