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Why You Should Explore The Wines Of The Livermore Valley

A Vineyard in the Livermore Valley

Photo, courtesy Livermore Valley Winegrowers Association

The Livermore Valley AVA (American Viticultural Area) is one of California’s oldest wine producing regions. In 1982, it was among the first US appellations designated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms and Tobacco (BATF). The AVA is also part of the Central Coast AVA and the San Francisco Bay AVA.

The valley sits about 30 miles east of San Francisco in the East Bay region of Alameda County. Oriented on an east to west axis, it’s roughly 15 miles long and 10 miles wide.

It’s surrounded by the Diablo Range to the east, north and south. The Amador Valley, to the west, links the Livermore Valley with San Francisco Bay, allowing cooling marine winds and fogs from the bay and the Pacific Ocean into the valley.

The result is a pronounced diurnal variation in temperature, with warm days and cool nights, which helps preserve acidity in the ripening grapes. Otherwise, summers are hot and arid with average high temperatures in the high 80s and low 90s degrees Fahrenheit. The region gets about 18 inches of rain a year, virtually all of it in the winter months.

The first wine grapes in the Livermore Valley were planted by Spanish missionaries in the mid-18th century. California pioneers, most notably Robert Livermore, for whom the valley is named, began planting wine grapes in the 1840s.

Three of California’s oldest and most iconic wineries were planted here in the 1880s by C. H. Wente (Wente Vineyards), James Concannon (Concannon Vineyard) and Charles Wetmore (Cresta Blanca Winery). The first two wineries are still in operation. Cresta Blanca closed in 1965. The Wente family purchased the historical landmark property in 1981, and currently operate Wente Vineyards’ Tasting Lounge and The Course at Wente Vineyards there.

Cresta Blanca’s inaugural wine, in 1884, won an International Gold Medal at the Paris Exposition of 1889, making it the first California wine to win a gold medal in an international competition.

Livermore Valley Wine Country

Photo, courtesy Livermore Valley Winegrowers Association

Livermore Valley wineries were the first to bottle varietal labeled Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Petite Sirah expressions. The region is the historic center of California Chardonnay. According to the Livermore Valley Winegrowers Association, roughly 80% of California’s Chardonnay vines trace their genetic roots to a Livermore Valley clone.

Soils consist mostly of various mixes of loam and gravel. These are fast draining, low nutrient soils that are ideal for reducing vine vigor and increasing flavor concentration in the grapes.

The region has more than 4,000 acres of vineyards under cultivation and more than 50 wineries. Around 30 varieties of grapes are cultivated in the Livermore area.

These varietals include Petite Sirah, historically, the regions signature wine, traditional Bordeaux varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot and white varietals like Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. There are also selections of warm climate Italian, Rhône and Spanish varietals.

Below are tasting notes on a representative selection of Livermore Valley wines.

The Page Mill Winery

Photo, courtesy Ron Essex

Page Mill Winery, 2020 Chardonnay, San Francisco Bay, 13.1% ABV, 750 ml, $22

Apple and pear on the nose, along with lemon, followed by a hint of vanilla and almond. It’s slight creamy, with a bit of a buttery note. On the palate, it’s creamy, with ripe green fruit. The finish is medium length, with a slight bitter note at the end.

This Chardonnay comes from two vineyards, just slightly north and west of the Livermore Valley, along the edge of San Francisco Bay. The local Mediterranean climate ensures ripeness, while the cool winds and morning fogs that come of the Bay help retain acidity.

The wine is 20% fermented in oak and the remaining 80% in steel tank. The result is a fresh, crisp wine that retains good acidity and offers up just enough of a ripe, well-integrated tannic backbone to give the wine some structure.

Appearance 8/10, Nose 27/30, Palate 28/30, Finish 27/30, Overall Score: 90/100

McGrail Vineyards, Peyton Paige Sauvignon Blanc, Livermore Valley, 2019, 13.5% ABV, 750 ml, $25

Stylistically, this wine falls in between a warm climate and a cool climate Sauvignon Blanc. There are the herbaceous, lemon/lime, apple/pear and gooseberry notes typically found in cool climate Sauvignon Blanc, but the apple notes are riper and there are some of the tropical fruit notes usually found in warmer climate Sauvignon Blanc. In this case, the tropical fruit notes are subtle, with a hint of mango and pineapple. The result is a crisp, fruity wine that will pair with a variety of dishes, from fish to chicken and from pasta to cheese and fruit.

Appearance 7/10, Nose 27/30, Palate 26/30, Finish 26/30, Overall Score: 86/100

Phil Long, owner and winemaker at Longevity

Photo, courtesy Ron Essex Photography 2021

Longevity, 2019, Rose of Debruvée, Vintner Select Rosé Wine, Livermore Valley, 13.8% ABV, 750 ml, $24

This rosé is a blend of 78% Grenache and 22% Mourvèdre. On the nose, it has notes of strawberry and raspberry, along with some citrus zest and ripe, almost oxidized, apple. On the palate, it has the same fruit notes, along with a notable acidity and a ripe, well-integrated but discernable tannic backbone. The finish is long, with lingering strawberry notes and a slight hint of bitterness at the end.

This is a classic Mediterranean/Provençal style rosé. It’s fruit forward, but has a discernable tannic backbone that gives it more structure and heft and allows it to pair well with many different foods. Rosé crafted from heat loving Mediterranean varietals could easily emerge as the Livermore Valley’s signature wine.

Appearance 9/10, Nose 27/30, Palate 26/30, Finish 28/30, Overall Score: 90/100

Retzlaff Vineyards, Cabernet Sauvignon, Livermore Valley California, 2015, 14.5% ABV, 750 ml, $65

The Retzlaff winery was established in 1976, and has been certified organic since 2006. The winery is located on a historic, 14-acre Victorian estate just on the edge of Livermore. The winery crafts single wines from the main Bordeaux varietals. Their Cabernet Sauvignon generally retails for around $35, although the 2015 is generally priced higher since grape production was short that year.

On the nose, the wine exhibits red and black fruit notes, especially black cherry, along with wood spices. On the palate, it is smooth, with a noticeable palate weight, good acidity and ripe, well defined tannins. The finish is long, smooth and fruity.

Appearance 8/10, Nose 26/30, Palate 26/30, Finish 26/30, Overall Score: 86/100

Las Positas winemaker/partner Brent Amos in the vineyard

Photo, courtesy Ron Essex

Las Positas Vineyards, 2013, Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Estate, Livermore Valley, 14.3% ABV, 750 ml, $71

This is a rich, full-bodied, deeply colored wine. It is crafted primarily from Cabernet Sauvignon clones number 6 and 191. On the nose, there are intense black fruit aromas of plum, black fruit and blackberry, along with some prune. There are spice notes of cinnamon and clove, along with new leather.

On the palate, this is a rich, full-bodied, intensely flavored, fruit forward wine that shows both elegance and complexity. In addition to the dark fruit notes, ranging from dried to slightly jammy, there are additional notes of dark chocolate, hints of coffee, along with some dry herbal elements.

The wine shows good acidity, along with a well-integrated ripe, tannic backbone. The wine spends 30 months in oak and then spends several years in bottle before being released. This is a wine capable of long aging that can easily be consumed over the next decade.

The finish is long, with fresh and dried dark fruit elements, a slight lingering sweetness and a hint of seasoned wood.

Appearance 9/10, Nose 28/30, Palate 27/30, Finish 28/30, Overall Score: 92/100

Page Mill Winery, 2017 Livermore Valley, Vintners Collective, 13.9% ABV, 750 ml, $42

The Vintners Collective is an association of six like-minded wineries in the Livermore Valley who work together to craft wines made from 100% Livermore AVA fruit that showcase the region’s vinous character.

The wine is a blend of 40% Merlot and 40% Syrah, along with 15% Petite Sirah and 5% Cabernet Sauvignon. This is a powerful, full-bodied wine that exhibits intense black fruit flavors, accompanied by hints of wood smoke, dry herbal notes, seasoned wood and slight cigar box/cedar notes.

On the palate, there is mouthwatering black fruit, with good acidity and ripe, well-seasoned tannins. The finish is long and smooth, with lingering black fruit notes.

Appearance 8/10, Nose 27/30, Palate 28/30, Finish 26/30, Overall Score: 89/100

Larry Dino, owner and winemaker at Cuda Ridge Winery

Photo, courtesy Ron Essex

Cuda Ridge Wines, Livermore Valley, 2017 Melange d’Amis, Red Wine, 14.4% ABV, 750 ml, $60

Melange d’Amis is a Bordeaux, Saint-Emilion-style blend that consists of 56% Cabernet Franc from the White Cat Vineyard, 38% Merlot from the One Oak Vineyard and 6% Petit Verdot from the Smith Ranch Vineyard.

This is a smooth, complex wine, with a pronounced palate weight and a soft, velvet mouthfeel. On the nose, it offers up intense notes of red fruits, along with some black fruits. The preponderance of Cabernet Franc in the blend tends to emphasize red fruit notes featuring, in particular, strawberry and raspberry.

On the palate, there is a mix of red fruit and black fruits, with an emphasis on the former, along with notes of milk chocolate and cinnamon. There are also aromas of pencil shavings, cedar and cigar box.

This is a full-bodied, concentrated, powerful, mouth coating wine that’s packed with flavor. It exhibits notable acidity, with ripe, well-integrated tannins. The finish is long, with lingering red fruit notes and hints of milk chocolate.

The wine spends 17 months in oak, with 40% new oak and 60% previously used barrels. Roughly 50 cases are produced each year.

Appearance 9/10, Nose 27/30, Palate 28/30, Finish 27/30, Overall Score: 91/100

Livermore Valley wines are often an afterthought in the universe of California wines. That’s a pity, because the region crafts outstanding, flavorful wines that are competitively priced. They offer an aroma and flavor profile that emphasizes concentrated fruit-forward notes wrapped around a distinctive backbone of well-integrated, smooth, ripe tannins, accompanied by a crisp acidity.

If your palate runs to classic California wines, there is much that is worth exploring in the Livermore Valley.


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