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California is without a doubt the most famous, and largest, wine region in the United States. It’s wide variety of climates helps to cultivate dozens of different grapes and just as many different styles of wine.

The wines produced in California are fierce rivals to their European counterparts and with over 1,200 wineries in the region, there is definitely something for everyone.

History

In a similar way to European wine regions, California’s wine history dates back to monks and missionaries in the 1700s. As California was being colonised, Spanish missionaries to the state would plant vineyards near every mission they founded, as the wine they made was used for religious services. These very first grapes in California, the common black grape, were brought to California from Mexico, which themselves were descendants of grapes from Spain, brought to the country by the conquistador Hernan Cortes in 1520.

While the next one hundred years or so in California winemaking were quiet, the California Goldrush (1848 to 1855) brought thousands of new people to the state, searching for their fortune. These people increased the demand for wine and the winemaking industry began to take hold in Sonoma and Napa Valley in Northern California. Also around this time, Chinese immigrants to the country also helped to establish California’s wine country by building wineries, planting vineyards and harvesting grapes.

In the late 1800s, the phylloxera epidemic swept across Europe and the United States. However, where European vineyards were decimated or even destroyed, California wineries recovered relatively quickly. This is partly due to the fact that American grape vines are resistant to phylloxera, so by grafting American rootstock onto European vines, the vineyards were able to resist such destruction.

While California’s winemakers were able to survive the phylloxera relatively unscathed, many weren’t so lucky during Prohibition, which came into effect in January 1919. Vineyards were made to uproot their vines and destroy their cellars. Some vineyards converted to grape juice production or produced sacramental wine, which was allowed under the new law. Unfortunately, many vineyards didn’t survive the stringent regulations and went out of business. Only 140 wineries were left in the state in 1933, the year Prohibition was repealed.

In the 1960s, a new generation of winemakers moved into California in an effort to revitalise the state’s wine growing region, which still hadn’t recovered from Prohibition, decades after it had ceased to exist. It was then that California wines began to be known as top shelf wines. Their place was truly secured in 1976, however, when a British wine merchant, Steven Spurrier, came up with the event known as the Judgment of Paris.

The Judgment of Paris put top wineries from the French wine regions of Bordeaux and Burgundy in a blind taste test against top California wines. During the event, California wines swept French wines in both the red and white wine categories, solidifying the state’s spot as one of the world’s premier wine regions.

Climate

Climates in California vary substantially, especially since the state takes up about two-thirds of the west coast of the United States. However, the many mountain ranges and the Pacific Ocean help to regulate temperatures, making the state ideal for wine cultivation. California enjoys a mostly Mediterranean climate, with cooler regions on the coast, and warmer regions in the southern part of the state.

Wine production

California is one of the largest producers of wine in the entire world. In fact, if it were its own country, it would be the fourth largest country in terms of production output. California produces 90% of America’s wines and 60% of the wine consumed within the United States.

There are 172,000 hectares planted under vine in California and the state produced about 2.5 billion bottles of wine in 2011.

23% of the wine produced in California is Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% is Chardonnay, 11% is Pinot Noir, 6% is Zinfandel and 5% is Merlot.

Grapes

Over one hundred different varieties of grapes are grown in California, however, there are seven leading varieties that are used the most. Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Merlot and Syrah make up the red varieties and Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay the whites. Zinfandel grapes are the exception as the only rose wine of the seven, although some varieties can be used to produce high quality red wines as well.

Alongside these top seven varieties, California is also known for growing hybrids, French, Italian and Spanish grapes.

Wine characteristics

Wines from California favour a more “New World” style. These New World wines typically have higher alcohol content, than those from the “Old world” and are typically more acidic and fruitier.

For example, White Zinfandel wines are seen as a typically American wine, it is a dry, sweet, rose, which is much different to the crisp, refreshing roses found in European vineyards.

Notable producers

There are over 1,200 wineries in California, but some of the most notable producers include Gallo, Robert Mondavi Winery, David Bruce Winery, Heitz Wine Cellars and Buena Vista Winery in Sonoma, which was the first commercial winery established in the state.

Located in Sebastopol on the Sonoma Coast in California, Radio-Coteau is one of the few winery estates in the United States to hold Demeter organic certification – the largest organisation for biodynamic agriculture.

Situated around 800 metres above sea level, Ridge Vineyards shot to fame in 1976 after the Judgment of Paris, where it excelled in a competition against various top Californian and French wineries. Since then, Ridge Vineyards has become one of, if not the most, prominent American wineries, earning accolades the world over for its stunning wines.

Au Bon Climat is a winery in Santa Barbara County. The winery was founded by Jim “Wild Boy” Clendenen in 1982 and is regarded as one of the best estates in the world. Au Bon Climat is famous for a very distinctive, Burgundian style, quite different from the usual Californian wines, owing to the vision and passion of the founder of the estate.

Spottswoode Estate, in Napa Valley, survived the devastating wine country fires in 2017 and has been thriving ever since. Currently run by the daughters of the previous owners, Spottswoode has made a name for itself over the years as being one of the top wineries in the United States.

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