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Get To Know California's Major Wine Regions

Fine Cooking Issue 45
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The American system for classifying wine regions—in California and all over the United States—divides American wine-producing areas into regions called American Viticultural Areas, or AVAs.

While California isn’t the only wine-producing state in the nation, it does account for more than 90% of American wine production and has over eighty AVAs. A short tour of California’s main wine regions will help you get to know them. And while generalizing can be tricky, I’ll offer some clues to help you identify typical examples of wines from some of those regions.

The Napa Valley is California’s best known AVA, and maybe even the country’s. Within it are several smaller AVAs, including Rutherford, Oakville, Stags Leap District, Howell Mountain, Atlas Peak, Spring Mountain District, and Carneros.

Although Cabernet Sauvignon is considered king in Napa, the valley has smaller sub-appellations with varying microclimates that are good for several different grape types. The cool Carneros region (paradoxically, at the southern end of Napa—it also spills into neighboring Sonoma) is perfect for growing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, grapes that don’t do well in warmer climates. The Atlas Peak AVA on the east side of the valley is a good home for the Tuscan variety Sangiovese. And in Oakville, good Syrah is being grown.

A textbook Napa Chardonnay has concentrated, ripe fruit flavors and aromas that may remind you of green apples or pears. These Chardonnays are often fermented and aged in oak, which confers a creamy texture and flavor, along with notes of the wood itself. Napa Cabernets have dark, ripe fruit, often with herbal-olivy notes and an overlay of oak.

Sonoma County, another renowned AVA, is California’s most diverse. Sonoma has many smaller, distinct AVAs within its borders, and temperature variations from one area to another can be extreme. Parts of the Russian River Valley are so dominated by cooling Pacific fog and breezes that ripening grapes can sometimes be a challenge; Chardonnay and Pinot Noir thrive here. Close by are Dry Creek Valley and Alexander Valley, two of the warmest appellations in Sonoma. While Dry Creek is known for superb Zinfandel, Cabernet reigns supreme in Alexander Valley.

Sonoma is so diverse that it’s hard to characterize a typical wine. Chardonnays from the cooler Russian River Valley are often leaner, with brighter acidity; Pinot Noirs from there are cherry-like and earthy, with zingy acidity. On the other hand, the warmer Alexander Valley produces oakier, creamier Chardonnays, but it’s too warm for Pinot Noir.

I think some of the biggest and best Chardonnays now being made in California come from Sonoma. Try those from Kistler or deLorimier.

The Mendocino AVA is prime ground for cool-climate varietials such as Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Noir, and Riesling, with Anderson Valley as the best-known AVA within it. Even in full summer, morning fogs keep the vineyards from getting overheated. Mendocino Chardonnays have tart green-apple and citrusy fruit flavors; Greenwood Ridge is one of my favorites. Pinot Noir and Riesling from Navarro vineyards are delicious examples of how pure fruit character shines through in Mendocino wines.

The Santa Cruz Mountains AVA is home to some of California’s oldest vineyards. It’s a small appellation, but the marine climate and limestone soil lend earthy, distinctive qualities that you don’t find in other California wines (the best examples remind me of Burgundy). Pinot Noir from David Bruce, Mount Eden, and Ridge are some of the most complex, age-worthy wines in California.

Monterey County isn’t an AVA itself, but notable ones exist within its boundaries. Cooling fog and breezes from the Pacific are key for appellations such as Arroyo Seco, Santa Lucia Highlands, and Carmel Valley. Not all of Monterey is cool and windswept, though. Two warm inland AVAs, Chalone and Mount Harlan, are home to Calera and Chalone Vineyards, wineries that make big, distinctive Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in one of the warmest and most arid parts of the state.

The Livermore Valley AVA faces a challenge from ever-encroaching urban sprawl. That said, the area has promise, especially for Cabernet and Zinfandel, because it’s sunny enough for good ripening but tempered by enough cooling weather coming in from the Pacific. Concannon and Wente, two large-scale wineries, are located here.

Santa Barbara County, like Monterey County, isn’t an AVA itself, but it contains noted appellations such as the Santa Maria and Santa Ynez valleys. Both have a cool, coastal climate that produces Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs similar to those from Sonoma’s Russian River Valley, but more herbal in quality. Santa Barbara has the longest growing season in all of California—grapes get weeks more hang time on the vine than up north—and the fruit in Santa Barbara wines has some of the most intense varietal characteristics of any wines in California. Sanford, Qupé, and Au Bon Climat produce some of Santa Barbara’s best wines.

The Temecula AVA, located in southern California in Riverside and San Diego counties, had started to show promise as an emerging wine region. Sadly, it has been all but devastated in the past few years by the glassy-winged sharp-shooter, a pest that carries a lethal vine disease called Pierce’s.

Wine picks

To further explore California’s AVAs, try uncorking some of these
delicious bottles. Retail prices are approximate. –The editors

Bonterra Chardonnay, $10
Navarro Pinot Gris, $19
Fife Zinfandel Whaler Vineyard, $20
Santa Cruz Mountains
Storrs Chardonnay, $22
David Bruce Pinot Noir, $30
Mount Eden Pinot Noir, $30
Morgan Sauvignon Blanc, $14
Jekel Syrah, $16
Chalone Pinot Noir, $27
Santa Barbara
Sanford Sauvignon Blanc, $13
Qupé Bien Nacido (a Chardonnay-Viognier blend), $16
Cambria Pinot Noir Julia’s Vineyard, $20
Dry Creek Zinfandel Old Vines, $18
Landmark Damaris Chardonnay, $35
Gary Farrell Allen Vineyard Pinot Noir, $45
Swanson Estate Sangiovese, $22
Robert Pecota Steven Andre Vineyard Merlot, $30
Stags’ Leap Cabernet Sauvignon, $32
Wente Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, $13
Ahlgren Zinfandel, $20
Concannon Petite Sirah, $24


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