Although wine is produced in several American states, California is by far the largest producer, responsible for almost 90% of the country’s total output. The industry is one of contrasts and extremes, and some suggest it is possible to find winemakers experimenting with just about every known grape in one form or another. From boutique wineries to large conglomerates, and from mass-produced “jug wines” to highly-priced international award-winners, you can find them all here in the golden state.
California’s wine industry has come a long way since the 1920s when the US government used Prohibition laws to force sobriety on its citizens. Even then however, one wonders just how drinkable much of the wine really was, as it seems that many of those protesting against Prohibition were really fighting for the right to drink beer.
It was in the 1960s that the renaissance began, with a new wave of winemakers pioneering new techniques and focusing on quality wine production. By the 1970s Californian wines were shocking the world by beating the best wines of Burgundy and Bordeaux in international blind-tasting contests.
As American wine-drinkers developed more sophisticated tastes (and grew ever more bored with Chardonnay and Merlot), new wine pioneers such as the Rhône Rangers and Cal-Ital movement refreshed the industry with wines made from alternative grapes such as Syrah, Viognier, Sangiovese and Pinot Grigio. This experimentation has continued and, in recent years, some winemakers have started reviving varieties such as Trousseau Gris, once widely grown in California under the name Gray Riesling, and Valdiguié, a red wine grape grown primarily in France's Languedoc-Roussillon region, which, in California, has sometimes gone by the name of Napa Gamay.
Although most Californian wine is produced in new world styles with ripe, fruit-forward flavours which benefit from the reliably warm weather, some winemakers are experimenting with “Old World” or European styles which are more earthy and mineralic. For example, although Californian Pinot Noir has traditionally been dominated by ripe, full-bodied wines, there has, more recently, been a move towards planting Pinot Noir on cooler sites and on applying winemaking techniques used in Burgundy to produce lighter, less heady wines with more finesse.
Cab Sav is California’s most widely-planted red grape and is used to make both inexpensive wines and premium versions – especially in prime sites in the Napa Valley. However, it is Zinfandel which claims the title of being California’s “own” grape variety. Known as Primitivo in Italy, Zinfandel is used to make both full-bodied, jammy red wines and White Zinfandel, an off-dry to sweet, pink-coloured blush.
White Zinfandel is a generally an inexpensive quaffing wine, which is sweet, soft, and often low in alcohol, making it a popular choice with those who would not otherwise drink wine (see Drinking and Pairing sections of the website for more info).