California, USA - Not Just Napa Valley
With over 100 American Viticultural Areas (AVAs), Northern California sits at the epicentre of famous US wines, from which Napa Valley, Sonoma County, and Mendocino County are popular regions. Sonoma is second only to Napa in reputation. Together, the two regions make up California’s beloved “wine country”.
GENERAL TERROIR & HISTORY
While it's a new world wine region, California is an incredible place for wine. It's not just the country's top production region, producing over 80% of all US wine production, but also fourth top producing wine region in the world. With an incredible portfolio of over 100 grape varietals over four main wine producing regions, it's origins trace back to the arrival of the Spanish in the 1700s
Spanish missionaries first planted wine grapes in the 1770s, and were the main grapes until about the mid-nineteenth century, where the 1920 government Prohibition to ban the production, sale, and transportation of alcohol. Although shortlived, it completely destroyed the wine industry, leaving less than 100 surviving wineries. The wine industry only really came back in the 1970s, after the Great Depression & World War II. This was sparked by the momentous “Judgement of Paris” in 1976, and a big wave of good publicity shot the wine region to new heights.
Today, most of the grapes come from international grape varietals, it holds a strong reputation that rivals even the most revered Old World wine regions. As a large wine region, there are differing climates in each region - North Coast, South Coast, Central Coast, and Central Valley.
The US classification system began in 1980, and now includes over 200 American Viticulture Areas (AVAs), and are based on where the grapes are grown. There is no regional or quality based hierarchy, and some AVAs are inside other AVAs, making it slightly confusing, but in general, regions with sub-appellations tend to make better quality wines.
MAJOR WINE VARIETALS & STYLES
Zinfadel (Primitivo), Cabernet Sauvignon & oaked Chardonnay styles are some of the most popular wine styles in California, mostly due to it's generally warmer climate allowing it to create plump luscious wine styles.
Chardonnay, Pinot Noir
Napa & Sonoma Counties have a series of sparkling wine producers, making sparklers mostly out of Chardonnay & Pinot Noir grapes. Depending on the producer, the traditional or Charmat methods are used, focusing on linear, clean wines with deep rich stone-fruit flavors. Look for those from Russian River Valley or Carneros AVAs particularly.
LIGHT BODIED WHITE WINE
California's interest in producing Sauvignon Blanc picked up in the 1990s when NZ Sauv Blanc became popular. Robert Mondavi kick started the Fumé Blanc barrel fermented style in California before that, as a nod to it's smoky profile & invoking France’s Pouilly-Fumé. Typically, expect more tangerine orange citrus notes rather than lemon. Herbal, floral or mineral details are common, while subtle oak influences can suggest spice and tea notes. Many Cali producers have started harvesting grapes at different times & blending them together to create a wine with more body & fleshy texture, while still carrying bright acidity.
FULL BODIED WHITE WINE
Chardonnay, Rousanne, Marsanne
Chardonnay often does get a little bit of a bad rep from early Californian wine producers. Corporate labels were the culprits of using cheap oak or wood chips to flavor wines, but it created such a strong note that it covered up all the other aromas with butter & vanilla, often in a bid to cover up it's flaws.
However, that doesn't mean the Cali Chardonnay is bad, and on the contrary, there are many producers focused on producing high quality renditions of this chameleon grape. Full bodied with bright acidity & notes of lemon, tropical fruit & apple, you will find both oaked & unoaked styles. The oaked styles will be rounder & have notes of hazelnut & carmalized citrus, sometimes with a smoky spiced finish depending on the type of oak.
Marsanne & Rousanne are sibling grapes that originate from the French Rhone Valley. They grow well in the hotter climates of Californian wine growing regions. Often blended together or in part with Chardonnay, the blends combine the nuttiness and viscosity of Rousanne with the pear and mineral zing of Marsanne to make a beautifully complex wine. Look to the Central Coast for a greater number of producers of these 2 varietals.
AROMATIC WHITE WINE
While not hugely popular wine in California, Monterey & Mendocino have an ideal climate for Riesling grapes, due to their cooler climates. Refreshing & delicious with notes of apricot, pear & lemon, it has high acidity & a medium body. Depending on the winemaker, it can range from dry to sweet, and there are a select few wineries that produce a late harvest style dessert wine
White Zinfandel is actually not a grape, but a style of Zinfandel, made intentionally using "stuck fermentation", where fermentation stops prematurely. It comes in a range of styles from off dry to sweet rose, with notes of fresh fruit & smoked spice flavors
LIGHT BODIED RED WINE
Most of America's Pinot Noir comes from California. Most of the Pinot growing regions would be coastal or elevated regions. Typically rich, frujity and lush due to ample sun exposure, they would typically have subtle spice undertones from French oak ageing. You can expect notes of vanilla, all spice & white tea amongst this otherwise lush & fruit forwad PInot Noir.
