Viticulture in California
California was the first major winegrowing region in the New World. Globally, the region is the fourth largest vine grower. Californian wines can hold their own with top French wines and are regularly showered with awards at international comparative tastings. Many winemakers in California cultivate European wine styles. Thanks to the sun-drenched sites, however, typical Bordeaux-style blendings and single-varietal Chardonnays possess their own unique character. The powerful red wines produced from the Californian cult variety Zinfandel are the state's signature product.
History of winegrowing in California
The history of American winegrowing begins in the 16th century when the Spanish conquistadors introduced a European grape variety they called Criolla in Mexico.
In 1769 the Franciscan monk Junipero Serra (1713–1784) planted the first grapes in San Diego in California because he needed some wine to celebrate mass at his mission. The vines probably came from neighbouring Mexico.
In 1833 the Frenchman Jean-Louis Vignes then created the first vineyard near Los Angeles with vines he had imported himself. General Mariano Vallejo then went on to be the first to establish a modern winery in Sonoma. His neighbour was Agoston Haraszthy, an adventurous Hungarian who brought over 100 000 vines of 300 different varieties from Europe in 1861 to cultivate in the new Californian winegrowing area. He founded the Buena Vista wine estate and injected impetus into the development of winemaking in California. Further pioneers of modern American winemaking were the German Jacob Gundlach and Charles Lefranc (with his legendary Almadén wine) and his son-in-law Paul Masson, who was known as the king of sparkling wines.
Around 1880 the wine research centre of the University of California in Berkeley began researching the characteristics and suitability of grape varieties and growing sites. At the Paris World Fair of 1889, Californian winemakers walked off with 20 of the 39 medals awarded. Then, when Californian wine production was at a peak at the beginning of the 20th century, Prohibition arrived (1919–1933), and as everywhere else in the USA, most wineries in California closed down. After this period the long struggle to restore the vineyards and companies began. The pioneers of the modern wine style as we know it today were Robert Mondavi, Joe Heitz and André Tchelistcheff. In recent years the Californian wine region has experienced rapid growth and viticulture is now a very important sector of its economy.
Geography and climate
For over 1 000 kilometres the state of California stretches along the coastline of the Pacific Ocean. As California's winegrowing regions are found both on the coast and in inland areas, it has a range of very different topographies. The high number of sunny days the state enjoys are particularly favourable, while its proximity to the ocean means that California is not too hot and dry for winemaking. Along with the ocean's influence, the mountain ranges and valley slopes divide the region into a number of different microclimate zones, each of which produces different styles of wine. The image of sun-drenched California therefore only partially reflects reality as the Pacific cools the air all year round. However, its influence varies due to the different heights of the mountains. In some cases ocean breezes and banks of fog can penetrate far inland. This makes the nights cool, which is beneficial for the acidity of the grapes. The cool maritime air prolongs the ripening phase and consequently optimizes the flavour of the grapes.
Wines from the wine region California
Initially California's winemakers produced stronger wines. Today, however, 90% of its production are lighter wines, usually sold as varietals (wines made from a single grape variety). Increasingly one finds Bordeaux-style blends or other classic European wine styles such as Chianti or Rioja.
Thanks to its generally warm coastal climate, Californian red wines are full-bodied and spicy. Single-varietal Cabernet Sauvignon wines are particularly popular reds. Many typically European wines develop their own unique character in California. For instance, thanks to the warm climate, Cabernets are especially full-bodied. Owing to their high tannin levels, young Cabernets can be somewhat boisterous. As they age, however, a truly unique aromatic spectrum unfolds. Along with blackcurrant aromas, Californian Cabernets exhibit notes reminiscent of aniseed, eucalyptus and mint. As well as single-varietal wines, this grape variety is also used for cuvées. The most popular is a Bordeaux-style blend with Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Rhône Valley varieties are also sought after. In particular, Californian winemakers have taken Syrah to their hearts. Its characteristic blackcurrant aroma is particularly prominent in this wine region. The highly aromatic and strong, full-bodied Zinfandels are legendary. They are of major importance to both domestic and international markets. These full-bodied wines have a high alcohol content of 13%, sometimes even 14%. The soft tannins support their sweet fruitiness. The world's best Zinfandels come from Sonoma County.
Californian grape varieties
A wide range of grape varieties are cultivated in California. The chief white varieties include Chardonnay, Colombard, Chenin blanc, Sauvignon blanc etc. Red varieties are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel, Pinot noir, Syrah, and many more besides.
Vineyard area and production volume
Approximately 130 000 hectares, around 17 million hectolitres per year.
California's winegrowing areas
The California wine region is divided into five subregions: the three Pacific coastal areas of North Coast, Central Coast and South Coast plus the two inland regions of Central Valley and Sierra Foothills. There were 107 American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) in 2006.