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The “California-ness” Of California Wines, And Why They Are SO Good

It’s well known that California wines are some of the best in the world. They possess a very “California-ness” about them, making them unique and delicious.

Vineyard rows on a hill, blue sky
Hillsides make the best wine! Photo: Jonathan Skule

California produces a variety of types and styles of wine, unlike other regions in the world, where one or a few styles of wine are produced.

California wines tend to be fresh, clean and vibrant, and each will have certain characteristics depending on the specific and unique micro-environments of each American Viticultural Area (AVA) where grapes are grown. There are about 110 different and unique AVAs in California spanning more than half a million acres. These unique terroirs have made California wines so popular, that almost 90% of all wines in the US come from California, and close to 65% of all wine consumed in the US comes from California.

But what makes California wines so good? There’s no one specific thing, but a combination of factors.

To start, California has the coveted Mediterranean climate. The Mediterranean climate is known for the comfortable steady temperatures that stay on the warmer side, which creates a longer growing season that is perfect for allowing grapes to reach their ripeness. Yes California is far from the Mediterranean coastline, but the similarities in climate allows for growing similar grape varieties as the ones grown around the Mediterranean. Sonoma and Napa Valley grapes are close cousins to the kinds they grow in the south of France, and it’s all thanks to the climate.

The quality of the grapes is a direct result of factors like the weather, minerals, precipitation, amount of sunlight, types of soil and drainage, whether vines grow on hills or in valleys, and the “aspect” of how a vineyard is placed- whether it faces the sun or away from it, is a critical element of terroir and grape growing.

The "California-ness" of California wines is that they can be described as ripe and fruit-forward with more apparent aromas, as compared to French, Spanish or Italian wines, which tend to have more earth tones. This makes sense since California is further south compared to the wine growing regions of Europe which tend to be more north. Sonoma County for example is on the same latitude as Sicily, while Bordeaux is on the same latitude as Maine and Washington State. California is warmer and produces fruit that is riper. Like any other fruit, when you give grapes more sunshine, warmth and dry weather, they tend to get plump and ripe. California as compared to Europe usually does not produce cold vintages.

The fruit-forward wines that California produces are known as “New World” style of wines because they come from a warmer and sunnier climate than the cooler “Old World” European climates.

red grapes on the vine basking in the sun
Basking in the California sun☀️ Photo: Balázs-Burján

California’s varied geography also plays an important role in creating the specific flavors of the wines. The main wine growing regions of California are full of mountains and hillsides, created over millions of years by the earthquakes of the San Andreas Fault system. Growing grapes on mountains and hills is ideal for reducing yields so the resulting wines are more intense. The grape vines tend to struggle to produce grapes because accessing nutrients from soils on mountains and hills is more challenging, thus forcing the vines to “work harder” to produce grapes, which in the process creates grapes with more intense flavors.

Napa mountains and hillsides, for example, have more volcanic soils, red and white clay, and sandstones. The soils are not that deep, but they are complex and create unique micro-climates. Because of the cooler temperatures on the hillsides, the vines produce lower yields and more tannic, fresher, concentrated wines.

Napa valleys on the other hand have more rock strewn sites and clay soils and the vineyards planted there have a high ability to withstand the hot, dry summers, an added long-term benefit, necessary for sustaining vines through the changing weather patterns caused by climate change.

California wineries continue to increase the number of acres farmed using organic, biodynamic and sustainable farming techniques. Close to 25% of all vineyards in California are farmed using organic, biodynamic or sustainable vineyard practices. This is important for sustaining the quality of wine produced in California, while at the same time preserving the environment that allows great wine to be produced there.

California wines have been recognized as great wines since the famous “Judgment of Paris” in 1976, when the best critics, writers and tasters assembled a blind tasting pitting California wines against their European counterparts.

All the critics were surprised when they discovered more often than not, they preferred the wines of California. This was such a major story, reports of this were printed in every major newspaper, magazine and even newscasters discussed this with their viewers. California wine had arrived, everyone had to know. The point is, California wine is delicious and you'll have fun drinking it.



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