Much of the fun I have when traveling involves learning how local wine grapes became traditional. I’m soon leaving for a six-week odyssey through wine country in Austria, Hungary, The Czech Republic, Germany, France and Switzerland, and I’m quite excited to taste and report back on wines that are steeped in the terroir of their origin.
In America we haven’t spent the same number of centuries developing our viniferous traditions as have our European counterparts, but that doesn’t mean we haven’t made progress. I’m sure I’ll have plenty to say on the Old World over the first half of the summer, but that still leaves me the next two columns to give you my thoughts on wine in the good old U.S. of A, and California is the obvious place to start.
So much juice is produced all over the Eureka State, and the amount of land under vine is so huge that significant differences in terroir have begun to emerge just as they did in Europe half a millenium ago. The North Coast area is the biggest by far (over 3,000,000 acres), encompassing all of the counties north of San Francisco: Lake, Marin, Mendocino, Napa, Sonoma, and Solano. As such, it must be weighed on a different scale than any other wine growing region in the entire country.
Great wine can be found almost anywhere in the North Coast, but I’d like to focus here on the two most influential counties: Napa and Sonoma. To better understand the differences, just remember that Napa’s climate is more Mediterranean (warmer and wetter), while Sonoma’s is more continental (cooler and drier).
These dichotomies mean that Napa is at its best when producing Bordeaux varietals such as Sauvignon Blanc. So if you’re looking for a refreshing white wine, try the crisp, appetizing Mason Sauvignon Blanc, a citrusy, passion fruity, herbal bonanza with mouthwatering acidity.
An interesting example of emerging terroir in the North Coast is Carneros, which encompasses the southern end of both Napa and Sonoma and is blessed with some of the best aspects of both. Carneros is also more proximate to San Pablo Bay and the resulting maritime influences that make the region perfect for Burgundian varietals like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
I just sampled the vibrant Etude Rosé of Pinot Noir from Carneros, technically Napa on the label because of the complicated geography (check out www.carneros.com for more), and I was very impressed. Rhubarb and strawberry, strawberry and rhubarb, tamed by crystalline acidity and impeccable balance, perfect for summer quaffing.
As for a budget-savvy Napa red, stay with Bordeaux varietals. Grab the elegant Rutherford Ranch Merlot, with black cherry and vanilla aromas, closing out with dark plums, herbs and spicy tannin. A typical value from this hard-working house.
However, if you feel like splurging one early summer evening, seek out the rich and extracted J. Davies Cabernet Sauvignon from the Diamond Mountain District. Dark berries abound in this admittedly expensive elixir, blending with tobacco and cider spice on the long finish. Substantial yet restrained, this is a terrific example of the effect of Napa’s terroir on Cabernet Sauvignon.
As for Sonoma, although Chardonnay and Pinot Noir originated in land-locked Burgundy, pretty much everywhere else they’re grown near the sea, where the ocean’s moderating influence also imparts a distinct salinity to the wines. Sonoma is closer to the Pacific coast than is Napa, making it the perfect territory for these classic varietals. So when seeking a value-priced white wine, look for the full-bodied Souverain Chardonnay Alexander Valley. Lemons, pears and ripe honeysuckle grab the nose, and toasty oak integrates well on the elegant, lingering finish of one of my perennial favorites.
But in the end Sonoma means Pinot Noir, and my favorite appellation is the Sonoma Coast (in fact, there so are many wonderful wineries in this area that I’m making a note to feature them in a future column, so stay tuned). As for a single recommendation, how about the Siduri Pinot Noir Sonoma County, a complex, concentrated mix of bright red berries, lavender and minerals that is full-bodied and polished on the lengthy finish.
Of course, California has other areas that produce great wine, including the Sierra Foothills, the Central Valley, the Central Coast, and even Southern California. In fact, there are 89 American Viticultural areas in the state. The topic is just too broad for a single column, and so I’ll have to leave these fascinating areas for another day.
Next week I’ll explore some of the other states that have become known for fine wine: New York, Oregon, Washington and even Colorado. Wine is now commercially produced in all 50 states, and although I can’t honestly say that it’s everywhere palatable, there’s no doubt that domestic bottlings have improved and multiplied substantially in recent decades.
California, in particular the North Coast, produces some great wine, and it is often quite affordable. Make sure you don’t forget the tremendous options in our own backyard.
Mason Sauvignon Blanc 2007 (Napa Valley, California) $16
Souverain Chardonnay Alexander Valley 2007 (Sonoma County, California) $17
Etude Rosé Pinot Noir Carneros 2008 (Napa County, California) $20
Rutherford Ranch Merlot 2006 (Napa Valley, California) $17
J. Davies Cabernet Sauvignon Diamond Mountain District 2005 (Napa Valley, California) $75
Siduri Pinot Noir Sonoma County 2007 (Sonoma County, California) $20