California Wine Region
The most important wine producing region in the U.S., making by far the largest proportion of all wines – still, sparkling and fortified – of that country. The vines are the Vitis vinifera type and, in many instances, the winemakers produce a whole range of different types of wine from each winery, although there are also some specialist makers.
Vines were introduced to California by the Jesuits, who brought cuttings from their settlements in Mexico, including the variety known as Mission, of European origin. The Franciscan, Father Junipero Serra, planted the Mission grape at Mission San Diego de Alcala soon after it was established in 1769, but the Jesuit Father Juan Uguarte made the first plantations of wine vines in Baja, California, at the end of the 17th century. From the beginning of the 19th century, the lay holdings of vineyards increased, some of the owners being of European families already familiar with winegrowing. In the middle of the century, the Hungarian, Agoston Haraszthy, ‘Father of California winegrowing’ , introduced a wide variety of different grapes from Europe. The wine industry became large-scale and prosperous, even after the ravages of Phylloxera. The establishment of the Wine Board and, later, the specialised department for the study of vines, winemaking and the science of viticulture and viniculture at the University of California, achieved world fame and influence. Familiarly known as Davis, this department’s oenologists have introduced some of the techniques, now taken for granted, to vineyards all over the world; the work done here is of inestimable significance.
California wines – the word is used by the producers without the final ‘n’ – enjoy much respect in the world of wine today, although it seems rather foolish to conduct tastings at which wines from California are pitted against those from European classic vineyards, by way of establishing that the California wines are ‘as good and often better’. The quality standards of the best wines of California are certainly very high indeed; but of course the wines are different, because they come from vineyards that are different as regards soils, climates and are made according to methods that are often quite different from wines made elsewhere. California wines are indeed often admirable, but must fairly be considered in their own right.
It is worth noting, too, that quality standards of the different wineries can differ greatly and, in addition, a wine labelled with the name of a grape – the U.S. term being ‘varietal’ – need not legally be made with that grape only. At the time of writing, the percentage required is being raised from 51 to 85%, and certain of the most respected producers always use only 100% of the one grape variety, but nevertheless such variations in proportions can affect overall styles to a considerable extent.
Much use is made of the Zinfandel grape, possibly of European origin but now definitely a North American variety, from which red and white wines are made. Well-known grapes that are widely cultivated include the whites Semillon, Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon, Riesling, Traminer and Sylvaner. There are, however, many others in cultivation. The most important black grapes include: Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Gamay, Grenache, Petite Sirah, Carignan, and the Italian grapes Barbera and Grignolino. Many varieties of these classics have been developed and some of the produce obtained by crossings of basic types have yielded interesting results: the Emerald Riesling (a cross of the White or Rheinriesling and a local Muscadelle) and the Ruby Cabernet (a cross of the Cabernet Sauvignon and the Carignan) are of particular interest.
The main styles of table and fortified, as well as sparkling wines, are made in California, although methods of production vary a great deal. It is unfortunate that the names of European wines are still used in many instances, because these ‘ports’, ‘sherries’ and the sparkling wines allowed to be termed ‘Champagne’ in the U.S., very seldom resemble European wines, likewise the wines labelled as ‘Sauterne’ (the final’s’ is often omitted). The sparkling wines will state on their labels whether they are ‘fermented in this bottle’, which means that they are produced according to the Champagne method, or ‘fermented in bottle’, which implies that they are made by the cuve close or transfer method. Wines made sparkling by pumping in carbon dioxide must state on their labels that they are ‘carbonated’.
There are several main regions devoted to wine production in California, the size of which should be borne in mind by anyone thinking of a ‘vineyard’ in terms of the small-scale European estates or general vineyard areas. The south coast makes rather light wines, plus many still and sparkling table wines. The San Joaquin Valley produces table wines and dessert wines of various types. The central region produces large quantities of table wines, including many of the ‘jug’ wines (the term means bulk branded wines for everyday consumption). The Sacramento Valley produces many aperitif and dessert wines. The north coast region, the most important of all for quality wines, is extensive and is subdivided into Sonoma-Mendicono, Napa Valley-Solano, Livermore-Contra Costa, Santa Clara – San Benito – Santa Cruz. (For reference to specific wineries, see the different entries under their names as well as regions.)
Increasing numbers of California wines are being exported, but European drinkers should be aware that, because production of the very finest is always unequal to demand, it is not fair to appraise these wines solely by the examples available on export markets. The very best are rare, expensive and able to stand comparison with some of the best of European wines – but, even in their homeland, they are not always easily available. California Wine Association This firm, at Lodi, in California, was established in the 19th century. It now produces a range of table wines and brandy.