Guide to California Wines

Guide to California Wines

Nearly 90% of American wines are produced in California.

You read that right. A premiere New World wine appellation, or region, California is the fourth-largest winemaking district in the world. Each year, it seals over 200 million cases of wine and generates a whopping $32 billion industry for the state. Not bad for some humble vines.

We’re touring the state’s top wine varietals today, exploring the essential list of Californian red and white wines. We’ll also consider what Californian subregions are best for each varietal’s production. Grab your corkscrew and let’s get started.

What Makes the Best California Wines?

The Golden State’s climate conditions are its secret to producing both the quality and quantity of wine grape types it does.

Generally speaking, there are three primary wine-growing regions in California:

  • North Coast: California’s North and North Central Coasts are home to some of the most storied wine regions in the world, including Napa and Sonoma County. The North Coast also contains Mendocino County and Lake County, two other areas revered for their red and white wine vineyards.
  • Central Coast: Nestled between Point Mugu and picturesque Monterey Bay, California’s Central Coast consists of Santa Clara County, Livermore County, San Benito and more. This region has seen explosive growth in wine production over the past two decades and currently produces some of the trendiest Californian wines.
  • South Central Coast: The dryest and warmest of California’s appellations, the South Central Coast includes wine regions like San Luis Obispo County and Santa Barbara County situated near beautiful Pacific coastlines.

Each of these three regions maintains slight variations in geography, topography and climate. These variations contribute to different wine varietals growing more favorably in one region over another. However, California’s wine-growing profile as a whole is often compared to the Mediterranean — namely for their parallels in climate, soil and growing-season capabilities.

California's wine-growing profile as a whole is often compared to the Mediterranean

  • Weather: California’s weather is temperate. Its summers tend to be dry and warm with little humidity, followed by cooler yet comfortable winter temperatures and modest levels of rainfall. Freezing temperatures are rare, even amidst the more mountainous regions of the North Coast.
  • Terrain: California’s topography is characterized by rolling golden hills, mountainside slopes and careening valleys in the North and Central Coasts. However, California’s terrain begins to flatten as you travel south, particularly once you get to the South Central Coast subregion.
  • Soil: California soil is a distinct mix of volcanic-mineral infused red and white clay as well as healthy traces of sandstone. The farther south a vineyard, the more clay-like soil. While the vast majority of grape varietals thrive in dryer soil types, Southern Californian winemakers may choose to install man-made drainage systems in their fields to nurture wine grapes’ preferred loamy, well-drained overall soil conditions.
  • Growing season: Northern California’s cooler temperatures tend to produce lower overall yields compared to their warmer, southern vineyards. However, cool-climate grapes stay on the vine longer, creating sweeter, less acidic and tannin-heavy wines as a result.
  • Harvesting practices: Nearly a quarter of Californian vineyards are grown using organic and “biodynamic” farming practices. Both organic and biodynamic wines adhere to unique quality and sustainability tenets, particularly as California faces mounting concerns over water consumption. In that same spirit of sustainability, several prominent Californian vineyards — particularly in the South-Central Coast subregion — have committed to a growing technique known as dry farming.

Together, these characteristics create California wine’s terroir — the complete set of environmental, growing and handling conditions that generate a varietal’s signature taste.

Types of California White Wines

Now that you’re familiar with California’s wine-growing profile, regions and conditions, we can move on to main act — California’s top list of white wines.

1. Chardonnay

Chardonnay is the most-planted varietal in all of California. It claims over 95,000 acres of California vineyards alone and is grown in all three major wine-growing subregions.

Chardonnay claims over 95,000 acres of California vineyards alone and is grown in all three major wine-growing subregions.

Chardonnay’s popularity is especially impressive when considering California grows over 110 total types of wine grapes. A chardonnay varietal tends to find its best footing in the North and Central Coasts, though, where growers have more time to let the grapes stay on the vine. This patience tends to reward Californian chardonnay drinkers with a more refined balance of sweetness and acidity and a medium-full mouthfeel.

Californian chardonnays are on the sweeter side and can be found in two types — oaked and unoaked. Oaked chardonnays have those classically “creamy” notes and tend to be sourced in warmer-climate regions. Unoaked chardonnays will still be smooth and silky yet are leaner than their oak-aged cousins, with more pronounced fruit flavors.

