Mention Californian white wine to any wine drinker and the grape which immediately springs to mind is Chardonnay. This popular grape is by the far the most planted in the Californian wine growing region and it produces some of California’s most iconic white wines.
Californian Chardonnay has a deserved worldwide reputation. In the past, Californian white wine producers favoured big blockbuster heavily oaked Chardonnays but, like their counterparts in Australia, the contemporary approach is for greater finesse. Californian Chardonnays command high prices the world over but there are plenty of other white wine grapes grown in the region producing interesting and drinkable wines.
California’s wine industry has had to overcome many obstacles and setbacks since the first commercial winery was established in 1833. The scourge of the vine root-feeding bug phylloxera has had a major impact on the industry, almost wiping it out at the end of the 19th century and damaging it once again in the 1980s and 1990s. Prohibition in the early 20th century forced many wineries to produce grape juice instead and today Pierce’s Disease, spread by a leaf-hopping insect, is a serious threat.
Despite all these challenges, Californian white wine is consumed both at home and all over the world and has an excellent reputation. However, many white-wine drinkers remain confused by the wide variety of appellations and the unusual white wine grape names and varieties.
There are around 100 appellations in California. In the late 1970s the US government established a system of AVAs, or American Viticultural Areas, to classify wine growing regions according to their climate and geography. The appellations range from country, e.g. USA, to a single or several states, e.g. California, to a single or several counties, e.g. Napa County. Within these counties there are also individual AVAs such as Napa Valley, Rutherford and Stags Leap District, all within Napa County. Whilst these appellations help to identify where the white wine grapes were grown, there are no restrictions on grape varieties as there are in the French appellations, for example.
However, the AVAs show how important geography and climate is to Californian wine growers. The fog bank which hangs over the Pacific Ocean has a dramatic effect on the region’s vineyards. Wine-growing areas close to the coast tend to be much cooler than those further inland as the fog and the cold sea air roll in and cool down the land. These areas are best for cooler climate white wine grapes. Vineyards further inland, particularly those buffered from the fog and sea air by mountains, tend to enjoy a hotter climate and are therefore more appropriate for warmer climate white wine grapes. There are anomalies, however, where the fog can find its way into inland valleys through mountain passes so the climate can be vastly different from one end of a valley to another.
Cool climate AVAs include Anderson Valley in Mendocino County north of San Francisco, where some excellent Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Champagne-style sparkling white wine are produced. Parts of Sonoma County are cool, particularly Russian River Valley and Carneros, where some great Chardonnay and sparkling white wine are produced. The Central Coast AVA, which stretches from San Francisco in the north to Los Angeles in the south includes the two cool-climate wine growing counties of San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara where Chardonnay is the principal white wine grape.
Warmer inland regions include Lake County, which lies east of Mendocino with the Mayacamas Mountains in between. Good value Sauvignon Blanc is produced here and look out for Sauvignon Blanc from Dry Creek Valley and Alexander Valley in Sonoma County. Meanwhile, some of California’s best Chardonnay also comes from Alexander Valley. Napa’s Oakville region produces some excellent Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc from Livermore Valley near San Jose is some of the most individual in the whole of California.
Chardonnay is undoubtedly California’s premier white wine grape. Now that the wine makers have restrained themselves from producing rich, heavily oaked white wines and are concentrating their growing efforts in the cooler climate regions, Californian Chardonnays are rivalling the best in the world. The top Chardonnays are expensive but mid-priced Chardonnays are extremely enjoyable. Whilst there is still evidence of plenty of oak, the flavours are better balanced with characteristics of peach and pineapple. As mentioned above, some of the best examples of California’s top white wine come from Carneros, Russian River Valley and Sonoma Coast. Labels to look out for include Saintsbury, Beringer, Hess, Au Bon Climat and Kistler.
Other white wine grape varieties grown in California include Colombard and Chenin Blanc. Generally, white wines made from these grapes do not reach the dizzy heights of Chardonnay but some reasonable Chenin Blanc is being produced in the Napa Valley. Sauvignon Blanc is also grown in several regions and some interesting crisp white wines are being produced. Fume Blanc on the label of a Californian white wine bottle is an indication of oaked Sauvignon Blanc.
California is now producing some excellent sparkling white wines, particularly from Roederer Estate and also some succulent late harvest and botrytized white wines made using Riesling, Chenin and Muscat grapes.
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