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California Wine Buying Guide

Evening light over Robet Mondavi Carneros vineyards, Nappa Valley.
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Map showing region of California's wine producers.

As the sun sets and early evening approaches California’s wine country, cooling sea breezes sweep the rolling hills and fog begins to settle on the vineyards. This temperate climate makes California ideal for growing grapes; long, sunny days produce fruit with rich, fruity flavours and chilly nights help the grapes retain that all-important acidity, producing wines that are excitingly fruity, yet fresh and crisp.

California produces about 90% of all wine in the United States. The vineyards are scattered throughout the state yet the most famous areas, such as Napa and Sonoma Valleys, are located in the north, along the coast above San Francisco. Here the cooling influence of the ocean and the warmth from nearby valleys produce a near-perfect climate for wine production, suiting a range of grape varieties.

A rocky road to success

California’s vinous history dates back to the late 1700s when Spanish missionaries introduced the art of winemaking to the region. However, it's been a long and rocky road from the rustic wines produced then to today’s top quality offerings.

The gold rush in the 1850s spurred California’s wine production as the state became increasingly populated and commercialised. Simultaneously, the US government realised California’s potential to generate income from winemaking and established a viticultural commission to aid the industry's development. A wine research institute followed in 1880 to provide growers with the latest data in order to increase quality and production.

However, prohibition in the 1930s took its toll on the emerging Californian wine industry, particularly its small producers. Afterwards, the post-prohibitions saw an industry focusing on sweet wine and French imitations such as Californian Chablis. It wasn’t until the 1970s that California begun to develop its own identity, culminating in success at the Judgment of Paris tasting (see below) in 1976, which became a watershed for fine Californian wines.

"Our winemaking and grape growing in the modern era (post prohibition) is only 40 years old and whereas we have made great strides in that time, the best of this [Napa] Valley is what lies ahead in the generations of winemakers that have yet to be born." Jonah Beer, Frog’s Leap Winery

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California v France

Just over 30 years ago one of the wine industries most acclaimed personalities, Steven Spurrier, decided to test precisely how good Californian wine was. The result was the now infamous ‘Judgment of Paris’ tasting – where Bordeaux’s finest clarets and Burgundy’s finest whites went head to head with California’s best Cabernets and Chardonnays. The outcome? California won the blind tasting and firmly placed itself on the map as a serious producer of fine wine.

In 2006, on the 30th anniversary of the original, the Judgement of Paris tasting was re-enacted and California won again. This time though, the world of wine had grown accustomed to the high-quality wines produced in California – it is the fourth largest wine producer in the world and the UK is its number one export market.

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A taste of the Golden state

Around 100 grape varieties are planted across California. Of the reds, Cabernet Sauvignon still dominates the vineyards, although Pinot Noir, Zinfandel and Shiraz have become increasingly important and plantings of these varieties have increased by over 50% in the last five years. Similarly, Chardonnay is the most widely planted white grape but plantings of the trendy Pinot Grigio grape have increased by 480% since 2000; Sauvignon Blanc is at the forefront too. It’s time to enjoy a taste of the Golden state…

Cabernet Sauvignon

Probably the most acclaimed grape variety in California and constantly compared to Bordeaux. California produces a rich, fruit-forward style full of dark fruits and blackcurrants. The tannins can be quite firm and some of California’s Cabernets last for more than 20 years. Drinking beautifully now, but still able to develop over the next 10 years, the First Press Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley is an ideal wine for those chargrilled steaks!

Merlot

After the film Sideways in 2004 when the main character Miles claimed a disgust with the grape variety and a love for Pinot Noir, Merlot has had a bit of hard time. However, the soft and rich currant and cherry flavours of this grape variety are well worth exploring, particularly if you are a fan of Mexican cuisine as Californian Merlot goes brilliantly with it! Why not try the organic, seriously delicious and plummy Bonterra Merlot for a taste of this grape variety at its finest.

Pinot Noir

Although this grape variety has been planted in California since 1885 it’s only more recently that it has started to claim commercial success. The problem, as always with Pinot Noir, is that it’s hard to grow and it’s very picky about climatic conditions. In California, Pinot Noir produces a delicate wine with flavours of summer berries and sometimes, particularly as the wine ages, savoury and ‘gamey’ notes. Miles from the movie Sideways fell in love with Californian Pinot Noir because, “its flavours, they're just the most haunting and brilliant and thrilling and subtle and... ancient on the planet”. To get a taste of what Miles meant try the Delicato Fog Head Reserve Pinot Noir from Monterey.

Zinfandel

This grape variety comes in a number of guises, from off-dry rosé to full bodied reds. It is in fact the same variety as Primitivo – an Italian grape producing rich and juicy reds. Zinfandel as a red wine is absolutely fantastic – spicy, aromatic and fruity - try the Ravenswood Zinfandel for an excellent example of the style. "The flavour of the wine captures the ripe berry, spicy, full bodied character that is the essence of California Zinfandel." Joel Peterson, founder of Ravenswood

Syrah / Shiraz

This grape variety does brilliantly in the warm Californian climate! Big, bold and quite robust, it takes on very masculine characteristics as the Robert Mondavi Woodbridge Shiraz brilliantly displays. This wine shows black fruits flavours, sweet spicy notes and a slight earthy character - an excellent match to meaty burritos.

