The wines of California do not begin and end with the Napa valley. From Mendocino on the rugged coast far north of San Francisco,down to Temecula, midway between Los Angeles and San Diego, are fertile vineyard areas growing every variety of grape and producing every style of wine including sparkling, sweet and fortified.
Though relatively unknown in Europe until the great Paul Masson invasion of the 1970’s, wines have been made in California for centuries: since the missionaries planted Vitis vinifera to make communion wine. Today’s industry is highly sophisticated, ranging from enormous operations on an industrial scale like E&J Gallo or Kendall-Jackson, to tiny, high quality “boutique” wineries run by enthusiasts like Sean Thackrey with his distinctive “Orion” or Manfred Krankl’s “Sine Qua Non” range.
Geography and climate
Many of the best sites in california have a microclimate – a set of very localised conditions – that distinguish them. For example, some of the best sites sit in transverse (east/west) valleys that allow cool, foggy ocean air to moderate temperatures. By and large the North and Central Coastal areas are where the vast majority of quality production is to be found. The Sierra foothills enjoys a cooler climate than much of the hot Central Valley, and is another area for premium quality. For Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, as celebrated in the hit movie Sideways, the farmland around Santa Barbara is another sweet spot.
Growing grapes in California is not a problem – outside the deserts, the soil and climate all over the state will sustain viticulture – but finding truly suitable sites for particular varieties has not always been a strong suit (see “American Viticultural Areas” below). In recent years California has suffered a devastating occurence of phylloxera, the pest which all but wiped out European vineyards a century ago. Ironically, it was the grafting of disease-resistant rootstock from the USA that saved the European industry back then, but it seems that lesson wasn’t learned: the US outbreak is blamed on authorities at California’s most prominent viticultural centre who recommended a particularly vigorous and productive rootstock, but one which had low resistance to phylloxera.
Honourable mention must be made of California’s very own grape variety, Zinfandel. The origins of “Zin” are shrouded in mystery, with some evidence suggesting a relationship to the Italian Primitivo. Zin makes everything from pale pink “blush” wines that are cheap, fruity and uncomplicated, to powerful, dark and tannic reds that are full of blueberry fruit and pepper.
American Viticultural Areas
California has a variety of soil types and climatic conditions which at one time were rather indiscriminately planted with the in-vogue vine. Today more and more attention is being paid to “terroir”, the matching of vine to soil, to aspect, to micro-climate. Much like the model of French Appellation Contrôlée, the American wine regions are being mapped under a scheme of American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) begun in the late 1970s: classification of vineyard areas by geographical location (the French model takes this much further into rules governing vines, harvesting and wine-making). These AVAs will appear on labels, indicating the origin of the wine. Like France’s Appellation Contrôlée, the AVA in itself is absolutely no guarantee of quality: it merely guarantees that the grapes come from a certain place. Potentially, what it does do, is allow the consumer the chance to build up a frame of references for wines of a specific region, much like getting to know the villages of Burgundy for example. An excellent run-down on AVA’s can be found at The Wine Institute.
Of course even without the bureaucrats to tell us so, the best wine-makers and most clued-up wine-lovers had long recognised those areas with a particlular suitability for certain grape varieties: the Russian River Valley for Pinot Noir, the Alexander Valley for Cabernet, Santa Barbara County for Syrah and Pinot and the Dry Creek Valley for Zinfandel are amongst many locations where a natural affinity – a terroir – has been identified.
Whilst the wines of California include vast lakes of “jug” wine and “fighting varietals” (those cabernets and chardonnays that struggle in a crowded marketplace) without a doubt there are wines eminating from California and other areas of the U.S.A. to challenge the very best in the world.
Some of these are now well established in international markets and carry the same price premiums as top Bordeaux and Burgundy. Producers like Robert Mondavi have been superb ambassadors for Californian wine.
Many of California’s most desirable wines are very expensive, and are snapped up by mailing-list customers long before they hit the shelves. But at more moderate price levels there are excellent wines being made by consciencous and quality-obsessed individuals.
These are moderately priced and are more widely available: Au Bon Climat, Swan and Sanford for Pinot Noir; Qupé for Syrah; Marietta, Swan, Ridge and Ravenswood for Zinfandel; Mondavi, Ridge, Laurel Glen, Shafer, Caymus for Cabernet Sauvignon; Au Bon Climat, Sonoma-Cutrer, Chalone, Landmark, Peter Michael for Chardonnay. There are of course many, many other exellent producers and wines. Keep an eye out for the wines of Bonny Doon or Ca’ del Solo, both labels of the maverick Randall Grahm whose name guarantees something interesting in every bottle.
The New World and the Old
Another fascinating development has been the collaboration between US and “old world” wineries. The Champagne houses led the way, with Moët, Krug, Mumm and others establishing sparkling wineries. Other old world superstars followed, including top names of Bordeaux and Burgundy.Amongst the famous names with outposts in America are: Mouton-Rothschild and Pétrus of Bordeaux, Domaine Drouhin of Burgundy and Torres of Spain.