Californian red wines have established an impressive reputation for quality in recent years, if not value for money. However, it may surprise you to learn that California’s wine estates produce a greater volume of wine than any other wine-producing region outside of Europe.
Despite its current reputation, California’s wine industry has had a chequered past. The region was settled by the Spanish in 1769 and was ceded to the United States by Mexico in 1848. The first wines were made by missionaries until the first commercial winery was set up in 1833 using imported European vines as the native American vines were not to the Europeans’ taste. However, it was a Hungarian political exile by the name of Agoston Haraszthy de Mokesa who was responsible for establishing California’s wine industry.
Haraszthy moved to San Diego from Wisconsin and set up the Buena Vista winery near Sonoma in 1857 from vines imported from Europe. Over the next few years Haraszthy won several awards, undertook a fact-finding trip to Europe’s winemaking regions and expanded his Buena Vista estate, but failed to make a profit. When his winery was destroyed by fire and his credit was stopped by the bank, Haraszthy cut his losses and moved to Nicaragua to distil rum.
Haraszthy’s legacy lived on and California was recognised as having great potential as a wine-producing region. However, over the years the region’s vines have suffered the blight of phylloxera, an insect that feeds on the roots of the vines. Phylloxera is native to the US and its indigenous vines were resistant to the bug but the imported European vines were ripe for the taking. Only by grafting the European vines onto the native American plants could resistance be built up but phylloxera has been a problem for Californian winemakers as recently as the 1980s and 1990s. The Prohibition of alcohol in the US between 1918 and 1933 also had a damaging effect on the wine industry.
Despite all these setbacks, the Californian wine industry is still alive and kicking. Thanks to popular books and films such as Sideways, which extolled the virtues of Californian Pinot Noir and the glamorous image of California generally, the region’s red wines have an air of desirability. If red-wine drinkers are prepared to educate themselves and do some serious tasting, they will discover for themselves why Californian red wines have such a high reputation.
California has a somewhat complicated appellation system. The US government imposed a system of Approved Viticultural Areas or AVAs in the late 1970s which were meant to take into account geography and climate, but not grape varieties and range from country and state AVAs to county AVAs. The best known AVA in California is the Napa Valley. Other AVAs which may be familiar include Russian River Valley and Dry Creek Valley and Sonoma and Mendocino counties. However, as some winemakers prefer to source good quality grapes from a wider area, an AVA on a label is not always an indicator of the best quality red wine.
California’s primary red wine grape varieties are Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Merlot. Zinfandel was introduced into California by Italian settlers (it is thought to be the same grape as Primitivo in Italy) and is one of the red wine grapes which has become synonymous with California. Zinfandel is a full-bodied red wine, usually fruity with a lovely ripe raspberry flavour with hints of black pepper and chocolate. It benefits from some ageing to bring out its complexity. Look out for Zinfandels from Dry Creek Valley in Sonoma County.
California’s sunshine produces some wonderful big Cabernet Sauvignons. These red wines tend to be full of blackcurrant characteristics with a soft, velvety texture and hints of mint or violet. Many of the region’s winemakers like to blend Cabernet Sauvignon with Merlot to produce Bordeaux-style red wine blends. Some red wine producers have banded together to form the Meritage Association to promote high quality Bordeaux blends. Napa produces some of the best Californian Cabernet Sauvignon. Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars is renowned for its Cabernet Sauvignon but it does not come cheap.
The 2004 film Sideways, in which the characters set out on a wine tour to seek out the best Pinot Noir wines, has done much to promote the popularity of this tricky red wine grape and in recent years it has surpassed Merlot in the affections of Californian consumers. Some of the best Pinot Noir is found in Russian River Valley, an AVA in Sonoma County, in Carneros AVA which straddles Napa and Sonoma and the Santa Ynez Valley in Santa Barbara. Look out for Pinot Noir from the Sanford & Benedict vineyard in Santa Barbara and from producers Saintsbury, Calera and Au Bon Climat.
Californian Merlot still remains popular, despite being knocked sideways by Pinot Noir and the red wine produced in the region is full of plum, cherry and chocolate characteristics. Some of the best is produced in the Napa Valley. Labels to look out for include Duckhorn, Newton, Shafer and Beringer.
Image by Sarah_Ackerman.