Introduction

By Lisa Rowlands

Three quarters the size of France and with an economy larger than all of the African nations combined, it seems odd to talk about the US state of California as just a region. But this vast, topographically diverse area, stretching for nearly one-thousand-four-hundred kilometres along the Pacific Ocean, is just that. Famed for the iconic coastal cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco, the legendary laid back surf style of its beach towns and the natural wonders of Lake Tahoe, the Mojave Desert and the Sierra Nevada mountains, California offers up every terroir imaginable to the winegrower; to put its sheer size into context - this single state produces around 30% more wine than the entire country of Australia!

Undoubtedly the flagship region of the New World, the Californian wine area has risen to global prominence over the last half century - largely off the back of the Paris Judgement (a famous competition of May 1976, which saw some Californian wines rated ahead of their Bordeaux / Burgundy counterparts in blind tasting) - and the state is now recognised for producing some of the world’s finest and most expensive wines. However, whilst recognition is a relatively recent reward, Californians have practiced viticulture for more than two-hundred years, with the first European settlers establishing vines as early as the eighteenth century. After the gold rush, the size of the area under vine in the state grew rapidly in correlation with the population, before the perils of Phylloxera and Prohibition brought progress to a halt. Post World War Two however, the west coast wine juggernaut has gone from strength to strength, with the golden state’s output supported by the growing reputations of Oregon and Washington wines.

Winemaking grapes are grown in four fifths of California’s counties and there are more than one-hundred individual AVAs (appellations) across the state. Varieties are unsurprisingly numerous and broad in characteristics, reflecting the diverse terroir and microclimate of the growing area. Diversity is an understatement in describing the state of California. Spanning ten degrees of latitude and with significant variations in elevation, aspect and proximity to the Pacific, the microclimate of each AVA - and to a lesser degree, each individual vineyard - is distinct from the next.

Subzones of California

Central Valley

California’s Central Valley - an enormous, flat expanse more than seven hundred kilometres in length and almost one hundred kilometres across at its widest point - is amongst the world’s most productive agricultural regions. Encompassing the populous city of Fresno, the state capital Sacramento, and bound by mountains to the east and west, the valley is a hot bed of production for more than two-hundred different crop types, including a wide range of grapes used in winemaking.

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North Coast

Stretching north from San Francisco and covering an area of more than a million hectares, the North Coast sub-zone of California is a vast treasure trove of viticultural excellence. Home to internationally acclaimed AVAs such as Napa Valley and Russian River, this rich and colourful area produces some of America’s most sought after wines.

Read more ▸ 4 appellations