Introductory Notes

“There’s just like the faintest soupçon of, like, asparagus and there’s a, just a flutter of a, like a, nutty Edam cheese.” (The pretentious Miles, in a tasting at the Sandford Winery, in the film Sideways)

Many people who have never drunk a drop of Californian wine will have seen the film Sideways, a road movie about two washed-up alcoholics recovering from romantic disasters, travelling together around the Napa Valley to find solace in new love and copious amounts of wine. The film, directed by Alexander Payne and starring, Paul Giamatti , Virginia Madsen, Thomas Hadden Church and Sandra On, was the winner of a 2004 academy award. Other films have been made about Californian wine, including Bottle Shock, an awkwardly narrated movie about the 1976 Judgement of Paris. But Sideways is far and away the best, and has done the most to widen the reputation of Napa Valley beyond that of wine cognoscenti.

California is by far the most dominant wine-producing region in the United States, making up more than 80% of total production. Other major producing regions include Oregon, Washington state and New York.

Oregon lies to the north of California, and to the south of Washington state. Although volumes are relatively small, the state produces high quality Pinot Noir.

Washington State is even further to the north, bordering on Canada. It is located in the uppermost northwest corner of the United Statess. The northerly latitude and the influence of the Pacific Ocean are dominant climatic factors.

New York is in the northeast of the United States, and the state lies on the Atlantic Ocean. This part of the country grows indigenous American grapes although Vitis Vinifera is also grown.

Other emerging wine regions include the states of Virginia (which is actually where wine production started in the US) and the Lone Star state of Texas.

 

Number of AVAs in US

Macroeconomic Overview
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Viticulture and Climate

A stereotypical image of California might involve surfing dudes with long blonde hair basking in year-round sunshine. This is not that far off the mark. The state of California runs 1,100 km from north to south, and most of it enjoys warm sunshine for much of the year. But crucial for the wine industry are the cooling breezes from the sea, which are funnelled sideways through the mountains along the river valleys that are home to some of the world’s greatest vineyards.

Unlike in Burgundy where the northern vineyards tend to be cooler and the more southerly tend to be warmer, the interplay of warm sun and cooling sea means that California’s wine geography is more defined by terrain than latitude. Thus, some of the best vineyards and those most notable for cool weather grapes such as Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are grown in the south, and it is the hotter regions to the north that harbour the late-ripening varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon. Mountains also play an important role, shielding the wine growing regions to the east from cooling sea breezes, but also allowing cross currents to move through gaps in the mountains. This leads to small pockets of terrain that are ideal for making premium quality wine.

The large Central Valley that runs through the middle of the state, between the Sierra Nevada and the coastal ranges, suffers from structural water shortages, so drip irrigation is required. Grapes here have typically been left on the vine until fully ripe, leading sometimes to rather heavy stewed wines, although this is now changing as growers move towards fresher, fruitier wines with less alcohol.

Elsewhere, the northern states of Oregon and Washington also benefit from the cooling Pacific influences, as well as the complex influences of the various mountain ranges including the Rockies and the Cascade mountains.

New York state is on the opposite side of the country and looks on the Atlantic Ocean.  

Black Grape Varieties

Cabernet Sauvignon is most widely grown in California, and ranges in style from full bodied with ripe cassis and spice flavours, often with some toast from new oak, to fresher more fruity and younger wines. The unevenly ripening Zinfandel grape is also used to make wine in a range of different styles, with raisin flavours from the grapes that have dried on the vine, but also interesting liquorice-tanged wines. Zinfandel is also used to make a low alcohol rosé wine called White Zinfandel. Merlot is widely planted in the San Joaquin Valley, and has fruity blackberry and plum flavours in the Monterey and Sonoma. These regions also produce Rhone grapes such as Syrah with rich, peppery flavours. Pinot Noir runs the gamut of ripe red fruit to rich spice from oak to deep gamey flavours. The Russian River Valley, Santa Maria Valley and Los Carneros are among the best known Pinot Noir regions.

 

Photo of bunch of black grapes hanging on vine

White Grape Varieties

Chardonnay is the most widely grown white grape variety in California  (it was a Chadonnay from Stag’s Leap that won the 1976 Judgement of Paris), although Sauvignon Blanc is gaining ground. The Chardonnay produces an expressive range of wines with high and medium acidity, often with toasty notes from the use of oak staves, and flavours of oak, hazelnut and butter from MLF. In cooler regions, such as Russian River Valley and Los Carneros, the Chardonnay is often more citrus with ripe fresh fruit flavours and pleasing acidity. A special style of oaked Chardonnay is often called Fume Blanc. But confusingly this term is also used to describe unoaked Chardonnay.