Chardonnay

Traditionally, Californian Chardonnay had a reputation of being oaky, buttery and quite a mouthful to some people’s tastes. However, the modern styles of Californian Chardonnay are increasingly coming from cooler vineyard sites and made using the latest techniques to create wines with elegance and restraint, while still retaining a vibrant, fruity core. The Wente Chardonnay from Livermore Valley is a great example, created in a Burgundian style after extensive and careful research by the team at Wente. It craves food, so try it with a creamy, chicken-laden Caesar salad for a great match.

Sauvignon Blanc

One of the world’s most popular grape varieties and although California may not be that famous for it, they have been making it for the past 100 years. Crisp and fresh with green apple and citrus flavours, these sun-filled wines make a wonderful accompaniment to fish dishes - the Bonterra Organic Sauvignon Blanc is a great example of the style.

Viognier

Increasingly seen across California, and one of the state's recent success stories, Viognier thrives in the warm sunshine and cooling sea breezes of prime vineyard locations. Producing a variety of styles from rich, Chardonnay-esque oaky blockbusters to fine, elegant crisp wines to go with seafood, the versatility of this variety is shown in the diversity of wines available. For a great example of Viognier at its stone fruit-flavoured finest, try the sublime Calera Viognier.

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The natural way – Bonterra

Each morning, as the mist lifts from Bonterra’s vineyards, a troop of chickens move in. They are sent into the vineyards to pick out weeds and feed off worms and insects that are damaging to vines and grapes. Chickens are an important aspect of Bonterra’s organic farming principles as they provide a ‘natural’ approach to pest control – and they add a bit of natural fertiliser as they move along.

Bonterra prides itself on adopting an ‘old world style of farming’, which in today’s world translates into organic. There is nothing old about their wines though: there's the lusciously rich, baked apple and lemony Chardonnay; the silky-smooth and plummy Merlot; and the raspberry scented and cake-spice flavoured Zinfandel. If this is what chickens do to wine, we would like to see more of them!

"Each varietal is a unique, individual expression of organically grown fruit in the place it was planted and the winemaker’s art." James Caudill, Bonterra Wines

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Flying High – Cycles Gladiator

The nymph riding her bicycle across the label is almost reason enough for this wine's status as a dinner table hit. The painting was created by French painter G. Massias in 1895, with the cheerful nymph personifying the carefree lifestyle of Europe's ‘Belle Epoque’ era.

Similarly, the carefully created and beautifully executed Cycles Gladiator wines are great examples of a great era for Californian winemaking. The cool-climate Merlot is rich and lush with cherry fruit flavours, a bit of a grip and great length. So if the nymph isn’t enough to start a dinner conversation – the wine inside is sure to!

"California as a whole is influenced by the Pacific ocean. Our weather is considerably more consistent than most growing regions. We can almost always count on sunny days, and our diurnal [daily temperature] swings are a bit more extreme, providing for much riper flavours than most other regions." Adam LaZarre, Cycles Gladiator

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Fusion Food

Californian wines are wonderfully versatile food matches. A great place to start when looking for a dish to accompany one of these wines is to consider what the locals eat. Influenced by Mexico, Cuba, Asia and the Mediterranean, Californian cuisine picks highlights from each style - hence the name ‘fusion food’. Big, juicy, mesquite chargrilled steaks are great with Californian Cabernet Sauvignon; Mexican cuisine such as burritos, tacos, and hearty bean dishes are great matches to Californian Zinfandel and Merlot; and spicy chicken wings and spare ribs are good with Syrah/Shiraz.

Californian Chardonnay and Viognier shows its best when matched with creamy salads and rich poultry and fish dishes. The lighter styles of Sauvignon Blanc do well with Asian and Mediterranean flavours as well as seafood and fish, from sushi to scampi. The best way to discover the ultimate match is through experimentation and diversity – attributes that fit Californian winemakers perfectly.

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Brazin Old Vine Zinfandel 2007 Lodi

Brazin Old Vine Zinfandel 2007 Lodi

Big, bold aromas of spice and mocha fill your nose, while intense flavours of plum and chocolate, rich tannins and vanilla mocha notes rock your palate. Serve with saucy ribs, a juicy pepper steak, pasta with spicy red sauce or pizza with the works...


Bonterra Rosé 2008/09 Mendocino

Bonterra Rosé 2008/09 Mendocino

A sophisticated and dry rosé made mainly from Sangiovese grapes grown organically by Bonterra in the cooler vineyards of Mendocino. With fresh strawberry aromas and a palate full of cherry and red-berry flavours, this juicy wine is a great choice as an apéritif or try with lighter white meat based dishes.


Sonoma-Cutrer Sonoma Coast Chardonnay 2006

Sonoma-Cutrer Sonoma Coast Chardonnay 2006

A delicious barrel-fermented, organic Chardonnay from Mendocino County. Elegant and flavourful, the tropical fruit and creamy mouth-feel of this Chardonnay is joined by a clean citrus zestiness. Try with sautéed seafood or chicken dishes.


Quartet Roederer Estate Brut Non Vintage Anderson Valley

Quartet Roederer Estate Brut Non Vintage Anderson Valley

This sparkling wine hails from California and benefits from a similar cool climate to Champagne. There are four distinct vineyards on the estate - hence the name Quartet - from which all the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes are sourced. The wine has good depth, delicate bubbles and lovely fruit flavours.