Wine Culture and Information - Volume 17
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 Editorial  Share this article     Summary of ABC Wine column Wine Tasting 
  ABC Wine Issue 17, March 2004   
CaliforniaCalifornia  Contents 
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California

The famous American state made wine one of its most characteristic activities. Its wines are known all over the world and in this area it is produced the majority of wine in the United States of America

 There are many things commonly associated to California, the renowned American state of the western coast, and one of these is certainly wine. Despite the production of wine is far more recent than the one of Europe, California is now considered among the most important wine producing areas of the world and, it is not by chance, its producers and pretty open minded to innovation and to experimentation of new wines and methodologies. This is probably because of the lack of a long enological history, as opposed to Europe, and therefore the fact of not having any “traditional” model to follow, the production is generally more free and enterprising. California can be defined as the “big tank of American wine”, as it is right in this state there is the higher production of the United States of America. More than 90% of American wine is produced in California.

 The influence of California in the wine production of the other American states has always been, and continues to be, a reference model and it is right in this state are being created the wines which influence the production style of the country. It should be remembered the Californian style is, in many aspects, based on the French one, in particular on Bordeaux, Bourgogne and Rhône wines. The acreage destined to the culture of vine is pretty high, about 1750 square kilometers (about 432,500 acres), and comprises the majority of Californian territory. Despite the production of wine in California began few centuries ago, facing pretty alternating periods of good fame and period of recession, both because of natural events, such as phylloxera, and political events, such as prohibitionism in the beginning of the last century, the radical change which originated the present condition took place only in the 1960's.


California
California

 The success of Californian enology is probably because of its recent enological history: the absence of specific traditions to keep or to follow made possible the adoption of modern and innovative practices that in the short period of few tens of years have allowed to reach remarkable results. Of course the success of California is not only determined by productive choices but also, and in particular, to the favorable climatic, geological and environmental conditions. California is often considered as the “Mediterranean of the New World”, an ideal land suited to the cultivation of vine and to the production of wine and facts seems to confirm this hypothesis. The success of Californian wines is also because of the huge economic investments done in the wine industry and that allowed to reach excellent results. In the short period of time of few years, in the middle of the 1970's, Californian wines conquered notoriety in Europe and often, in the wine fairs and contests, they proved to be superior to the wines they used as a model: French wines.

 Even grapes cultivated in this state clearly reflect the productive choices for California wine. The lack of autochthonous varieties - saved Zinfandel, known in the state since the beginning of the nineteenth century - grapes used for Californian wines are mainly international grapes and in lesser part Italian grapes. The most common grapes in California are Chardonnay, as for white grapes, and Cabernet Sauvignon for red berried grapes. The main white berried grapes of California are Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, however are also cultivated Riesling, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Sémillon, Viognier, Chenin Blanc, Gewürztraminer, Colombard, Marsanne, Roussanne and Muscat Blanc. The most important red berried grapes of California are Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Merlot, Pinot Noir and Syrah followed by Cabernet Franc, Carignan, Grenache Noir, Malbec, Mourvèdre, Petite Sirah, Petit Verdot, Barbera and Sangiovese. Zinfandel, once famous in the United States vinified as a white wine (White Zinfandel), is one of the most ancient grapes of California. It seems Zinfandel was known in California since the beginning of nineteenth century and many believed it to be an autochthonous grapes. Recent investigations on DNA revealed it is genetically equal to Primitivo. Further investigations about its genetic characteristics revealed this grape has a strong and strict similarity to Plavac Mali, a grape originating from Dalmatia, therefore considered as the ancestor of both Zinfandel and Primitivo. In California is virtually produced any style of wine, from dry whites to reds, from sweets to interesting classic method sparkling wines.

 

Classification of Californian Wines

 Californian wines are classified according to the quality system in force in the United States of America in which is set the territorial division of wine areas. The system is called AVA (American Viticultural Areas). The American quality system is often subject of criticism because of the low number of norms about the wine making and viticultural practices, a system which is usually considered as vague and permissive but it certainly let producers to make use of a higher personal initiative. The system generally guarantees that grapes used for the production of a wine were cultivated in a specific area and present in a wine for at least 75% of the total quantity.

 In the system are not set categories of increasing level of quality, such as, for example, in France or in Italy, however the system uses divisions that define the surface of the wine area according to the administrative divisions of the country. The appellations recognized by the AVA are as follows: American or United States, Multi-State Appellation, State Appellation, Multi-County Appellation and County Appellation.

 

Napa Valley


 

 Napa Valley is certainly the most famous wine area in California. This area, which is located about 90 kilometers (about 56 miles) north-east from San Francisco, despite of its fame and importance in the wine scene of the country, produces about 4% of the total production of California. The success of the wines of Napa Valley are because of its environmental conditions as well as the will and determination of one of its most renowned wine producers: Robert Mondavi. The most common grape in Napa Valley's vineyards is certainly Cabernet Sauvignon used to produce wines of excellent quality. Among white wines are interesting the ones produced with Chardonnay, the most common grape in this area, and Sauvignon Blanc, whereas for red wines, besides Cabernet Sauvignon, interesting wines are produced with Merlot and Zinfandel. It should be however remembered American wines showing in the label the name of just one grape - the so called mono varietals - can contain up to 25% of other varieties, and this is the most common practice for the wine making in California.