 

Photo of bunch of white grapes hanging on vine

Regional Analysis

California has hundreds of small tracts of land that have been used for wine-growing since the 1700s. While the Napa Valley and Sonoma are the best known wine regions, others like Lodi and Russian River are increasingly being discussed. As noted above, their geography is complex and micro-climates have as much bearing on wine quality as latitude. This makes California an exciting and interesting wine region to explore.

The regions are identified by their AVA (American Viticultural Association) status.

The map of the California wine-growing regions can be divided into coastal regions and those further inland. The former comprises the North Coast region which is north of San Francisco Bay, and the Central Coast region which runs to the south of this and includes the Santa Cruz mountains and the Monterey region, a region which at one point was attractive to the oil and gas fracking community. The Central Valley region is inland, with fertile soil but in need of irrigation because of the dry weather. Each of these three regions is sub-divided into county appellations (e.g. Napa, Sonoma) and individual AVAs.

California: North Coast

The area north of San Francisco Bay has cooling sea breezes and a wide diurnal temperature range, and has become the best known region in the United States for high-quality Chardonnay and a range of red wines dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, but also gaining fame for fresh fruity Pinot Noir.

Napa and Napa Valley

The Napa AVA is about 50 km long by 5 km wide, and has some of the most expensive land in the state. It is separated from the Central Valley and Sonoma Country by the Mayacama and Vacas mountains. Morning fogs from San Pablo Bay help cool the vineyards here.

The Napa Valley region is around 38.30 N of the equator, east of lake Beniyesa. There are a huge range of terrain and micro-climates , from higher altitude regions such as Atlas Peak and Stags Leap, to lower lying terrain such as Los Carneros. Some of the best Pinot Noir vineyards are in these lower lying areas in the Los Carneros AVA where the weather is cooler. This region also grows Chardonnay.

This is still fairly southerly, but as you move further north, the climate actually gets hotter as the effect of the California ocean current is reduced. Some of the best Cabernet Sauvignon regions are around here, including Stags Leap, Oakville, Rutherford, and Yountsville. Rutherford is the warmest of these regions and is renowned for heavy, jammy red wines from Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grapes. Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc are the main white varieties grown here.

The Saint Helena district includes the warm vineyards of Calistoga, also renowned for its wonderful Cabernet Sauvignon reds, but also growing Zinfandel and Syrah. This area is cooled by a gap in the Mayacama mountains known as the Chalk Hill gap. The nights are cool, creating a wide diurnal range and there are subtle nuances from the aspect and altitude of the vineyards.

Hotter regions include Howell Mountain and Atlas Peak, which do not get the cooling winds from the gap. Further to the east, the higher mountain regions allow vines to be grown in the foothills of Planting Mountain, Spring Mountain and Mount Veda, encouraging the growth of less robust wines from Cabernet Sauvignon as well as Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Zinfandel, and Chardonnay that is full of citrus and stone fruit flavours, balanced by high acidity.

Sonoma Valley

The Sonoma and Mendocino valley AVAs are cooled by the Petaluma Gap. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay flourish here, and some good sparkling wines are also produced. To the north, the aptly named Dry Creek vineyard has hillsides where old-vine Zinfandel grapes are grown, while on the valley floor Cabernet Sauvignon and Rhone grapes such as Syrah are grown. The Alexander Valley is also warm, and produces full-bodied, fleshy Cabernet Sauvignon and other international grape varieties.

The Sonoma Coast AVA is much cooler from the ocean breezes, and has south facing slopes to get the best of the sun. Sonoma Valley AVA enjoys the cooling breezes from San Pablo Bay and makes excellent chardonnay as well as old-vine Zinfandel.

Mendocino Valley

Further to the north of the Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley, several smaller wine-making regions in the Mendocino Valley have interesting potential.

The Mendocino Valley is less famous than Napa and Sonoma, but produces exciting white wines from a wider range of grapes including aromatic Riesling and Gewurtztraminer, particularly in the Anderson Valley AVA. In the warmer coastal hills, to the south and south east of Anderson Valley, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and Syrah are used make soft, fruity reds. This region is home to the Alexander Valley, further inland from Anderson Valley, and with a border along Dry Creek Valley.

California: Central Coast

The Central Coast region is located to the North of Los Angeles, extending all the way to just below San Francisco. This region also benefits from the cool ocean currents off the coast, but the eastern side is typically hotter.

Santa Cruz Mountains

Pinot Noir and Chardonnay do well in the Santa Cruz mountain region, which forms the northern-most part of this region. This area is cooled by ocean breezes from the Pacific, while further inland where it is warmer, Merlot, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon are grown. In the higher up Santa Lucia Highlands AVA and the Salinas Valley AVA, fine quality Chardonnay is produced.

