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California is known to produce some of the best and finest wines, but do you know how to sort of what’s what by type and brand? This A to Z Guide and a little information about California wines, in general, is just what you need to get on your way to your best glass of California wine possible.
If you have any doubt how prized California wine is, look no further than New York. New York wine bars have long been a mainstay, a place to gather and enjoy drinks, meet with people and enjoy the local scene.
One focus of these wine bars has been pairing wines with fresh bistro eating so it has become a culture in of itself. Another popular trend is marketing wines as “natural wines” which means that the wine has been harvested from an organic orchard and has no added preservatives or additives. The idea: a culture of wine at its freshest and purest form possible.
But now some wine bars like Coast and Valley, in the heart of Brooklyn, are getting more particular by adding the finest wines–from California. In fact, the wine bar, which opened its doors just this year, has an entire collection of wines devoted to different California locale. Their goal? Introduce customers to wines from San Francisco, eastern Los Angeles, and vineyards around the state.
But why would wine bars in New York feature California wines? Perhaps because they are in such high demand.
Why is California wine so popular?
Wine from California has long been prized for its different varieties and signature brands. But clearly, there are other reasons wine from California is making wavelengths across the country and around the world. Even as of 2017, sales of California wine reached a staggering thirty-five billion dollars, a growth of three percent from the previous year.
Within the past decade, infact, sales of California wine grew by fifteen percent. Despite wine consumption per capita stagnanting, one thing that might explain the continual rise of wine drinking is demographic shifts: those of legal drinking age have increased in proportion to the overall population.
But what is it about California wine?
In the United States, there are over three thousand vineyards, and while wine is produced in all fifty states, just under ninety percent of it is produced in California, leading to more varieties, brands and selections overall–and some of Americans’ very favorite wines.
Why is so much wine produced in California?
For one thing, California is a remarkably large state, with ample room for vineyards. In square feet, California is just slightly under the size of France, and includes nearly nine hundred miles of land along the Mexican border and the Pacific.
California is also among the most geographically diverse states, with everything from beaches, booming urban life, redwood forests, the Mojave Desert, the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and fertile farmland.
While much of this land is far from ideal for producing wine, there is also much of it that is. In fact, the wine growing regions of California are ideal in many ways; a few key factors for growing wine include:
- Ample sunlight. Sunlight, as you might imagine, is critical for helping vines grow and flourish.
- Temperature. Grapes grow best in warm, but not too hot temperatures–an ideal location is normally somewhere around the 30th and 50th latitudes. Winter can destroy vineyards if it is too cold. Too hot temperatures can cause problems as well; the ideal scenario is for grapes to develop slowly. Of course, the temperature is also a key component to keeping wine lasting and cool.
- The right amount of rain. Rain, of course, is necessary to help a vineyard thrive, and too much or too little can spell trouble. However, some dryer areas of California have been able to improvise with irrigation.
- Soil: The type and quality of the soil are also important for producing the best wine, but what soil is a bit more complex because grapes can succeed in different soil types; producers try to balance “drainage, heat retention, fertility, and minerality”. In fact, soils that are especially moist and rich, great for growing other crops, is not ideal for growing grapes because it is too heavy and does not have the drainage required.
In all of these ways, certain regions of California are much more suited to healthy vineyards than the rest of the United States. The wine regions of California include Nappa, Sonoma, and Marin Counties on the North Coast; northern and southern regions on the Central Coast; the Bay Area and Monterey County; the Sierra Foothills; Central Valley and Southern California.
Microclimates somewhat account for just how widespread wine growing regions are in California.
Is there anything else special about California wines?
Because of these elements, California wines may be higher quality than wines is less suitable growing regions. But there are other reasons why California wines are so popular:
- Signature taste. While there are countless varieties and brands of California wine, wine from California is known for robust fruity tastes and aromas.
- Smart marketing. California does well with marketing their wines in a strategic way, connecting brands to certain lifestyles, characteristics, cultures, and preferences.
- Availability. Since California wine makes up such a large swath of American wine, you have an almost endless cache of varieties and price points.
- Reputation. By sheer reputation, many flocks to California wines. Known for their versatility, quality, and unique notes, there’s ample reason why so many looks first to California. It also produces, on average, the most sustainable and environmentally friendly wines in the world. Many wines are also connected to supporting local communities and economies.
- Higher standards. During the 1970s, California made a series of changes that improved both flavor and innovation, including ways to reduce flaws and improve flavor.
A to Z Guide by Variety and Brand
Still lost? Then look at our A to Z Guide by Variety and Brand. This handy guide will give you more information about California wine, help introduce you to different varieties and brands, and hopefully steer you towards the best wine possible for you.
Andrew Murray, Alcane Bouschet
- Andrew Murray Vineyards produces quality but very affordable wine. Located in Los Olivos, California, their most prized wine is their Roasted Slope Vineyard Santa Ynez Valley (2013) which is priced at thirty-five dollars a bottle and features notes of spice and bright boysenberry.
- Alcane bouschet refers to a red grape variety that has been grown since the mid-1800s and produces a rich purple wine and is known for its strong fruity notes, full body, high tannin, and medium acidity.
- Barbera is a red wine produced in the Sierra Foothills, Central Valley, and Santa Barbara, as well as in Italy, Australia and Argentina. Dark cherry, plum, strawberry, and blackberry pair with vanilla, nutmeg, and lavender for low tannin, high acidity wine.
- Bouchaine is the oldest vineyard in Napa’s Carneros region and produces rich Pinot Noir wine.
Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Cliff Ledge
- Cabernet Sauvignon is a red grape that produces wine with a full body, low level of acidity, and moderate to a high level of tannins; it is also often blended with Merlot to produce the popular Bordeaux Blend, which has made wavelengths now in California.
- Chardonnay is a highly popular white wine that started to become mass produced in California during the ’80s; now experts recommend you buy Chardonnay that is not sold in oak, and opt for bottles that are more expensive than ten dollars. It’s known as a highly versatile and, in California, rich and buttery.
- Chenin Blanc, also grown in France, is often used for white sparkling and dessert wines. It typically is full bodied with a fruity variety, such as apple and quince.
- Cliff Ledge vineyard comes from Yountville, California and produces fine Sauvignon Blanc Nappa Valley wine, as well as a collection of platinum wines.
Dolcetto produces deep red, almost black wine noted for black cherry and licorice flavors, with an almond finish; typically the wines are rather dry.
Edna Valley Vineyard
Edna Valley Vineyard is situated in San Luis Obispo and produces “crisp, balanced wines” representative of the Central Valley. They offer special collections and wine club subscriptions. The vineyard brand allows you to select from reserve and special Central Coast wines.
Fableist Wine Company
Fableist Wine Company is one of the more prominent California wine brands and is based in Paso Robles. Despite all of their wines being forty dollars or under per bottle, they’d earned acclaim for high-quality wine at affordable prices. Pinot Noir, Rose, Chardonnay, and Malbec are a few of their specialties.
Gamay, Gewurztraminer, Grenache Blanc
- Gamay produces a light-bodied red wine and is actually related to Pinot Noir. While Pinot Noir is arguably more popular, Gamay tends to be much more affordable and is a great alternative when you’re on a budget.
- Gewurztraminer actually grows best in cool climates, and produces a lightly sweet, semi-dry wine that has a lower alcohol content than most white wines, making it a great choice for a dessert wine or a dinner wine. The aroma has been best described as similar to lychee fruit, and it can be consumed with Asian cuisine.
- Grenache Blanc is the white variety of the red grape, Grenache and produces a wine that is high in alcohol, low in acidity, and brimming with herb and fruit notes.
Hall Wines is another prominent brand, situated in Napa Valley that also holds acclaim, with two Leed Gold Certifications, five organic vineyards, and high customer ratings. The company is also devoted to sustainable buildings, supporting local arts, and providing opportunities for entrepreneurship.
- Napa Valley is arguably the most famous wine growing region in California and is situated just north of San Francisco. Beyond its signature wines, it’s a highly popular place to visit and even vacation, with shopping, hot air balloon rides, wine tours, lodging, fishing, cruises and more.
- Opus One is a winery located in Oakville and has been in operation since 1979, but formed a new partnership in 2008. All of their wine is aged in French Oak barrels for about twenty months; every year they offer new featured vintage wines. Their most current featured wine, Overture, is a Bordeaux blend that is considered soft and balanced.
- Pinot Blanc produces a full-bodied white wine; the grapes are actually technically a genetic mutation of Pinot Noir. Apple, citrus and floral notes produce a wine that can range from sweet to dry; it is sometimes confused with Chardonnay.
- Pinot Gris makes a complex white wine with notes of spice, honeysuckle, almond, and a blend of fruits (lime, green apple, lemon, pear, peach, nectarine) with medium-high to high acidity.
- Pinot Noir produces one of the most highly approved and used red wines; in fact, the grape is over one thousand years old and the 10th most planted of all grape varieties in the world. The wine is high to medium-high in tannins, is light in body and prized for it’s cherry and raspberry notes, blended with vanilla and hibiscus–perhaps part of why it’s the most popular of all light-bodied red wines.
- Quintessa Vineyard has two hundred and eighty acres, yet only one hundred and seventy of those are actively used for grape cultivation and growing at a given time. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Carmenere, and Sauvignon Blanc are the grape varieties grown in the Saint-Helena location. It was given a fine distinction by Wine Spectator for its Bordeaux-Style Rutherford Wine.
- Riesling produces a white wine, more commonly dry than sweet, and is noted for high levels of acidity, pale to a deep yellow hue, with lime, lemon, pineapple, and apricot for a gentler wine.
- Roussanne is also a white grape that is most often blended with Marsanne. It typically is a golden yellow, with a moderate level of acidity and nutty flavors with pear, honey, and green tea. It has an oily finish.
Sauvignon Blanc, Shafer, Syrah
- Sauvignon Blanc is often confused with Chardonnay, and while both produce white wine it is lighter in body, higher in acidity, crisper and more robust in terms of the fruity lime, passion fruit, peach, and green apple fruit notes. It can be made either dry or sweet.
- Shafer Vineyards in Napa Valley that offers collections of signature wines–you can only purchase once you’re on their mailing/ email list, but some of their wines have been featured in best wines of the region lists, and they are committed to sustainable farming and growing. Their Cabernet Sauvignon has been featured in a variety of wine publications and praised for intense aroma, ripe tannins, and bright spice and berry notes.
- Syrah produces one of the darkest and full body red wines you can find anywhere. A spicy peppery aftertaste and balance of sweeter berries with savory olives make it a very distinct choice.
Tablas Creek Vineyard, Tempranillo.
- Tablas Creek Vineyard is located in Paso Robles and is known for its Rhône-style blends and organic vineyards, as well as biodynamic farming practices. You’ll also find rich and fruity red wines; limited release wines and a full sized tasting room, if you visit.
- Tempranillo produces a rich and deep red wine with notes of leather and cherries, with a medium-full body. Because it’s dry and lower in aroma than other wines, you’ll most likely find it blended with Grenache or Carigan.
- Viognier, like Chardonnay, is a full-bodied white wine but the most prominent notes include perfumed rose petals and tangerine. It is described as a softer experience than Chardonnay, with a slightly oily finish with notes of bitter citrus rinds. It’s popular alongside Moroccan spices.
- Zinfandel is a fairly common dark grape variety in California, as it is grown in around ten percent of the state’s vineyards. It had moderate levels of tannin, high acidity, a bold taste, and a relatively high level of alcohol. It produces a blush-style red wine, and is mostly dry, marrying a smoky finish with black pepper, cherry, plum, and boysenberry notes. It also comes in a white, variety, which produces a popular wine that is low in alcohol, low in calories, and a sweeter taste.