Rough Regions Guide
Although wine is made in all 50 of the United States, California is by far the most significant, accounting for around 85% of the country’s production. Other key areas include Washington State, Oregon, Idaho and New York State.
California makes some of the world’s greatest Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. This was confirmed in 1976 when a famous blind tasting of California’s best beat a group of leading French wines (The Judgement of Paris). The exercise was repeated in London in 2006 when the Californians, again, defeated the French. California is also known for the Zinfandel grape.
It is sometimes difficult to appreciate just how young the Californian wine industry is. A widely considered starting point was when a Hungarian winemaker brought with him some 300 vine cuttings from Europe in mid-1800 and planted a vineyard. Before this, the wine consumed was made primarily of the local Mission grape which does not have the same high quality as the Vitis vinifera varieties from Europe. The wine industry flourished, in large part thanks to the gold rush, and then came to a rapid end with the introduction of Prohibition in 1920. Since then much has happened, and the USA has overtaken both Australia and France as the top performer by volume in the UK off-trade, and there is growing domestic consumption. As California is by far the most significant region, let’s now take a closer look to discover what it has to offer.
California extends for some 1 100 kilometres from north to south. As such, there are significant climatic differences, though the entire region shares a common lack of rainfall during the growing season. Almost all plantings must be irrigated, particularly now due to the changing climate and even less rainfall during winter.
The best vineyard areas are the cooler sites that are influenced by sea breezes and fog. You may be familiar with regions such as Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley. Further inland, behind the mountain range, lies Central Valley. The cooling sea breeze cannot reach here, and the climate is much hotter. Therefore the wine becomes less complex. Most of California’s wine production, however, comes from here. Wine labelled simply as “California” will most likely have been sourced from this area.
Napa Valley is the most famous vineyard area in California, and the most expensive Chardonnay and Cabernet wines are produced here by producers like Opus One, Screaming Eagle, Kistler and Stags' Leap, to mention but a few. Both the Cabernets and the Chardonnays tend to be full-bodied, opulent, and intense. In the south of Napa, there is a small area called Los Carneros. Being close to San Francisco Bay, the climate is cooler here than north of Napa, and this makes it possible to produce great Pinot Noir and lighter, more elegant Chardonnay. To the west of Napa lies Sonoma Valley, whose top area is Russian River Valley. Here they make elegant and complex Pinot Noir in the Burgundian style, and Dry Creek Valley is known for great, spicy and concentrated Zinfandel.