Should you want something with a slightly lighter & acidic style closer to the French Burgundian, look to Russian River Valley, and other cool climate limestone or granite based soils.
MEDIUM BODIED RED WINE
Californian Grenache tends to be more fruit forward & aromatic, with less herbal notes & more licorice notes than many old world Grenache. It's growth in the US was actually the result of one winery, Tablas Creek, who has worked with Château de Beaucastel in the French Rhone Valley to bring in cuttings of Grenache since the 1980s. Growing well in hot climates, it's often blended with Syrah to add tannin & smoothness, as well as Mourvedre for depth. Look to warmer climates like Central Coast for big, full black-cherry fruity styles.
Barbera has seen a strong footing in the Sierra Foothills, even though most of the Italian vines were pulled out during the Prohibition. Expect a more full bodied & fruit-forward Barbera from California, especially Sierra Foothills & Santa Barbera, as compared to the more berbasceous styles from Italy.
FULL BODIED RED WINE
Zinfandel, Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo, Mourvedre
There are a variety of full bodied red grapes in California, due to it's climate suiting promoting the ripeness of grapes. Zinfandel is a grape that originates from Italy (Primitivo), but has made a big name for itself in California
Lodi produces Zinfandel wines with a beautiful roasted plum & sweet tobacco note. Napa Valley would produce wines of similar depth, but due to the volcanic soils, would give the wines a nice rich smoky note. Expect rich baking spice & an undertone of pepper from Sonoma & Mendocino Zinfandels. Long summers with cool nights & hot days gives the wines a beautiful acidity & freshness.
Bordeaux grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon & Merlot grow best in cooler climates with morning fog, such as Napa Valley. Napa Cabs are arguably California's most prized wine, and are oak-aged, full-bodied, moderately acidic and highly tannic. Expect fruity flavors of black cherry, plum and raspberry mixed with hints of licorice, chocolate and a pleasant earthiness.
Rhone Valley grapes like Syrah & Mourvedre grow best in the warmer climates of California with high sun exposure, such as Southern Californian AVAs. Spanish Tempranillo similarly thrives in warm dry climates.
The California wine region can be roughly broken up into 4 main regions - North Coast, South Coast, Central California, Sierra Foothills. The North Coast region is by far the most famous, playing a host to popular regions like Napa & Sonoma County.
NORTH COAST REGION
Covering 4 counties, Mendocino, Lake, Napa & Sonoma, this region is probably THE region when most people consider US wines.
Mendocino County is the northernmost wine-growing region in California. Located on the north coast of California, Mendocino has a cooler climate, the Western half of this growing region borders the Pacific Ocean and features a cool and foggy climate, while the Eastern half enjoys slightly warmer and drier conditions due to protection from the Mayacamas. Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling and Zinfandel would be your go to grapes.
Napa County is home to Napa Valley, one of the most famous wine regions in the world. & undoubtedly a mecca of New World wine. With a warmer, drier climate than most other areas on the north coast, Napa consistently produces some of California’s best wines. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc & Chardonnay are the main grapes grown here.
An hour north of San Francisco, Sonoma County is home to the Russian River Valley & other AVAs. Located West of Napa Valley, this larger growing area features an agreeable climate with temperate daytime conditions leading to brisk nights. The diversity of taste profiles from within Sonoma County arises from the variety of soils that the county has, with best profiles being Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel and Sauvignon Blanc
Renowned for it's highend wines as well as mass market wines, this large AVA extends from the south of San Francisco to Santa Barbara. Most famous for Chardonnay, Pinot Noir & Syrah, it include notable wine regions like Paso Robles, Santa Cruz Mountains, Monterey, and Santa Barbara.
The climate various a lot across this large region, with rugged mountainous areas greatly influencing the terroir of the winegrowing regions. The Coastal regions are marked by areas of limestone & ancient seabed, as well as coastal winds from the Pacific Ocean that provide cool breezes, this excellently suits the white & red Burgundy varietals. Further inland, the climate is hotter, making it better suited for Zinfandel & Cabernet Sauvignon.
Broadly, Central California can be broken down into Central Coast, which focuses on producing quality wines, & Central Valley, which tends to produce or mass commercial wine.
Within Central Coast, there are 5 main counties, but the 3 more popular ones are covered in greater detail below. The coast regions tend to be cooler with morning cloud cover, perfect for cool climate varieties like Chardonnay & Pinot Noir. The inland areas are warmer with high sun exposure, promoting hot climate grapes like Syrah, Grenache & Mourvèdre.
