20 August 2014

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An introduction to Californian wine


Golden Gate Bridge - Golden_Gate.jpgThe Golden State of California is responsible for 90% of all wine made in the US, and its varied climate and soils allow winemakers to produce a wide variety of styles suitable for every palate. 

California’s strength is its diversity. You’ll find wines of every style here, from crisp, refreshing whites to rich, full-bodied reds, and even top-notch sparkling wine and delicious sweet wine.

This diversity is all thanks to the climate. It may be known primarily for its sunshine, but California has plenty of cool-climate areas, helped in no small part by the fog and breezes that sweep in from the Pacific – a natural air-con that creates an ideal climate for grape varieties like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay to thrive.

And the vine-friendly soils and climate mean that a great deal of California is suitable for grape-growing, making the US the fourth-largest wine producer in the world, behind France, Italy and Spain.

The key grapes


Cabernet Sauvignon
The grape with which California wine made its name. Expect full-bodied, fruity reds, bursting with concentrated dark fruit and notes of mocha and earth. The best ‘Cal-Cabs’ command huge prices, and justifiably so, given their class and ageability.

Its background may be in dispute – it was long-thought to be identical to Italy’s Primitivo grape, but its homeland is actually in Croatia – but Zinfandel is firmly associated with the Golden State. It’s a tricky grape to grow, and winemakers need to watch alcohol levels closely, but when ‘Zin’ is made well, it’s a thing of beauty, loaded with red-fruit flavours, and even notes of black pepper and cloves.

Pinot Noir
A perfect contrast with Cabernet, Pinot Noir is all soft, beguiling fruit, with a haunting, elegant perfume. It’s never been more popular, and California has some ideal sites to grow this seductive grape.

A much-maligned variety, Merlot is in fact capable of textbook reds, offering plenty of soft fruit, but balanced with a delicious herbaceous note. It’s also a key blending partner, with Cabernet, in top Bordeaux-style blends. If you see the word ‘Meritage’ on a bottle of Californian red wine, then it will usually be a Cab/Merlot blend.

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Other grapes may come and go, but Chardonnay just keeps on selling. And with good reason. California’s most widely planted white grape is capable of greatness, whether the style is unoaked and fruity to more full bodied and toasty.

Sauvignon Blanc
It may not get as many column inches as other regions, but Californian Sauvignon is well worth a look. Crisp and refreshing, expect zingy, citrus-tinged flavours, and even notes of melon, fig and lemongrass.

The key regions

Napa Valley
The heartland of quality wine in California, bisected by the iconic Route 29, Napa boasts more than 600 wineries, including world-class names such as Opus One, Clos du Val and Chateau Montelena. This is where you’ll find the big Cal-Cabs that marked California out as a world-class wine region.

Sonoma County
A stunningly beautiful wine region, Sonoma is the place to go for top-notch Pinot Noir, particularly in the Russian River Valley sub-region. Wineries to look out for in Sonoma include Joseph Swan, Ravenswood, and De Loach.

Central Coast
This covers a number of regions, including Monterey County, famed for its crisp Sauvignon Blanc; Paso Robles, where Rhône varieties such as Syrah and Grenache come into their own; and Santa Barbara County, immortalised in the 2004 film Sideways.

Mendocino County
Home to the world’s tallest living tree (a coastal redwood that stands 112m high), Mendocino in the north of the state is home to sparkling wine producer Roederer Estate, as well as Fetzer, which leads the way in organic winemaking in California.

This inland region is warmer than the areas nearer to the coast, which makes it ideal for red grapes to ripen and mature perfectly. Lodi is a fine source of Zinfandel, California’s signature grape.

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