California Wine Country Overview
The wine growing coast of California is today home to some of the world's premier wine regions, a massive wine expanse that runs to the Lake Counties, over 100 miles to the north of San Francisco all the way down to Santa Barbara, located north of Los Angeles, not to mention the up and coming Temecula wine region north of San Diego. First time visitors are always left in awe of the majestic beauty and diversity of the landscape – journey from San Francisco to Sonoma County, west of the Mayacamas Mountains and then finish at the western end of Carneros, at the head of the San Pablo bay.
Despite being labelled as a 'new world' region, California, and in particular the justly acclaimed Napa Valley, has been a viticultural area since the 1700´s when the Spanish missionaries arrived and the state has been producing fine wine for several decades. Many properties in Napa and the surrounding regions date back to pre-prohibition times. Dramatic growth took place in the 1960s and after the famous Paris Tasting of 1976, which declared California's wines to be superior to their Bordeaux counterparts. The region was propelled to the fine wine stratosphere. There is no question that an increasing number of truly world-class wines continue to emerge from California, Napa Valley is famous for its highly priced, rich and powerful cult Cabernets that make their Bordeaux counterparts seems like shy little efforts in comparison.
However, this is not an area that is only renowned for producing rich Cabernet Sauvignon wines; dynamic change is continuous and new operations are emerging all the time. Growers are experimenting with new grape varieties and new vineyards are now being developed on the Sonoma coast with great success. Indeed, California encompasses an extremely diverse set of sub regions or AVA (American Viticultural areas), found around a very wide geographic area.
The most famous is the Napa Valley AVA, which runs along an extensive river valley stretching from north of the town of Calistogoa along the Napa River to south of the town of Napa itself and just outside the San Francisco Bay. Cabernet Sauvignon is king here and to a lesser extent Merlot and other classic Bordeaux varieties. The pioneers of Napa believed the terroir could equal if not better the best of Bordeaux and today estates like Harlan and Screaming Eagle have become justly famous for the exclusivity (and price) of their wines. There are many self-proclaimed first growths in Napa, many of excellent quality.
South West of Napa, we find the lesser-known district of Carneros located south of the Mayacamas Mountains. The region effectively divides the Sonoma and Napa Counties and is increasingly renowned for the production of sparkling base wine. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are particularly successful here and in warmer parts of the region so is Syrah. The Sonoma Valley AVA is home to some of the largest producers on the Californian North Coast. The appellation runs from north to south-east through the towns of Oakmont and Sonoma itself and impresses with its restrained Chardonnays, Pinot Noirs and Cabernet Sauvignons. The wine style here is generally quite distinct from Napa, more akin to Bordeaux and Burgundy with an emphasis on finesse and elegance rather than power and opulence.
Moving further north we encounter the Appellations of Dry Creek Valley, Alexander Valley and Russian River Valley AVA's. The Russian River area is producing world class Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and, in warmer sites sublime Syrah and Zinfandel, California's signature grape variety. Genetically identical to Italy's Primitivo, great Zinfandel is in a class of its own, offering rich, powerful and concentrated peppery, blackberry fruit maturing to a riper, raising character. Further north we find the large, sprawling vine growing area of Medocino, a cool climate region ideal for growing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The Anderson Valley, which opens up to the ocean, in particular produces a number of retained, stylish wines and is also an excellent source of sparkling wine.
The coastline that runs just south of San Francisco to around Santa Barbara has emerged over the last decade as an excellent alternative to the larger and more acclaimed regions of the North Coast. Production here is scattered but includes a selection of cool-climate whites and impressive Rhone styles and Zinfandels. Prices are far more stable than in Napa Valley and some real class and distinction can be found here. Santa Barbara County to the north of Los Angeles in particular is noted for its excellent Chardonnay and Paso Robles further north, is the place to go looking for Zinfandel and Syrah.
California is a vast and stunningly beautiful region in a state of flux, new and innovative producers are emerging every year and the quality continues to rise across the State. Hand in hand with this incredible variety of scenery and innovation come very different vine growing conditions, helped along by the cool coastal breezes and sea fogs that drift through coastal gaps. These cooling breezes and sea fogs moderate the region's Mediterranean climate, enabling California to produce wines of such finesse and power than have placed it firmly amongst the great wine regions of the world. What other wine region could grow Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Chardonnay to such perfection? If you are looking for some very serious bottles, then you have come to the right place!