  • Tasting notes: Apple, pear, dandelion, celery, honeycomb, almond, coconut, praline

2. Riesling

Riesling is a quintessentially light, tart and diverse type of varietal next on the list of California white wines.

With only 4,000 acres dedicated to riesling grapes, it’s a rarer wine commodity — but one you shouldn’t pass up the opportunity to try. This is often because California rieslings must frequently compete with the more familiar American riesling producers to their north, in regions like Washington State and Oregon.

Stick with Californian rieslings from the Central Coast, if possible. The cooler, milder temperatures in places like Monterey and Merced Counties allow these grapes to thrive, rounding out their naturally high acidity with more complex citrus and floral notes. All of these flavors should be apparent when tasting this type of California white.

Serve your Californian riesling cold. Unlike many other wine types, a glass of riesling tastes best in the 37 to 47°F temperature range — perfect for a balmy spring or summer dinner party or a picnic at the beach.

  • Tasting notes: Honeydew, lemon tarts, ginger, tangerine, fennel, petrol, smoke

3. Sauvignon Blanc

Sauvignon blanc comprises roughly 15,000 acres of California’s vineyards. The dry, mellow wine is a popular choice to accompany meals as well as for an evening nightcap, with each sip delivering Sauvignon Blanc’s signature light, herbaceous and zippy profile.

Sauvignon Blanc's tart taste is softened by a medium to medium-low body, particularly those grown in California.

Sauvignon blancs are also one of the dryest white wine types on the list. You’ll find the vast majority of them sourced from the Northern and Central Coasts, since these two region’s climates maintain the cooler temperatures necessary for grapes to form their structured acidity. Yet don’t worry, Sauvignon Blanc’s tart taste is softened by a medium to medium-low body, particularly those grown in California.

Grab a bottle or two from a North Coast Sauvignon Blanc winemaker as well as a Central Coast winery. Compare the tasting notes from each. Some of the most renowned Californian Sauvignons hail from none other than storied Napa and Sonoma Valley, yet the centrally located Lodi Valley and more southern San Louis Obispo County produce an impressive array of this off-dry white varietal. Many brands may even contain the label “Fumé Blanc,” a name given only to American-made Sauvignon Blancs that have been age oaked to balance its vegetal flavors.

  • Tasting notes: Juniper berries, lemon verbena, pomegranate, fig, green olive, purple cabbage

4. Semillon

A journey through California’s white wines would be incomplete without Semillons.

The Bordeaux-born, world-wide grown white varietal can be found in hot and warm climates alike. This allows many California growers to experiment with its production, resulting in an impressive variety of Californian Semillon colors, tastes and even textures.

You can often identify a Semillon by its “mouth feel,” or the sensations it produces in your mouth as you drink. Compared to other white wines, Semillons are known for their residue-like, almost waxy heaviness that coats the tongue. Sips linger in the mouth with lighter, fruiter notes before revealing more complex flavors coaxed by its winemaker.

Overall, Semillon is a delicate yet structured wine. Californian Semillons lean medium-bodied, medium-acidity and creamier in overall taste and texture. They’ll carry riper, even tropical fruit notes rounded out with caramel finishes, most often due to Californian Semillon producers oaking their grapes.

The finished product is something between those famous Californian Chardonnays and Sauvignon Blancs, both dry yet buttery, smooth yet refreshingly light.

  • Tasting notes: Apricots, papaya, mango, chamomile, hay, graham cracker, lanolin

5. Viognier

Viogniers are one of the fastest-growing white wine plantings in California. While still a niche varietal, their resurgence is thanks to a booming wine market both locally and nationally as well as the varietal’s compatibility when grown alongside other vine types. Yet Viogniers are still vastly underrated at the dinner tables of most Americans, passed over for more familiar white wine brands and names.

Viognier Features: grapes' skins grow on the thinner side and they take well to aging techniques.

Viogniers have a few key distinctions. First, their grapes’ skins grow on the thinner side. This makes them temperamental to heat and is a predominant reason California viognier is produced in the hillier vineyards of the North Coast subregion. Search far enough and you may even stumble across a Central Coast viognier. Producers in this subregion, though, tend to mix their viogniers with one or two other varietals to produce a sweeter, more commercially marketable blend — think Chenins, Marsannes and even sweet chardonnays.

