Understanding Californian Wines

California Grapes

California Grapes
California Cabernet Sauvignon
Cabernet Sauvignon has been referred to as the king of red winegrapes. Cabernet Sauvignons and blends where the variety predominates are some of the most prized wines produced in California. The grape is also the main ingredient in blends for many of the most famous red wines in the world. Cabernet Sauvignons are dry, full flavored and made to be long lived for many labels. The aging potential can be upwards of 10-20 years, though 5 to 9 years is more usual. Fans of Cabernet Sauvignon are familiar with the wine’s common descriptors: berry, currant and cassis or herbaceous, bell pepper and toasty oak aromas and flavors. For traditional California table wine volume sold to the U.S., Cabernet Sauvignon is the second leading varietal, according to estimates by Gomberg, Fredrikson & Associates. 
The Cabernet Sauvignon Grape
DNA genetic fingerprinting research at the University of California at Davis has revealed Cabernet Sauvignon to be a cross between the Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc grapes. The variety is California’s most widely planted red wine grape, with 80,630 acres reported in 2012. Napa Valley, Lodi/San Joaquin County, and Sonoma County account for the most plantings.
California Chardonnay
If Cabernet Sauvignon is the king of red grapes, Chardonnay is the queen of whites. The variety is California's most widely planted winegrape, with 95,074 acres reported in 2012. Chardonnay far and away remains the most popular wine in the U.S. and has continued to be the leading varietal wine for the last decade, with sales increases every year. Chardonnay represented an estimated 21 percent of California's table wine volume purchased in U.S. food stores in 2012, according to estimates by Gomberg-Fredrikson & Associates. California’s 2012-winegrape crush was the largest in California history and Chardonnay production was no exception, increasing 31.6% from the previous year.
Fans of Chardonnay are familiar with the wine's usual descriptors: green apple, fig and citrus flavors, a complex aroma, and high acidity for a crisp wine. The wine is often aged in oak to produce toasty, vanilla and buttery overtones.
The Chardonnay Grape
Genetic studies have identified Chardonnay as a cross between Pinot Noir and Gouais Blanc. Historical references note California plantings of Chardonnay dating back to the late 1800s, but production remained limited because of the grape's low yields. Most Chardonnay vineyards were uprooted during Prohibition when growers replaced them with thick-skinned varieties that could be shipped cross-country. Small plantings in the Livermore Valley and Santa Cruz Mountains survived Prohibition. It was not until the 1970s and thereafter that Chardonnay plantings boomed as the wine became increasingly popular.
California Merlot
Merlot is the second leading red varietal after Cabernet Sauvignon purchased by Americans today. California Merlot consumption was 22 million cases in 2012 in the U.S., growing dramatically from the 2.8 million cases sold in 1994. California crushed 334,917 tons of Merlot grapes in 2012 up 14.5 percent from the 2011 Merlot crush of 286,340 tons.
What is the reason for Merlot's popularity? Industry observers offer possible explanations. Consumers who are new to wine may be trying red wine because of news reports linking moderate drinking to a healthy lifestyle. In addition, white and blush drinkers may be expanding their preferences to red. Merlot may be the choice in both instances because of the soft, approachable and luscious character that is appealing to new and regular red wine drinkers. In restaurants, Merlot's average price is similar to the average price of the widely popular Chardonnay varietal, according to a "Wine & Spirits" magazine poll of restaurants.
The Merlot Grape
Merlot is one of the principal winegrape varieties of the Bordeaux region in France, and was brought to California in the mid-19th century. Historically, vintners have used Merlot as a blending grape to soften a wine, usually with Cabernet Sauvignon. Merlot tannins are less forceful than Cabernet Sauvignon, so Merlot wine tends to mature earlier. Merlot is now primarily popular as a varietal wine. Most of the Merlot vines are planted in Lodi/San Joaquin County, followed by Napa Valley, Sonoma, and Monterey counties.
California Pinot Grigio
Pinot Grigio is a white wine grape that most often yields a soft, low acidic wine that may be slightly aromatic. Pinot Grigio is the Italian synonym for the grape also commonly known as Pinot Gris, a noble variety that has origins in Alsace, France. In America, the synonyms, Pinot Grigio and Pinot Gris, are both fairly prevalent. Pinot is old French for pine and is possibly a reference to the cluster’s somewhat pinecone-like shape. Gris means grey in French, and refers to the fruit’s sometime blue-grey color, though the fruit as well as the wine it makes can vary in color. The wine ranges from light yellow to rosé and even to a copper color, while the skins of the grape usually resemble a grey-blue to pinkish-brown but can also be darker. Pinot Grigio is known to be a deviation of the Pinot Noir grape, and leaves of the two varietals are quite similar. Historically, they have grown side by side in the same vineyard.
The popularity of Pinot Grigio has risen in recent years. The acreage in California was reported at 2,692 in the year 2000 and has more than quadrupled in less than a decade to 12,907 acres in 2010 according to the most recent California Grape Acreage Report.
The variety does best in cooler climates but can be grown in other climates yielding varying results as to the style of wine it produces. The acreage is largest in San Joaquin County with 4,172, representing over one-fourth of the state’s 12,907 acres. San Joaquin along with Monterey, Sacramento and Yolo counties are responsible for more than half of the state’s total. Today Pinot Grigio is spreading into nearly all the state’s major wine growing counties.
California Pinot Noir
When the central character, Miles, in the hit movie, "Sideways," first extolled the virtues of Pinot Noir, U.S. supermarket sales of the variety jumped 18 percent between October 24, 2004 and July 2, 2005, compared to the same period a year earlier. The movie was released on October 22, 2004. Pinot Noir, however, had been steadily growing in popularity long before "Sideways" helped propel the wine into mainstream American awareness. 2012 produced one of the most amazing California Pinot Noir harvests ever. Coastal Pinot Noir production skyrocketed by a staggering 81%? The largest registered gain in an extraordinary year for California wine in general and coastal varietals in particular. Interior Pinot Noir production rose by 9%. In total, California crushed 248,469 tons of Pinot Noir in 2012, a gain of 46% over 2011. California now produces 7 times the 32,000 tons of Pinot Noir crushed in 1990, according to the California Grape Crush Reports. Clearly, Americans are expanding their preference for the fresh raspberry, plum, rose and spice flavors and aromas that one can find in Pinot Noir.
The Pinot Noir Grape
As the romantic relationships portrayed in the "Sideways" movie, Pinot Noir can be complex, elusive and difficult to grow. Yet many winemakers will make Pinot Noir because the resulting wines can reap a reward as great as the challenge. This noble red wine variety is ancient, described by Romans in 100 A.D. and cultivated in the Burgundy region of France as early as the 4th century. Pinot Noir is prone to genetic variation, and has more clones than any other variety. The University of California, Davis, has some 100 registered Pinot Noir clones. The variety does well in the coolest growing areas where it develops excellent color and flavor.
California Riesling
Riesling is an aromatic white grape variety known for its high acidity and flowery aromas that tend to thrive in cooler wine growing regions. It is the main winegrape of Germany but has significant plantings throughout the new and old world wine regions. Riesling is used to make a wide range of wines from dry to mildly sweet-to-sweet and is sometimes used in sparkling wines. The grape is known to greatly express the terroir of where it is grown, but will still maintain the characteristics, which identify it. Riesling has been described as flowery, honey-like, and complex, as well as spicy and long lasting or lingering on the palate.
In California, Riesling is also known by its botanical name or synonym White Riesling. The ice wine, late harvest, and botrytized Rieslings are among the most prized and age-worthy wines in the world.
Since 1998, the acreage of Riesling has grown in California to 4,452 acres. Monterey County is by far the leader with 2,237 acres. Merced recently expanded its Riesling acreage and as of 2011 has the second-largest acreage with 500 standing acres. Santa Barbara comes in third with 297 acres.  

California Rosé and Other Blanc de Noir Wines
Pink is charming and pretty—the color of flowers, seashells, clouds at twilight or the soft glitter of fire opals. Pink is also the color of some delicious wines. The wines appear delicate, but many are strong enough to stand up to spicy foods. They are also light enough to be a versatile match with a variety of lighter dishes. These pretty wines are known by several names: including rosé, Blanc de noir, VIN Gris or simply blush. The wines may also have a name using the single grape variety from which they may be made, such as White Zinfandel, White Grenache, Pinot Noir Blanc or White Merlot.
White Zinfandel accounts for the majority of blush wine consumed in the U.S. Extremely popular since the 1970s and continuing to be a favorite, these crisp, slightly sweet (generally 2.5% residual sugar) wines have introduced many consumers to the enjoyment of wine. The other wines in the pink genre are the bone-dry rosés and Blanc de noirs. Gaining more and more accolades, these beautiful dry wines have high acidity, and complex aromas and fruit flavors. 
Winemakers use nearly all types of red grapes to produce these wines. For rosés, well-colored grape skins are allowed only brief contact with the clear juice after crushing to produce the light crimson hues of a rosé wine, generally an average of six to 24 hours of skin contact. Blanc de noir wines, a term applied to white wines from black grapes, also known as vin Gris-style wines, are also produced by quickly separating the clear juice from the color-laden grape skins, but immediately after crushing so that only the barest blush of pale color remains in the wine. Both rosé and Blanc de noir wines are then made like white wines. 
California Sauvignon Blanc
Sauvignon Blanc is a noble grape variety that produces some of the world’s most popular wines. In California, the wineries label their products as Sauvignon Blanc or Fumé Blanc. The wines have a range of distinctive tastes from citrus, green olive and herbaceous characteristics to a range of fruit flavors—green apple, grapefruit, pineapple, fig and melon. The flavor styles come from the Sauvignon Blanc grape itself but are also the expression of the climate, soil, vineyard practices and winemaking techniques. Sauvignon Blanc is often blended with other varietal wines, particularly Semillon, which adds a honeyed note to the wine. Generally, the wines are crisp, light, fresh and dry. A versatile food match, it pairs well with chicken, seafood, mildly spiced ethnic dishes and more.
