Diversity Is California’s Calling Card

My annual evaluation of the state of California’s grapes reveals the leaders firmly entrenched, but with variety and quality continuing to increase.


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It’s that time of the year to examine California’s major grape varieties and see how they’re doing. The answer? California wine has never been better.

Cabernet Sauvignon
In 2006, I wrote that we had arrived at “balanced hedonism.” By that, I meant that California Cabernet had become one of the most delicious wines on earth, yet in a smooth, elegant way. That judgment is even truer today. There is a template for California Cab—and some will fault Golden State winemakers for that. But that’s like saying if you’ve seen one perfect spring day you’ve seen them all. Cabernet from Napa Valley and its subappellations dominate, but some great bottles originate from Sonoma County. Santa Barbara is coming on strong.

Merlot
Particularly in Napa Valley, producers have managed to overcome Merlot’s tendency to be blah. Still, the question remains why you’d buy a Merlot instead of a Cabernet, and, in my opinon, there’s no good answer, unless you’re just a contrarian.

Pinot Noir
This grape’s success story continues—making it almost unbelievable that critics once declared California unsuitable for the great red grape of Burgundy. How wrong they were has been proven by a series of spectacular wines from the immediate coast: Pinot needs a cool climate or it is worthless. The 2009, 2010 and 2011 vintages have yielded wines lower in alcohol than their predecessors, while a trend toward less oak influence is giving us the most balanced wines ever.

Petite Sirah
This variety boomed in popularity among consumers who loved not only its full-bodied, dry, tannic fruitiness, but also its place in California history. “Pettaserra” (as old-timers call it) remains a solid alternative to Zinfandel, Syrah or even Cabernet for that matter.

Rhône-style reds
Sommeliers love these reds’ affinity for food. Fans of these wines, who often buy direct from the winery, covet them. And there’s evidence that the greater wine-buying public is finally cottoning to Rhône-style reds. Softer than Cabernet, more full bodied than Pinot, and lush, fruity, yet complex, these blends of mostly Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre are possibly at their best in Santa Barbara.

Zinfandel
The years come and go, but as the great Louis Armstrong sang, “the fundamental things apply” when it comes to Zinfandel. Make it from ripe fruit, with some glyceriney sweetness from high alcohol and plenty of spice, and it’s still the greatest wine ever invented for barbecue. The best come from the Sierra Foothills, Sonoma County and Mendocino County, often from old vines.

Chardonnay
The anti-Chardonnay crowd continues to squawk about high alcohol levels and excessive oak, but the top California Chardonnays from cool coastal regions are world class. The best producers are applying a deft hand, letting the variety’s richness speak for itself. The most compelling bottlings are single-vineyard specimens, but they can be pricey.

Sauvignon Blanc
I’m detecting a shift in attitude toward Sauvignon Blanc, away from the “workhorse” interpretation and toward newfound respect. It shines in areas as widespread as the Santa Ynez Valley, Oakville and the Sonoma Coast. The variety doesn’t really need oak to show at its tart, vibrant best, although a little resting on the lees adds interest.

Rhône-style whites
The main grapes are Marsanne, Roussanne, Grenache Blanc and Viognier, alone or in varying percentages. The wines remain specialty buys, and often are hand-sells at restaurants, where their floral aromas and honeyed, fruity flavors make them easy sippers.

Other dry white wines
In past years Pinot Gris/Grigio merited singling out, especially following its rise to popularity in the 2000s. But now, a host of other white varieties, often unoaked or only slightly oaked and usually affordable, has arisen. These include Albariño, Arneis, Grüner Veltliner, Vermentino and more. Sometimes bottled under screwcaps, these wines fill the need for brisk, clean whites to enjoy with a wide range of fare, especially ethnic foods.

Sparkling wines
You may not know it, because the quantities are small, but more and more wineries are now producing bubbly. Producers know that sparkling wine is going to experience a burst in popularity as the economy recovers and people realize how food-friendly it is.

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