About the Wines of California
To say that California keeps its best wines for itself is no understatement, but if we look hard enough there are some ‘gems in the shadows’ available here in the UK, just waiting for us to discover.
California is the world’s fourth largest wine producer but domestic demand seems to keep their progress of wine development largely secretive to all but themselves.
With the production of so much ‘ordinary wine’ aimed at the cheaper end of the market, we can be forgiven for assuming that these styles of wine are all but what California represents, but there are some great wines made there also that can rival the best from anywhere in the world that boasts to being a creator of fine wine. This is what France discovered in a ‘blind tasting’ back in 1976, known since then as the ‘Judgement of Paris’.
A chance meeting between a Paris based British wine expert wandering the Napa Valley in search of some ‘Californian inspiration’ and a struggling local wine maker, made wine history. As a result the now famous and hence not surprisingly expensive ‘Chateau Montelena Chardonnay’ made it to a blind tasting in Paris. Winning the coveted award of best wine presented, by a panel of salubrious French wine experts catapulted this wine to worldwide stardom and thus brought an international focus upon California as a ‘fine wine producer’ to the world of wine.
Although we may not be able to extend our budgets to a ‘Chateau Montelena’ on a regular basis, there are many Californian wines now that have launched themselves on the back of this success, and quite rightly so!
The Grape Varieties of California
Chardonnay is by far the most important white variety in California, enjoying the sunshine so much that it rejoices in this climate producing wines that can range from interestingly sweet, to dry and ‘buttery’ wines of great depth and quality.
Sauvignon Blanc resides here too but can be occasionally almost ‘oaked out of character’ as in some of the ‘Fume Blanc’ wines, making them not as subtle as their relatives from the Loire in France or even New Zealand [See our features on the Loire; the Wines of Pouilly Fume - Sancerre and also Marlborough, New Zealand]
Viognier is also making its ‘stage debut’ as a strong contender to its original French home of Chateau Grillet, in the northern Rhone valley region of Condrieu; price seems to follow here too!
The reds of course follow the same French tradition of quality wine – Cabernets Sauvignon and Franc with Merlot, either alone or in partnership and following the finest clarets of Bordeaux in style. The combination of all three is sometimes known as ‘Meritage’.
Pinot Noir is here also showing some fine examples of sweet cherry and red berry fruits, as long as it is allowed to display these fine characteristics beyond oak influence, the wines can be quite stunning. Rhone influence shows its presence in California also with Syrah and the self promoted ‘Rhone Rangers’, a dedicated band of Rhone wine enthusiast producers.
Without a doubt though, California’s own contribution to the world wine arena has to be the grape variety Zinfandel. Big spicy reds, subtle whites with the now famous Zinfandel Blush, all contribute some very enjoyable and immensely quaffable wines to a wide and most discerning market.
Zinfandel has a longstanding history in Californian wine making dating back to the middle of the Nineteenth Century. It thrives in warmer climates and can be found in many of California’s wine regions including the Central Valley. Comfortably situated at the foot of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, this warm and sheltered position creates a longer growing season and with cooler night time temperatures, this combination of location and ambient conditions encourages the grapes to ripen more slowly.
Here is a list of the best characteristics that we would expect from a good example of red Zinfandel:
On the Eye: Deep to medium garnet with ruby highlights.
On the Nose: Aromas of wild berries and chocolate with subtle hints of ‘wet forest’ fragrances.
On the Palate: Flavours of blueberry fruit, melted dark chocolate with hints of cedar wood and spices.
There is so much variety for you to choose from our Wines Direct list of Californian wines, so below I have highlighted just a few as a cross section of authentic examples for your enjoyment. Many brands from the big producers such as Gallo and Blossom Hill are well known and readily available everywhere wine is on sale but for a change, why not try something different!
Californian Wine Regions
Read our dedicated guides to Californian wine regions:
Napa Valley and Stag's Leap
Central Coast and Lodi
This is where the original Goldrush of 1848 began, in the rugged hills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains; this is what started the development and rapid growth of the Californian wine industry in this area, as migrants moved here, and outside investors saw the gold rush potential to plant gold, in the form of vines.
The area is one of the largest in California, covering over 1 million hectares, and lies directly north east of San Francisco, east of the Central Valley, close to Sacramento. The vineyards lie anywhere between 300m and 900m altitude, as they rise up in the mountain foothills.
This is one of the true homes of the highest quality Zinfandel – the grapes are grown on harsh, rocky soils, meaning that the vine roots have to dig deep to find water, which result in intense, concentrated wines. Daytime temperatures are high, although the vineyards on the higher slopes benefit from the cool night air. The wines are rich, full and concentrated.
Some of the best are produced in the Amador County area, where producers, including the ‘King of Zin’, Joel Peterson, produce highly concentrated, deep, powerful wines. The area is also yielding superb reds from international grape varieties such as Syrah (more like Australian Shiraz in style here), Sangiovese and Barbera, both of which also produce rich, black cherry styles of wine.
Grapes And Styles:
- Zinfandel - powerful, sublime and intense, with a rich, ripe, velvety flavour, mulberry and forest fruit character, depth, intensity, and voluptuous complexity.
- Some Shiraz, Barbera, Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon and Viognier is also produced.