The best of the best come from sunny California.
California is a land of frontiers: dangling on the edge of the Pacific, home of the Gold Rush, and epicentre of the New World’s insurgence onto the global wine scene.
Ever since Napa Valley cabernet sauvignons and chardonnays bested their more historic counterparts from Bordeaux and Burgundy in the nowfamous Judgment of Paris tasting in 1976, California and its flagship region have carried the torch for the bold, dense, fruity, lushly oaked wines that brought them worldwide fame.
Forty years later, this sun-drenched style of wines remains both unapologetically enjoyable and wildly popular, and Napa is on the bucket list of any devoted wine tourist. But as tastes and trends start to evolve away from a focus on power and concentration, towards greater elegance and food-friendliness, winemakers in California are again taking to the frontier, gravitating towards the state’s physical and climatic extremes to explore new boundaries of flavour and complexity.
California’s cooler corners are fast becoming its second face in the world of wine. Sonoma County, north of San Francisco and just west of Napa, is probably California’s second best-known region, almost equally recognized for its cabernets, chardonnays, and zinfandels. The largest subregion in the county, taking up almost a third of its total area, is the western Sonoma Coast, too expansive at 500,000 acres to have a distinct identity.
However, the western border of this appellation, a razor’s edge straddling the ocean locally known as the “true” Sonoma Coast, showcases the region’s true character – extreme viticulture, wet, cool, and always windy at elevations up to 2,000 feet, balanced on the San Andreas Fault, with many vines growing above the fog line and constantly exposed to the throes of the Pacific. Pinot noir takes on a unique expression here, on low-yielding vines in the cool above the rest of Sonoma, offering both remarkable purity of fruit and astonishing acidity and structure.
Pinot is also predominant in the relatively new Santa Rita Hills subregion of the Santa Ynez Valley, located an hour and a half northwest of Los Angeles and similarly perched right alongside the ocean. The maritime influence dominates the microclimate, and counteracts the California sun with fog and cool breezes, to the point where this coastal spot becomes a near ideal substitute for chilly Burgundy. Here, the core Burgundian varietals of pinot noir and chardonnay thrive in a particularly striking, edgy way.
Santa Ynez is the only wine region in the western hemisphere where the area’s defining mountain range runs east-west instead of north-south, creating a sort of maritime wind tunnel that sucks cold Pacific air eastward. This leads to some of the largest diurnal (day to night) temperature shifts inNorth America, and allows inland grapes ripening in the scorching daytime heat to recharge and maintain acidity at night. This special geological feature allows a wide range of reds in Santa Ynez to be juicy but still structured, bold yet balanced, from cabernet and merlot to syrah and grenache.
Halfway between the Sonoma Coast to the north and the Santa Rita Hills to the south, along yet another coastline just south of San Jose, the wineries of the Santa Cruz Mountains prove again that those seeking to make modern, moderate wines in California head both west and up. The highest vineyards in Santa Cruz, despite being just miles from the ocean, are at 2,600 feet; this significant altitude and the cool Pacific climate results in chiseled wines with controlled ripeness and serious staying power.
The region is both expansive and miniscule, with only 1,500 of its 480,000 acres currently planted to grapes, and its very-California plantings (cabernet, chardonnay, pinot noir, zinfandel, and merlot) all take on an Old World character and rusticity from its rugged terrain, and stony, mineral-laden soils. Despite the challenges associated with growing grapes on a cool rock face, Santa Cruz is a state leader in sustainable growing practices.
The friendly, sunny face of California wine is surely here to stay, but Santa Cruz, Santa Ynez and the Sonoma Coast are permanent proof that the state is readily capable of more than one expression. With its range of climate and terrain, California can comfortably both provide continuity and defy stereotype.
Ridge 2013 Geyserville
Santa Cruz Mountains
This will change your expectations of zinfandel. A zin-heavy field blend, it combines the best of its mountain altitude and the California sun.
CSPC +426379, $55
Sequoia Grove 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon
Textbook cabernet from Napa’s heart of Rutherford, with deep black fruit, mint and cedar… and a survivable price tag.
CSPC +740382, $56
Hartford Court Land’s Edge Vineyard Pinot Noir
The ferocity of the Sonoma Coast somehow creates the picture of elegance in this juicy, yet delicate, pinot.
CSPC +717210, $60
Domaine de la Cote 2013 Pinot Noir
Sta. Rita Hills
Seriously pushes the boundaries; picked almost insanely early for low-alcohol, herbal, pomegranate and rhubarb acidic tension and energy.
CSPC +761893, $58
Alice May Crosswinds Syrah
Santa Ynez Valley
A syrah/viognier Cote Rotie-style co-ferment that matches Cali ripeness with surprising verve and delicacy.
CSPC +761131, $28