 Napa Valley is classified as AVA, however inside this territory are defined other wine areas of which the most important ones are Atlas Peak, Howell Mountain, Mount Veeder, Oakville, Rutherford, Spring Mountain and Stags Leap District. In Napa Valley, as well as in other Californian areas, there is also an interesting production of classic method sparkling wines, usually defined as methode champenoise. The production of sparkling wines is pretty interesting and involves not only local producers but also some wineries from Champagne which bought lands in Napa Valley with the explicit goal of producing sparkling wines. The result is a remarkable production which was capable, with plain facts, to deny the prejudices that for many years have interested Californian sparkling wines.

 

Sonoma

 Not far from San Francisco and to the left of Napa Valley, there is Sonoma, one of the most important wine areas in California. Because of the vicinity to the Pacific ocean coast, the climate of Sonoma is pretty different from the one of Napa Valley. The presence of fog and sun, cool nights and warm days - conditions pretty frequent in this area - influence, of course, the characteristics of the wines produced here. In Sonoma are virtually cultivated all the grape varieties common in California and no one of them particularly distinguishes the area, however Sonoma is pretty renowned for its white wines produced with Chardonnay and for red wines produced with Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir. Moreover, in this area are also produced interesting wines with Zinfandel, Syrah, Petite Syrah and Viognier as well as an interesting production of classic method sparkling wines.

 Inside the Sonoma County are defined other AVAs of which the most important ones are Alexander Valley, Russian River Valley (which includes Green Valley and Chalk Hill AVAs), Dry Creek Valley and Sonoma Valley (which includes Sonoma Mountain AVA). Alexander Valley is certainly the most famous one of them all, in particular for its wines made of Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. Russian River Valley, thanks to its cooler climate, is famous for its wines made of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and, in particular, for its interesting classic method sparkling wines, whereas Dry Creek Valley is pretty renowned for its wines made of Zinfandel. The most interesting wines of Sonoma Valley and Sonoma Mountain are produced with Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Nero and Chardonnay grapes.

 

Carneros

 The wine area of Carneros - whose vineyards are partly located in the Sonoma County and partly in the Napa County - thanks to its climatic and productive characteristics is, as a matter of fact, a truly interesting area in the enological scene of California. Carneros is located in the San Pablo Bay - the northern area of San Francisco Bay - and thanks to its cool climate, the area is considered among the most interesting ones and in particular for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes, of which the majority is used for the production of classic method sparkling wines. Carneros also produces interesting dry wines with the same grapes and with truly remarkable and interesting results. A grape which is progressively getting more and more common in Carneros is Merlot, whereas as for white grapes Pinot Blanc is getting pretty common as well. Thanks to its climatic and environmental conditions, Carneros attracted many sparkling wines producers from the “Old World”, in particular from France and Spain, who started in this area the production of interesting classic method sparkling wines.

 

Mendocino and Lake County

 Mendocino and Lake County are the most northern wine areas of California and represent, in many aspects, the most interesting wine areas of the state. Not only the climate is cooler - a condition which favored the spreading of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir - but here producers seem to be more open minded towards other grape varieties with good results. The cool climate, in particular in Mendocino, has also favored a good production of classic method sparkling wines. In these two areas are also present some Italian varieties, including Fiano, Montepulciano and even Arneis, as well as other varieties, less common in other parts of California, such as Gewürztraminer, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Blanc, Petite Syrah and Grenache Noir. Other interesting grapes of these areas are Zinfandel, with which are produced interesting wines, and Syrah. Mendocino is famous for having adopted practices of organic viticulture and sustainable agriculture, the first wine area of California which believed in these forms of viticulture.

 

Sierra Foothills and Livermore Valley

 In the eastern part of California is located Sierra Foothills AVA, a pretty large area of about 250 square kilometers (about 61,800 acres) and the most interesting wine areas here are El Dorado AVA and Amador County. El Dorado AVA - once renowned, it seems, for the presence of gold which attracted many people - is a mountainous area with a cool climate and the main grapes cultivated here are Syrah, Zinfandel and Petite Syrah, however here are also found Barbera, Grenache Noir and Mourvèdre. The Amador County is famous for Zinfandel which is produced by some wineries with remarkable results, moreover here are also produced wines with Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and other Italian varieties such as Sangiovese and Barbera. Not far from San Francisco, to the south, there is Livermore Valley, one of the most ancient wine areas of California, not very large but however interesting. The most important grapes of this area are Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Syrah and Zinfandel.

 

Central Coast

 The Central Coast is the largest wine area of California and goes from San Francisco to Los Angeles. In this large area are located pretty famous and interesting AVAs such as Santa Clara Valley, Santa Cruz Mountains, Monterey County, Mount Harlan, Carmel Valley, Chalone, Paso Robles, York Mountain, Edna Valley, Arroyo Grande, Santa Maria Valley and Santa Ynez Valley. The most typical white berried grapes of these areas are Chardonnay, Riesling, Viognier as well as a small part of Muscat Blanc - here known as Muscat Canelli - and Orange Muscat. Among the red berried grapes there are Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, however here are also cultivated Grenache Noir, Mourvèdre, Syrah, Cinsaut, Pinot Noir and Zinfandel.

 




 Editorial  Share this article     Summary of ABC Wine column Wine Tasting 
  ABC Wine Issue 17, March 2004   
CaliforniaCalifornia  Contents 
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