Understanding Californian Wines

California Wines

California winemaking is different from the European technique. European winemaking has established traditions that have remained essentially unchanged for hundreds of years.  These practices involve the ways grapes are grown and harvested, and in some cases include winemaking and aging procedures.


In California, there are few traditions, and winemakers are able to take full advantage of modern technology. Furthermore, there is freedom to experiment and create new produces. The reliably warm weather and modern technology allows many wineries to use very ripe fruit which brings up a more fruit forward rather than earthy or mineralic style of wine. It also creates the opportunity for higher alcohol levels with many Californian wines having over 13.5%. The style of Californian Chardonnay differs greatly from wines like Chablis with Californian winemakers frequently using malolactic fermentation and oak aging to make buttery, full bodied wines. Californian Sauvignon Blancs are not as herbaceous as wines from the Loire Valley or New Zealand but do have racy acidity and fresh, floral notes. Some Sauvignon Blanc are given time in oak which can dramatically change the profile of the wine. Robert Mondavi first pioneered this style as a Fume Blanc which other Californian winemakers have adopted. However, that style is not strictly defined to mean an oak wine.


The style of California Cabernet Sauvignon that first put California on the world's wine map at the Judgment of Paris is still a trademark style today. The wines are known for their concentration of fruits which produces lush, rich wines. Merlot became widely planted in the 1990s due to its wide popularity, and is still the highest selling of all varietal wines in the country. The profile of Californian Pinot noir generally favors a more intense, fruity style than the subtler, more elegant wines of Burgundy or Oregon. With the region generally being too warm for the variety, the cooler areas with more maritime influence are favored. Until being passed by Cabernet in 1998, Primitivo was the most widely planted red wine grape in California. This was due in part to the wide popularity of White Zinfandel. Despite being made from the same grape, the only similarity between White and Red Zinfandel is the name. Primitivo is a powerful, fruity wine with high levels of acidity and a jammy type flavor. White Zinfandel is a thin, slightly sweet blush wine. While the grape does have European origins, Zinfandel is considered a unique American style grape.


California wine is unique. In most of the world’s major appellations, a region offers one, or even a few types or style of wine. Many areas allow only one, or perhaps a couple of different grape varietals. That is not the case with California wine. While many wine consumers and critics posit the best wines produced in the Golden State are made today, wine making in California has a much longer history than most people are aware of. 


It can easily be argued that California wine comes from the most interesting soils and terroirs for wine lovers, wine makers and wine growers alike. California wine offers more diversity of not only styles of wine, but the grapes that are planted in the Golden State. All the noble varieties are planted: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Riesling. But the list of noble grapes doesn’t even begin to describe the variety planted in California. Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Grenache, Mourvedre, Malbec, Cabernet Franc, Roussane, Marssane, Nebbiolo, Sangiovese are planted in vineyards across California as well. California lends itself to make sweet wines from grapes attacked by botrytis, sparkling wines in Champagne, or even fortified wines.