California’s wines, grapes and growing areas
(4 min. read)
A star region through and through, California continues to consistently craft top-quality Cabs, Zins, Chards and more. Renowned for its iconic producers and styles, California sits atop the New World’s quality pyramid.
California’s climatic and topographical diversity gives winemakers nearly 100 different types of grapes to work with.
As with all great wine regions, certain grape varieties are the big stars. California’s brightest are Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Zinfandel, but there are other standouts, Merlot, Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc among them. California also produces characterful red blends that bring together the best elements of many varietals.
Chardonnay and Pinot Noir arrived in California sometime in the mid-to-late 1800s. Planted in vineyards close to the Pacific Ocean where breezes and fogs create cool-climate growing conditions, these grapes can deliver wines of great vibrancy, precision and restraint. Chardonnays grown in warmer sites deliver full-bodied expressions with exotic tropical flavours, and are crafted to express creamy oak tones.
Zinfandel, known as California’s heritage grape, was introduced here between 1852 and 1857. There are numerous old-vine plantings throughout the state, many over 100 years old. California’s Zins are concentrated and intense, with brambly red berry flavours and black pepper spice. They can often have a sweet tone from the ripeness of the fruit as well as the residual sugars.
The jewel in California’s crown is undoubtedly Cabernet Sauvignon. Rich, powerful, ageable and complex, the very best of California’s Cabernets possess a level of ripeness and purity of cassis flavour that simply cannot be matched anywhere else in the world.
A place of stunning beauty with a staggering range of soil types and mesoclimates, California is home to 107 American Viticultural Areas (AVAs).
From this diverse landscape many regions and subregions have emerged and many have become household names. Top-flight sites for fine wine are found in Mendocino, Lake County, Anderson Valley, Dry Creek Valley, Russian River Valley, Lodi, Paso Robles, Santa Barbara, Monterey, Carneros and, of course, Sonoma and Napa Valley.
Sonoma is sunny, warm and dry, and comprises a complex tapestry of rolling hills, benchlands and valleys that extends from the Pacific Ocean to the Mayacamas Mountains. It has 31 different soil types – more than all of France – and the diversity of wines produced here reflects that. Sonoma and its sub-regions gift us exquisite Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Zinfandel.
The Napa Valley stands shoulder to shoulder with the giants of the wine world. Its reputation, in large part, was made following the stunning 1976 Judgment of Paris tasting when the 1973 Stag’s Leap Napa Cabernet took top honours, outshining classified growths from Bordeaux. Ripening grapes is no issue in the warm, sunny Napa Valley, but the region owes much to the ocean-born fogs that moderate the temperatures here; these are a key factor in creating the balance that defines truly high-quality wines.
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