When considering fine wines from the United States, the subject of California is unavoidable, and for good reason. The state is home to a diverse range of microclimates, which give wine producers the opportunity to utilize a broad spectrum of grape varieties and winemaking techniques. Although wine grapes were planted in California by the end of the 18th century, numerous challenges to the wine industry arose during the 19th and early 20th centuries, including infestations of the insect Phylloxera and a prohibition on alcoholic beverages in the 1920’s and early 30’s. Despite this adversity, California wineries championed noble French grape varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. In 1976, their greatest wines even outperformed bottles from some of the most esteemed Bordeaux and Burgundy producers during the legendary ‘Judgment of Paris’ tasting. A few decades later, California remains a powerhouse in the wine world, regardless of whether you’re looking for value, prestige, or both. Wines from the following regions will serve as a wonderful introduction to California.
If California serves as a model for American wine production, then Napa Valley is its heart. Here, the warm Mediterranean-esque climate is ideal for ripening grapes. Full-bodied Cabernet Sauvignon wines reign supreme with many examples being barrel-aged and fruit-driven in style. Like their Bordeaux counterparts, the very best can be cellared for decades. Important American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) in Napa Valley include Rutherford and Oakville, where Cabernet wines often command premium prices. Merlot also plays an important role in the region. The Los Carneros AVA, part of both Napa and Sonoma, is nestled between the Pacific Ocean, San Francisco Bay, and Mayacamas Mountains, where cooler temperatures are ideal for producing Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and sparkling wines.
West of Napa Valley, Sonoma County is home to the Alexander Valley AVA, which is also known for Cabernet Sauvignon. The cool-climate Russian River Valley AVA grows excellent Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The Dry Creek Valley AVA is well-regarded for its old-vine Zinfandel plantings, along with Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc. Many great wines from this region are a relative bargain when compared to their Napa Valley counterparts.
Santa Barbara County
Further south on the California coast, Santa Barbara County encompasses the Santa Maria Valley and Sta. Rita Hills AVAs, where Pinot Noir and Chardonnay vineyards feel the cooling effect of fogs and winds. Chardonnay, Viognier, Syrah, and Grenache are among the grape varieties well-suited to the various climates of the Santa Ynez Valley AVA.
To truly appreciate the beauty of what California’s wine regions have to offer you should try wines from each of the major wine regions, and hopefully plan a visit!