Viogniers also take well to aging techniques. Some of the best California viognier growers go so far as to age theirs in imported French oak barrels to create truly delicate yet structured wines. Underripened viogniers will taste greener and less sugary than these appropriately aged versions, imported oak barrels or not.

  • Tasting notes: Poached apple, almond, peach, orange creamsicle, sherbert, hibiscus, rose

6. White Zinfandels

Zinfandel is to California what Riesling is to Germany or Sauvignon Blanc is to New Zealand. In other words, it’s the wine type that helped put the region on the map — and continues to do so, bigger and better than ever.

But don’t let the name fool you. California’s white zinfandels are actually pink — and a wide variety of shades of pink, at that. Since Zinfandel grapes enjoy hot temperatures and dryer climates, you’ll find their vines planted across the state’s three winemaking regions.

White Zinfandel: For the best California white zinfandels, we recommend seeking high-elevation wineries

These higher temperatures trigger grapes to produce and then hold more sugar, creating sweeter, bolder zinfandels like those sourced from Lodi County. Similarly, zinfandels produced in the North Coast — particularly Dry Creek Valley and Russian River Valley in Sonoma as well as Amador Valley — benefit from dry, warm days but also cooler nights. North Coast California white zinfandels will, therefore, lean slightly more acidic, with just enough pop to offset the sugary notes.

For the best California white zinfandels, we recommend seeking high-elevation wineries. Rolling topography helps generate that hot day/warm night dynamic duo that’ll give you the luxurious sweetness so characteristic of zinfandels as well as that sharp, acidic uptick.

  • Tasting notes: Cherry, fig, strawberry, marmalade, sorbet, black currant, yogurt

List of California Red Wines

Next on our guide to California wines? You guessed it — California reds.

The Golden State is renowned for its red wine varietals, most notably the following types grown across all three Californian subregions.

1. Cabernet Sauvignon

The reigning monarch of California red wine, no list of the region is complete without kicking off with cabs.

Cabernet sauvignon is grown across more than 90,000 acres in the state. You’ll find the highest concentrations of cabernet sauvignon vines in Northern California though, in the peripheral benchlands of Sonoma Valley, the Santa Cruz Mountains and — most famously — Napa Valley.

Cabernet Sauvignon: You'll find the highest concentrations of cabernet sauvignon vines in Northern California

Benchlands is a wine term that refers to when a vineyard sits just at the base of a mountain. This location means its soil tends to be more gravelly and mineral — the perfect combination for naturally occurring drainage. Cabernet sauvignons need porous soil for the varietal’s signature high tannins to flourish, producing that dry, robust and full-bodied red wine type so revered worldwide.

Aim for cabernet sauvignons from the North Coast, though you’ll also enjoy bottles sourced from other Californian regions. Serve cabernet sauvignons at room temperature, and decant the bottle a minimum of one hour before serving. The bold flavors and strong, savory finish make California cabernet sauvignons an excellent pairing for grilled foods, red sauces, red meats and dishes starring mushrooms or peppers.

  • Tasting notes: Black raspberry, blueberries, raisins, pine nuts, cinnamon, clove, pencil shavings, wood smoke

2. Cabernet Franc

We’re keeping up the cabernets with our next featured California red wine — the cabernet franc.

Cabernet francs maintain modest plantings. Hovering just over 1,000 acres, you’ll find the majority of this varietal grown in California’s North and Central regions. Winemakers in these areas can play around with these more flexible grapes varietals, particularly when it comes to ripening techniques.

Per its typical New World flavor profile, California cabernet francs are more likely to fall on the fruitier and lush side. Yet they still maintain peppery and even pleasant spice notes. Cabernet francs benefit from California’s clay-infused soils, which allow grapes to produce more tannins. The clay soil’s minerality also encourages longer vine ripening, resulting in increased sugars right there with the tannins.

This unique geographic fingerprint makes California cabernet francs distinct around the world. It’s a smart choice when catering to a crowd as well, with its sweet and savory balance sure to satisfy both sides of wine preferences.

