Without doubt, California is the most important wine-producing region in the United States. Over the past 50 years, the region has become somewhat of a wine phenomenon. This success is, in no small part, down to abundant sunshine and rich topsoil. The industry has also become hugely sophisticated, often leading in the application of new techniques. This is true whether the organisation involved is a massive operation churning out millions of gallons of low-priced wine, or a ‘boutique’ winery run by enthusiasts producing small quantities of very high quality wine. More than 467 gallons of wine was produced in 2009, making California one of the biggest producers in the world.
California’s wine regions, like the rest of America, are subdivided into American Viticultural Areas (AVAs). In California, there are 84 AVAs stretching from Mendocino in the very north, to as far south as the San Pasqual Valley in San Diego County. However, most of the AVA production takes place in the North and Central Coastal areas. Vast quantities of low-priced wine are produced in the San Joaquin valley, which makes up the southern half of California’s extensive Central valley. As land prices have increased in the recognised areas, an increasing number of new producers have sought new terroir in the Sierra Foothills. A huge variety of grapes are grown and made into every conceivable type of wine; from dry to sweet to sparkling.
The North Coast is home to the most famous of all Californian wine regions, the Napa Valley, just east of Sonoma, another important wine producing area. The region known as the Central Coast extends from San Francisco to Santa Barbara. In between are Santa Clara and Santa Cruz where many classic grape varieties are grown, as well as many Italian varietals.
Climate and Terroir
Growing grapes in California isn’t too difficult. The soil and climate in many areas are ideal. The best sites have their own microclimates that distinguish them from other wine-producing regions. For example, many vineyards sit in valleys, allowing cool air from the Pacific Ocean to circulate among the vines, providing excellent conditions for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Napa valley is warmer in the north, and cooler at the southern end because of the influence of San Francisco bay.
To the east on the Sierra Foothills, there is a cooler climate than the Central Valley and, as a result, the region is capable of producing premium wines from grapes such as Riesling and especially Zinfandel. The soil here, a mix of decomposed granite and volcanic rock is well suited to the latter.
Grapes and Wines
Over a hundred grape varieties are grown in California but, before the 80s, there was a distinct bias towards classic varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Syrah. This has changed over the past 20 years with the planting of more Italian varietals. Of course, California has made the Zinfandel grape the mascot for the ‘golden state’. This red grape makes wine with high levels of acidity and a streak of jam.
Californian wines are produced in every conceivable style. As well as producing wines that emulate the ‘Old World’, winemakers are also building on the strengths of the climate and terroir to develop their own styles. Chardonnay is full-bodied, buttery and fruity, while Sauvignon Blanc wines can be fresh and acidic with a floral bouquet. Californian Pinot Noir is known for its intense fruit.
Most sparkling wine is made by the méthode traditionnelle and eschews the ‘biscuity’ flavour of ‘old world’ Champagne for a more fruity style, albeit with finesse and elegance.
Did You Know?
The origins of California’s ‘own’ grape variety, Zinfandel, were often contested. For many years it was thought to be identical to the Primitivo variety from the heel of Italy. Genetic testing has confirmed this, but also shown that this variety originates from Croatia.
Many wineries from the Old World, such as Krug, Mouton-Rothschild, Pétrus and Torres have set up operations in California.