Good Grapes: California
Not everyone can do everything well; each region should specialize in growing the grapes that do the best in that particular terroir. After a history of many New World areas trying to “force the issue” by growing popular grapes in unsuitable locales, the trend now is to fully embrace the vines that are best suited for each site. California has done very well in this regard. Although there is a very wide variety of grapes grown, and a broad range of quality – from still-popular jug wines made from prolific Colombard grapes, all the way to cult bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon fetching $1,500 a bottle (see great article on this at http://www.sunset.com/food-wine/wine-pairings/9000-bottle-wine-00400000012542/) – California is perhaps best known for doing Chardonnay, Zinfandel and Cab Sauvignon particularly well. Also popular are Pinot Noir and Merlot.
Five main wine regions
The five main wine regions in the state of California are the Central Valley, the North Coast, the Central Coast, the South, and the Sierra Foothills.
Central Valley: Here is where production is high and quality is… consistent, if not stunning. Seventy-five percent of California wines come from this area. Think Gallo, Woodbridge, Two-Buck Chuck… this area is the “wine lake” of North America. The area is hot and dry, and irrigation is common – this has become contentious in recent years as California residents question the use of their limited water supply.
North Coast: Here is where many of the heavy hitters are situated, in this region that included the well known Napa Valley, Sonoma Valley, Mendocino and Lake County. Most of the North Coast vineyards lie near to the Pacific Ocean, and therefore benefit from its cooling influence. The hot air over land moves upward, and draws the cooler air from above the ocean inward, creating fog. A lot of fog. This moderates the climate considerably, and is the reason why a more delicate grape such as Pinot Noir can thrive.
Napa Valley was the California’s first AVA region. Beautiful Cabs come from the subregions of Rutherford, Stags Leap, and Oakville. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir do well in the Los Carneros region.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about the surprising Napa Valley is that it produces less than 5% of all the wine made in California. Ever since Robert Mondavi opened his Oakville winery in 1966, the Napa Valley has been regarded as the epicentre of the new, golden era for California wine… [and] signalled the start of the transformation of a sleepy farming community of walnut and prune orchards into the world’s most glamerous, most cossetted, and most heavily capitalized wine region. (p. 276)
Of course, the Napa Valley is also well known due to the (in)famous 1976 Judgment of Paris, in which several California wines were ranked ahead of French ones, in a blind tasting by French judges. The top red was a Stag’s Leap 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon, beating out both a Chateau Mouton-Rothchild and a Chateau Haut-Brion, thus clinching this small winery’s fate as perhaps the very first cult wine to come out of the New World.
The Sonoma Valley is also well known. At about twice the size as Napa, it has greater diversity in terms of terroir, and offers us beautiful Cabs and Zinfandels from the warmer regions, but also Pinot Noirs and less lush Chardonnays from the cooler areas. We find the subregions Alexander Valley, Chalk Hill and the Russian River Valley here. Some predict that the future of quality California wines will soon lie here in the north, eclipsing the Napa legend.
Mendocino includes a wide range of temperature extremes. Bulk wine production predominates in the hotter regions, while excellent sparkline wines are produced in the cooler areas. Fetzer makes it home here. Finally, Lake County is the smallest AVA in the North Coast region. One of the warmer AVAs, this is the birthplace of the well known Kendall-Jackson house.
The Central Coast: This strip of California running down the coast roughly follows the earthquake-prone San Andreas fault, which some believe has fortified the soils in this region and made the wines more rich than similar wines grown nearby. The region runs from just south of San Francisco to Santa Barbara. Monterey is the largest producing subregion. In San Louis Obispo, there is everything from Chardonnay to Pinot Noir to heavy, hot Zinfandels that do well. There has recently been experimentation with Rhone Valley grapes, with investment from some French producers.
The South: some cooler regions are included in this part of the state, producing good whites and some dessert wines as well.
The Sierra Foothills: the heart of the Gold Rush, the area is still rich with Zinfandel vines, many of them old vines now since so many of the vineyards were abandoned during Prohibition.
OK, enough geography. It’s hard for place names to mean anything unless you have visited somewhere yourself, or at the very least, unless you enjoy favorites wines from the area. Thus, the California journey will continue with more wine reviews and some comparative tastings. Stay tuned.