A relatively new region, the AVAs here can be grouped into 3 sub-regions; Santa Lucia Mountains, Salinas Valley, and the inland Galiban range.
Generally a cool climate region, wind and fog is funneled into the Salinas Valley cooling the vineyards, and this (combined with low rainfall) means that the growing season here is one of the longest in the world. This is great for cool climate varietals like Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc & Riesling. As the winds tame down towards the inland Galiban range, the wines tend to be full & rich rather than light & crisp.
Altitude in the Santa Lucia Mountains plays a more important part of the terroir as compared to the oceanic wines, creating a climate of large day & night temperature varuations, making it better suited for Cabernet Sauvignon, & Syrah. This is similar in the Chalone AVA in the Galiban range, which is touted as US's "Burgundy"
SAN FRANCISCO BAY
The Bay area contains various AVAs, each with their own distinctive terroir. The ocean influences are particularly pronounced in the more coastal regions of Santa Cruz and Contra Costa County, but Livermore Valley and Santa Clara Valley are subject to ocean breezes as well. Long ripening seasons create complex & well balanced wines, and Cabernet Sauvignon is the most planted variety in this Bay area.
Livermore Valley has a similar climate to northern Napa Valley but has gravel-based soil. Livermore specializes in dessert wines and grapes from the Bordeaux region of France.
The Santa Cruz mountains to the west of Silicon valley were originally planted with vines by French immigrants in the early 1900s. The upper slopes and western side are known for Pinot Noir, whereas the more inland areas produce elegant examples of Zinfandel, Merlot, Cabernet, and Syrah.
SAN LUIS OBISPO COUNTY
Located half way between San Francisco and Los Angeles, it's stuck between Santa Barbara County to the south and Monterey County to the north. It's Maritime climate makes it one of California’s coolest winemaking areas, and is characterized by shallow loam and calcereous soil with ample deposits of limestone and calcium.
Paso Robles is the best known AVA in San Luis Obispo County. It has intense sun exposure, which results in robust & fleshy Zinfandel & Cabernet Sauvignon, and helped earn California it's reputation for bold red wine. Cabernet's Bordeaux stablemate Merlot has a small but respectable presence here, as do the Rhône varieties Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre.
SANTA BARBARA COUNTY
Santa Barbara is an overarching sub-region in Central California, covering various smaller AVAs. This region was made popular by the movie Sideways, and has increasingly brought in more unique varietals.
Sta Rita Hills was featured in the blockbuster flick Sideways and perhaps because of the press (and partly because of the quality), SRH has since become one of the most famous Pinot Noir and Chardonnay regions on the West Coast.
Moving inland from Sta Rita Hills, Santa Ynez Valley gets noticeably hotter and you’ll find a focus on Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Syrah.
Ballard Canyon has a keen focus on Syrah and other Rhône varieties including Grenache, Viognier, and Roussanne.
Spread across Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Counties, Santa Maria is the oldest AVA in Central California. Its cool, coastal climate is perfect for growing grape varieties like pinot noir and chardonnay. Home to the California’s largest connected vineyard, Bien Nacido, which has 900 acres in Santa Maria Valley. The region is more intermediate in terms of climate and is hailed for its lusher styles of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Syrah.
Warm, high altitude terroir in the Sierra Foothills wine region is well suited to produce big, ripe red wines from warm climate varietals like Zinfandel, Syrah & Barbera. Most vineyards run along the Sierra Nevada mountain range. This region was setup in the 1800s during the California Gold Rush to supply wine to the Southern Europeans that settled here, and was lucky that the vines were abandoned & not ripped out during Prohibition. This led to the region having some of the oldest vines in the USA, and producing extremely low yields of high quality grapes. The large day & night temperatures lead to development of rich, complex flavors and aromas that do not come at the expense of acidity.
What used to be the epicentre of wine before Prohibition, the South Coast wine region has been encroached by cities like Los Angeles & San Diego. Warm and dry, Southern California is less renowned for wine than other parts of the state. However, there are some unique AVAs in the South Coast region, including:
Temecula Valley: Located in a desert region between Los Angeles and San Diego, the region enjoys a relatively strong maritime influence that creates a light mist in the mornings that cool the region down before the hot afternoon sets in. Temecula growers have had success with hot-weather varieties like grenache, syrah, and tempranillo, especially due to well draining granite soulds.
San Pasqual Valley: San Pasqual Valley is located north of San Diego, and is known for its Rhône-style wines. What's interesting is that there is only one winery in this AVA, Orfila Vineyards.