  • Tasting notes: Strawberries, stewed plums, mint, tobacco leaf, pine cone, black and white peppercorn

3. Merlot

Merlot is the fourth most-produced red wine varietal in California. With over 5,000 acres planted in Napa Valley alone — 44,000 acres total — merlots are big, bold powerhouses of flavor packed into a glass.

Merlot is the fourth most-produced red wine varietal in California. Merlots are also notoriously dry. Those grown and produced in California are no different, though the dryness gets offset by juicy fruit accents that lift and brighten merlot.

This red wine type is beloved for encompassing what a “good” red wine should be — deep, medium-bodied and pleasantly acidic, with above-average tannin levels that fade softly from the roof of your mouth and tongue. Merlots are also notoriously dry. Those grown and produced in California are no different, though the dryness gets offset by juicy fruit accents that lift and brighten merlot. This fruit-finishing punch positions California merlots as a more approachable choice for those who don’t want a red wine quite as dense and herbaceousness as cabernet sauvignon.

North Coast merlots remain the most prized of the pack. Look out for Napa Valley and San Joaquin-grown blends in particular, though Sonoma, San Luis Obispo and Monterey counties maintain some seriously respectable merlot makers as well.

  • Tasting notes: Cherry, dark chocolate, bay leaf, rosemary, mocha

4. Petite Sirah

California is one of the world’s leading producers of petite sirah. In fact, outside of its French homeland, few other countries plant petite sirah vines to any real acreage significance, making California a premier source for this red wine varietal.

Petite sirah tends to elicit a strong response. Wine drinkers either love or hate its intensity, characterized by its full body, high acidity, high tannins and a lingering, dancing mouthfeel. This combination tends to result in a puckering sensation as the tongue works through the wine. It’s also the reason Californian petite sirahs make a great pairing for creamy or high-umami dishes, where the fat helps blanket petite sirah’s striking taste without overpowering it.

Opt for Lodi and nearby central valley bottles when foraying into petite sirahs. Another pro tip? Make sure to decant your petite sirah a minimum of one to two hours before drinking. The wine’s high tannin count needs a little space to breathe for you to pick up its full range of tart and fruit notes.

  • Tasting notes: Raspberry, lingonberry, black cherry, lavender, earl gray, licorice, kerosene

5. Pinot Noir

The silky pinot noir is a perennial favorite in both American and international wine markets. So popular, in fact, it’s the world’s best-selling red wine varietal, with California more than doubling its pinot noir plantings since 2004.

Pinot noir grapes are also renowned for their tricky growing conditions. Their uniquely thin skins make them susceptible to both hot and cold temperatures — though they prefer cooler climates and soils, particularly ones with a moderate clay composition.

Growers in northern and central California are therefore in luck. Their climates, soils and seasons are an intuitive match for growing the often-fickle pinot noir grape. Central and North Coast producers will also oak age many of their pinot noirs, which lengthens the wine’s already silky finish. The result is a polished, medium-bodied type of red wine with deep, jam-like flavors and an agreeably subtle aftertaste.

Pinot Noir tasting notes: Cranberry, Blueberry, Jam, Cola, Vanilla, Coriander, and White Chocolate

Santa Maria Valley wineries within greater Santa Barbara produce some of the most renowned New World pinot noirs. Other great regions in California for pinot noir include the Russian River ValleyMonterey’s Santa Lucia Highlands, San Pablo Bay area and, of course, Sonoma Valley.

  • Tasting notes: Cranberry, blueberry, jam, cola, vanilla, coriander, white chocolate

6. Syrah

Try not to be confused with the petite sirahs already profiled on this list of California wines. Syrahs are a distinct varietal of their own, one that actually does well in the warmer climates of South Central California.

Muddling the distinction, though, is the fact that syrahs often look and taste like a lighter petite sirah. This red wine type has a notably heavy body and a near-black, opaque pour. New World syrahs, like those from California, are discernably fruiter than their Old World ancestors — but not sweet. Expect tart fruit notes to hit your tongue earlier in your sip, then soften into earthier flavors with a medium-heavy mouthfeel.

Some of California’s best syrahs come from south-central Santa Barbara, specifically the Ballard Valley and Los Alamos. Serve syrah room temperature, decanted for up to an hour before serving.

  • Tasting notes: Blackberry, blueberry, cedar, tree moss, rendered bacon

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