Understanding California Wines

Understanding California Wines

Understanding California Wines

Confused by California Wines?

Are you confused by the ever-increasing number of new California labels on wine lists these days? If so, join the club. With more than 250 wineries in both Napa and Sonoma alone, there are endless choices for a restaurant wine buyer. Any restaurant that wants to be known for their wine list will naturally feature many of the newest and "hottest" wineries available today. All of this can lead to indecision and puzzled looks from consumers.

While no one can possibly become familiar with every wine produced in California, there is hope for the wine lover. By learning the system of labeling known as appellation, a wine drinker can better understand what style of wine he or she is ordering. It may not be 100% foolproof, but it will put you in command when ordering off a wine list at a trendy restaurant.

the appellation system

On its most basic level, the appellation system identifies where the grapes used to produce any bottle of wine were grown. Used throughout France and Italy (where it is known as D.O.C. or denominazione di origine controllata), this system also lets the buyer know about the specific types of grapes used in a wine along with other categories such as minimum alcohol and yield in the vineyards.

The United States has adopted the appellation system, but only when it comes to identifying the place where the grapes were grown. (The grape types are usually identified on the label; a Cabernet Sauvignon must have at least 75% of that grape to be labeled in that fashion.) The appellations in the United States are called American Viticultural Areas (AVA), having first been established in the late 1970s. Simply put, AVA are growing districts. There are over 130 AVA in the United States, with 81 of them in California alone. While this may seem to be a large number, these AVA have been established to help wineries market their products to a more focused audience as well as helping consumers learn the geography of wine regions and why particular wines taste the way they do.

An AVA is established not by the government, but by a group of vintners who draw up a set of boundaries. To help the vintners determine these boundaries, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) has established guidelines for creating an AVA. The name chosen for a particular area must be locally or nationally known; there must be historical evidence that the area's boundaries have basis in fact; the boundaries must appear on a map and finally, there must be evidence detailing the geographical features in the AVA, such as a stream, mountain range or other physical features. (Once an AVA is created, the law states that a winery can only label their wine with a specific AVA if at least 85% of the grapes are from that appellation.)

regional distinctiveness

As Napa is best known for its Cabernet Sauvignons, most of the AVA there are judged according to the regional distinctiveness each displays with that varietal. For example, the Stags Leap District, located in the southeastern portion of Napa, is a fairly cool site compared to the middle or upper valley. Therefore, the Cabernet Sauvignons produced here are lighter in style and have softer tannins than those produced from Oakville, which is directly north. The wines produced from another AVA known as Howell Mountain are altogether different. This AVA starts at the 1,400 foot elevation and produces wines that are limited in yield, but are intense in their flavor and tannins. These wines are probably not what you would choose for your next dinner, as they demand years of cellaring.

A similar comparison can be made in Sonoma County with Chardonnay. Two of the best known AVA here are the Russian River Valley and the Alexander Valley. As the former AVA is closer to the ocean and thus cooler than the latter, there are stylistic differences in the Chardonnays produced from each growing district; the Russian River Chardonnays are noted for their tropical fruit flavors, while apple and citrus are more closely identified with the examples from the Alexander Valley.

not a perfect system

Not all of the AVA established in California are so clear cut in their identity as this is not a perfect system. Some of the newer AVA have been established simply because a winery or group of wineries did not belong to an existing AVA. But when this system works as it does with Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa or Chardonnay in Sonoma, it helps bring California wine into focus.

Getting back to those unfamiliar choices on that wine list, use the system of AVA the next time you are a little bit hesitant about a producer. If you like the Chardonnays produced by De Loach Vineyards in Russian River Valley and cannot find that wine on the list, look for another Chardonnay from that appellation. While another producer's wine from Russian River Valley will have some differences, there should be a similar stylistic thread that is shared by these wines. If the list does not mention the appellations, ask the wine steward or manager about a particular wine; they should be able to provide that information for you. Now you can enjoy wine out of your personalized wine glass that you actually understand and feel comfortable with. Good luck!