An Introduction to California Wines

Mis à jour : 9 janv. 2019

In our previous article, “September is California Wine Month!” we introduced you to the history of winemaking in the Golden State. However, we didn’t go in-depth into other essential information such as the varietals and wine types made, along with the most famous producing regions.

There are over a hundred different AVAs in California. What is an AVAs you may ask? It stands for American Viticultural Areas. The Wine Institute gives the official definition:

“American Viticultural Areas are federally recognized growing regions For a wine to carry an AVA name on its label, at least 85% of the grapes must be grown in that AVA.”

AVAs are the most precise geographical location of a wine’s origin. However, limits can extend for instance to a county appellation (75% of the grapes have to come from the county). Wine can also simply carry the “California” appellation, which guarantees that the grapes are sourced from the Golden state only.

Napa County's vineyard landscape

California Wine country can be divided into 6 main wine regions:

North Coast

Central Coast

Sierra Foothills

Inland Valleys

Southern California

Far North California

Each region has its flagships AVAs.

North Coast

The North Coast is probably the most famous California Wine area. Napa Valley or Sonoma Valley, these are names that you have undoubtedly heard if you are intrigued by wine. They are two AVAs of the North Coast.

Napa Valley is famous for its red wines made from Cabernet Sauvignon, which is the most widely planted grape in the area. It can be made in a mono varietal wine type or often blended with other red grapes to produce a “Bordeaux Blend” style.

Sonoma Valley most planted grape is Chardonnay and has a reputation for producing Chardonnay wine in a creamy and zesty style. Next, most grape varieties planted in the area are Cabernet Sauvignon as well. Sonoma is also famous for its cooler climate style of Pinot Noir.

Central Coast

The Central Coast area is longer than the North Coast as it spans from San Francisco area all the way to Santa Barbara. The region contains a total of 40 AVAs. The overall climate is Mediterranean, but some areas are more cooled down because of the influence of the ocean. Areas more inland are warmer.

Example of cooler style AVAs are:

Santa Cruz Mountains: the western side of the mountains is known for its Pinot Noir whereas the eastern part is planted with richer red grapes such as Zinfandel, Syrah or Merlot.

Monterey: this is the largest of all AVAs and produces a significant amount of bulk Chardonnay and Merlot labeled “Central Coast.” However, Monterey Wine County is also home to smaller AVAs such as Santa Lucia Highlands, Arroyo Secco, San Lucas and Carmel Valley.

San Luis Obispo: the area is widely planted with Cabernet Sauvignon, but it is famous for its highly regarded rich style of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in AVAs such as Edna Valley and Arroyo Grande.

Warmer areas include:

Paso Robles: this is the California area famous for its Rhone-style wines. What does Rhone-style imply? It means this wine is like those wines that come from the Rhone Valley which is a wine region in France famous for its Syrah and Grenache wines.

Santa Ynez Valley: Because of its proximity to the Pacific Ocean Santa Rita Hills is the coolest AVAs in the area. The more inland you go, the richer the wines are, made from Merlot, Syrah, and Grenache.

Sierra Foothills

The most interior wine region in California is primarily planted with red grapes. Cabernet Sauvignon is the most panted, but you will also find a lot of Zinfandel, Syrah, and Petite Syrah.

Inland Valleys

San Joaquin and Lodi are probably the two most famous names in the area.

Mokelumne River classic: 114-year old, own-rooted Marian’s Vineyard Zinfandel ( Picture from Lodi Wines California website)

Lodi: home of the oldest Zinfandel vine! Furthermore, even though many other varieties are planted in the area, Zinfandel is the flagship, and you should definitely get your hand on a Lodi Zinfandel. It is super full with a lot of tannins and blackberry and tobacco flavors. However, don’t stop with a Lodi Zinfandel. There are many other varietals planted here. There are over a hundred grape varieties!

Picture from Lodi Wines California website. "Mokelumne River classic: 114-year old, own-rooted Marian’s Vineyard Zinfandel"

San Joaquin: this is the most fertile agricultural area in the world. Besides agrarian crops, there are also grapes planted there. Zinfandel is the main one. The San Joaquin is the largest producing area in the state. Part of the production is dedicated to making generic or varietal wine but also table and raisin grapes.

Southern California

Wines from Southern California are a little less known on the map of California wine regions. However, the area is worth discovering. The Temecula Valley is one of the most famous AVAs in the area. Of course, there is blue sky and sunshine every day, so this means a more opulent wine style. However, one solution to cool down the vines here is looking for altitude. San Diego County has the highest elevated Cabernet Sauvignon vineyard in CA (4,400 ft).

Far North California

This part of California is a little more secluded and has fewer wineries. Nevertheless, the region is claiming more and more its viticultural mastery. Counties like Humboldt and North State gather several quality wineries.

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