Monterey

The Monterey region lies to the south of Santa Cruz, and has a similar climate, with cooling ocean influences giving way inland to hotter, drier conditions.  The Monterey is a large region extending south-east from the Santa Cruz mountains.

San Luis Obispo

The southern parts of the Central Coast include the famed wine-growing regions around San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara, which are fanned by the cooling sea breezes. On parts of this coast, the mountains run from west to east rather than north to south, encouraging the flow of cold air to inland regions. Further to the east, the soil is typically fertile but the weather is warmer, encouraging the use of Zinfandel and Rhone grape varieties such as Syrah.

The Paso Roble region in San Luis Obispo is noted for Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Rhone grape varieties including Syrah. This region is divided into two zones: a western part which is cooler and subject to the moderating winds and cooler air from the ocean, and the eastern side which is hotter but has fertile soil.

Santa Barbara

Further south, in Santa Barbara county, the Santa Inez Valley AVA is also a warmer, and so uses a blend of Bordeaux grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. In the hillier climes of the Santa Maria Valley and in particular in the Santa Rita Hills sub-region, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay as well as aromatic grape varieties are grown.

California: The Central Valley

This is cactus country. The vast Central Valley incorporates the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys, which run parallel to but to the east of the two coastal regions. Here, huge volumes of moderate quality wine is produced, some from new indigenous grape varieties such as Rubi Red and Rubi Cabernet. The land here is hot and dry, and irrigation is needed often using drip systems that use water less intensively. Reds are from Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, as well as Barbera, while whites use Chardonnay, Colombard and Chenin Blanc.

To the east of San Francisco, and between the Sacramento Valley in the North and the San Joaquin Valley in the south, the Lodi district is open to lateral breezes from the coast, and has become known for reasonable quality Zinfandel. This area is inland from San Francisco Bay, but the deep inlets from the sea create a similar climate to that enjoyed by Napa and Sonoma. Geographically, Lodi is not far from these regions, although personally I have found the wines from this region to be rather tough and chewy.

Oregon

Oregon is to the north of California, and shares a border with the state. Seattle is in the far north of the state, with Portland further to the south. The vineyards mainly lie to the south of Portland, in the Willamette Valley. This region has a moderate climate with long days and cool nights, and the Pacific Ocean provides plenty of cool air. Pinot Noir is the main grape used here, and the reds produced form it and have fresh fruit flavours, good acidity and a tendency towards spicy notes.  Other AVAs that have a growing reputation are the Umpqua Valley and Rogue Valley, both of which have slightly warmer climates. Other white grapes grown in Oregon are Pinot Gris, often in a dry fruity style, and Chardonnay. Red grapes grown include Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.

Washington

Columbia Valley is the main AVA in Washington state, which lies just to the south of the border with Canada, in the far northwest of the United States. This area extends over 500-600 km slong the edge of the Cascade Mountains, along the side of the Columbia River. To the east of the Cascade Mountains lie the AVAs of Yaquina Valley and Walla Walla, both of which are dry areas in the rain shadow of the mountains and so require irrigation. These produce Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah as well as Riesling and Chardonnay. Because of the northern latitude, yields can be affected by winter freezes, which often reduces yields by around a half. The northern part of the state lies along the 50 degrees N line which is usually considered the upper limit for wine growing.

New York

New York state lies on the Atlantic Ocean, and south of the Appalachian mountains. This region typically grows American vines, whose grapes are often used for making juices and jellies rather than for wine production. Hybrids are also grown, and there has been some use of Vitis Vinifera, mainly for white varieties such as Riesling, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Among black grapes, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc have also been grown.

The best known AVA here is Finger Lakes, which lies south of the Canadian province of Ontario at 42-43 degrees N latitude. This region consists of deep glacial lakes that can store heat and allow the growing season to be extended deep into the autumn, with grapes ripening as late as November.  Best known from this region are the Riesling wines, although Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc have  a growing presence.

Other Regions

The huge area of the United States between the 30-50 degrees latitude that is considered suitable for wine growing makes it likely that other regions will thrive as US viticulture gains in reputation.

Virginia was the birthplace of American wine, and wine production around Charlottesville has seen a diversity of wines.

Meanwhile, the oil and gas rich state of Texas also has been making strides in viticulture. Best known for its oil gushers, stetsons and the thriving fracking industry, the area around Texas Hill Country has emerged as the state’s premier wine region.

 

Statistical Data
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Production Trends
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Consumption Trends
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Trade Outlook
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