The Sauvignon Blanc Grape
The grape variety was first planted in California in the Livermore Valley in the 19th century. According to the 2012 California Grape Acreage Report, Sauvignon Blanc has over 15,200 acres in California. It is the third-leading white wine variety behind Chardonnay (95,074 acres) and French Colombard (22,487 acres).
California Syrah
A newcomer to the California wine scene, Syrah's volume production has increased substantially in the last decade, from just 1,697 tons crushed in 2002 to132,486 tons in 2012. Syrah is a noble grape variety that can produce some serious, long-lived red wines. The usual aroma and flavor descriptors include blackberry, cassis, and black pepper, smoke, as well as dry, dark and tannic.
The Syrah Grape
Through DNA testing, Syrah has shown to be a cross of a black variety, Dureza, and a white variety, Mondeuse, with both origins in France’s Rhône region and earlier fabled origins in the Middle East. The grape is also known as Sirah, and in Australia and South Africa, it is called Shiraz. It should not be confused with Petite Sirah, which is altogether a different grape variety, identified more recently as Durif through DNA testing. 
Although Syrah acreage has existed in California for some time, such as the pre-Prohibition plantings in Mendocino County, most of the substantial plantings have occurred in the 1990s. Today, the most acreage is in San Luis Obispo County with 2,553 acres, followed by San Joaquin County, 2,007 acres, and Sonoma County, 1,895 acres. Syrah’s grape crush of 132,486 tons in 2012 accounted for about three percent of the total state's winegrape crush.
California Zinfandel
Until only recently, Zinfandel was California’s “mystery grape” because its origins were unknown. In 1994, DNA fingerprinting confirmed that the Primitivo and Zinfandel grapes were genetically identical, however, it’s not a 100 percent match. There are clonal differences between the Zinfandel grown in California and the Primitivo in Italy. On wine labels, U.S. regulations require that Zinfandel and Primitivo be identified separately. Historically, they have been separately labeled and sold, and the wines display different characters and styles.
Studies have also indicated that the grape used for making California Zinfandel did not originate in Italy, but migrated from another origin to various destinations that include Italy. Scientists know that the Zinfandel grape has a European origin. Although further research is required, all evidence to date points to Croatian grape varieties as the origin. The Zinfandel name, however, is truly American—the earliest and only documented use of the name is in America where a Boston nursery owner advertised Zinfandel for sale in 1832.
Zinfandel was introduced to California during the Gold Rush somewhere between 1852 and 1857 and became widely planted because it thrived so well in the state’s climate and soil. Today, Zinfandel is the third-leading winegrape variety in California, with more than 47,000 acres planted, according to the 2012 California Grape Acreage Report. The 2012 California Zinfandel crush weighed in at 448,039 tons – up a sizeable 30% from 2011. A majority of the grapes are used for White Zinfandel. Popular descriptors for Zinfandel wine include blackberry, raspberry, boysenberry, cherry, as well as black pepper, cloves, anise and herbs.
Sparkling Wine/Champagne
Sparkling wine/champagne is a beverage that brings to mind several thoughts - celebration, success, luxury, love and romance. These pleasant associations seem to be as strong now as they ever were. Moreover, because the wine is offered with different levels of sweetness, menu planners use the wine as an aperitif or a versatile accompaniment to a variety of foods such as salty nuts and cheese, lightly-spiced fish and Asian dishes, fried foods, strawberries and more. 
California has more than 80 producers and shipped 8.6 million cases of sparkling wine/champagne to U.S. markets in 2011. Total U.S. and foreign-produced sparkling wine/champagne shipped to the U.S. for 2011 was 16.3 million cases. The category holds a 5.0 percent share of the U.S. wine market.
Several U.S. producers label their sparkling wines “champagne,” which the U.S. government approves as long as “champagne” is directly and prominently qualified with the geographic origin indicating the location where the winegrapes are grown. Traditional winegrape varieties used in California sparkling wine/champagne production are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc, though many other varieties are used depending upon the production process and price point.
Major Production Processes
Following are the two most common methods used for sparkling wine/champagne production:
Méthode champenoise--Still wine is used as a base wine in the process. A blend of base wine, yeast nutrient and a sugar source is added to the base wine. The mixture is sealed, fermented a second time and aged in the bottle, which captures the carbon dioxide released in the fermenting process producing the bubbles.
Bulk or Charmat process--Still wines are fermented in a pressurized tank. Sugar and yeast are added for a second fermentation, but the wine remains in the tank for this stage of the process and is not fermented in individual bottles.
Sparkling wine/champagne ranges in style from very dry (Natural), dry (Brut), and slightly sweet (Extra Dry) to sweet (Sec and Demi-Sec). (Wines with no noticeable sweetness are described as “dry.”) Many sparkling wines/champagnes are also identified as “Blanc de Blancs” (wines made from Chardonnay grapes), “Blanc de Noirs” (wines produced from black grapes), or rosé or pink sparkling wine/champagnes (small amount of red wine added to the blend or wine that is allowed brief skin contact with color-laden grape skins). 
Source: California Agricultural Statistics Service