If a glass of wine is your cup of tea, California pours many a world-class drop to wrap your hands around. Let a tide of rich, red velvety tones wash over your palate or opt for the spritely buzz of a zingy white that sings with fruity highlights. You can always have your wine and drink it too in California; this sun-soaked state produces over 90 per cent of the USA’s grapey goodness. Thanks to the multiplicity of landscapes that arch and tumble their way from the rugged coastline to the landlocked borders, California’s impressive patchwork of terroirs is expressed in each and every bottle. While there are many fabulous and flavoursome wine regions to uncork, here's a guide to five of the standouts.
You’d be forgiven for thinking the Napa Valley was California’s chief wine-maker. It’s not quantity though, but quality that gives this popular region its big rep. Admittedly, location helps too. The Napa Valley is just over an hour’s drive north of San Francisco and tourists flock here by the car load to whiff, swirl and sip their way through over 600 fabulous wineries. A compact pocket of world-class vineyards touting an overabundance of gourmet events, fabulous activities, tours, fancy restaurants and beautiful lodgings, the Napa Valley puts every glass and all that goes with it right at the tip of your tongue and ready to savour.
Best drop: Cabernet Sauvignon.
Other varietals: Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, Zinfandel, Syrah, Chardonnay and more.
Sonoma County is the wise and sophisticated granddaddy of Californian wine; it was here that the state’s very first winery was established and since that very first vine was planted, generation after generation has witnessed the ripening of the region. Often coined in combo with neighbouring Napa Valley, these two wine regions share many similarities but are also distinctly different. Beyond the towering redwood forests, rolling hills and rocky cliffs, Sonoma extends to the rugged beauty of the Pacific Coast and in its ambiance, maintains a more local, intimate and small-scale feel. Spread across a larger space and with nearly as many wineries, Sonoma is the perfect alternative to the Napa Valley for a more relaxed retreat to the rolling vineyards.
Best for: Pinot Noir.
Other varietals: Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc and Zinfandel.
Santa Barbara County
A favourite celebrity hotspot just 90 minutes north of the Los Angeles sprawl, you can trust the food and wine is top-notch in Santa Barbara County. One of the oldest wine regions in California, the first grapes were planted by Franciscan monks as they ventured their way north along El Camino Real (“the royal road”). Today, the area is home to a wide range of varietals thanks to the patchwork of microclimates and terrains, making way for particularly unique wines like Tocai, Mourvedre and Albarino. The Santa Ynez Valley area is the most acclaimed, but unique wine experiences can still be had even in the heart of food and wine centric Santa Barbara city. The “Funk Zone” is particularly interesting, a colourful warehouse district home to galleries, restaurants and tasting cellars.
Best for: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Syrah.
Other varietals: Pinot Gris, Viognier, Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Viognier, Grenache Blanc, Roussanne and many more.
The winemaking roots of the Sierra Foothills dates back to the Gold Rush days of the 1850s, with Zinfandel the original varietal and still its most outstanding performer. Nestled in California’s northwest on the edge of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and home to a number of great wine-producing counties, the wineries here tend to be small and family-run, bringing about authentic taste-testing experiences and often, the chance to meet the winemaker at work. With over 100 wineries scattered through the region, the journey from vineyard to vineyard offers a fascinating peek into the Wild West, from the arid and rocky vistas to olden Gold Rush towns that now stand empty. The seat of the local wine movement for those looking to cut straight to the chase, is Amador County, home to the most powerful and robust Zinfandels in all of California.
Best for: Zinfandel.
Other varietals: Grenache, Cabernet Franc, Barbera, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot, Primitivo and more.
A leading wine region of Southern California, Temecula Valley is quite the newcomer to the wine circuit but a rapidly emerging one at that. While its grape-growing history dates back over 200 years, it was only in the 1980s that it truly came into its own. Now the area produces over 50 different varietals and each year, attracts increasingly more people to savour them. Oozing a warm and relaxed rural feel, many of the wineries here are family-run, ranging from quiet and casual to stylish wineries with lavish restaurants overlooking the rows of vines. The Temecula Valley is just under an hour’s drive north of San Diego and 90 minutes south of Los Angeles, just a quick detour off of the l-15 freeway.
Best for: Chardonnay.
Other varietals: Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Grenache, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Pinot Gris.
Other Californian Wine Regions
All across California, rows of vineyards stand bejewelled with an impressive range of grape varieties just waiting to be picked and prepped to perfection. If you’re looking to savour even more of the drops on offer, consider these wine-laden regions which all uphold a great reputation: