Madera is both an up-and-comer and a historic California wine region. The first vines were planted well over 100 years ago, but few survived Prohibition in the 1920s. More recently, small, family-run wineries have cropped up, offering a low-key diversion in the state’s Central Valley, about a half-hour northwest of Fresno. The region experiences warm summer temperatures but is cooled by two of its bordering features, the San Joaquin River and Sierra Nevada range; the resulting microclimate was designated an American Viticultural Area in 1985. (Just don’t confuse Madera with the Portuguese island of Madeira, a location also known for its wines.)
Thanks to that warm climate and the resultant high sugar content in its grapes, vintners in Madera are known for producing Ports and dessert wines, so be sure to sip some of those during your wine trail tastings. Of the cluster of wineries located about midway between Fresno and the city of Madera (map), several are within a few miles of one another, and none are separated by more than an hour. Sample the most awarded Port in the United States in the historic adobe tasting rooms at Ficklin Vineyards, then the Malbec, Tempranillo, and Zinfandel offerings at Toca Madera Winery. One of the oldest wineries in the area, Papagni Wines, has been producing award-winning Petite Sirah, Chardonnay, and Alicante Bouschet, a deep, spicy varietal that was once the most popular wine grape in the U.S. (Its thick skin enabled it to survive the long trip by rail to the East Coast.)
Note that wineries here might have limited hours, and some require advance appointments, so check the wine trail’s website before you venture out and plan accordingly.