California is made up of many regions. As we look at the state of California geographically, we’ll explore the major wine regions and the most important AVA’s in each region.
The North Coast
The North Coast is home to the grape regions that put California wine on the map and encompasses Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino, Lake, Solano, and Marin Counties. It’s a large wine growing region that is home to more than half of the state’s wineries and is also a designated AVA. Within this massive AVA, many smaller, highly regarded growing regions and AVA’s exist.
Mendocino County is the northernmost growing area within the North Coast region. Foggy, cool and covered in redwood forests, Mendocino grows an abundance of Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Pinot Noir. However, because of the county’s diverse geography and climate, dozens of other varietals grow here ranging from more familiar varietals like Sauvignon Blanc and Syrah to more obscure like Colombard and Charbono. Mendocino County is home to 10 AVA’s with the most widely known being Anderson Valley (known for sparkling wines) and Mendocino AVA’s.
Lake County, home to 5 AVA’s, sits just east of Mendocino and is named for the largest inland body of water in the state of California, Clear Lake. Lake County is known for its fine, affordable Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc, but also produces quite a bit of Merlot and Chardonnay along with some other less common varietals.
Sonoma County, home to 13 AVA’s and more than 500 wineries, grows more Pinot Noir than any other county in the state. Also found in abundance here are Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot with smaller, but still significant amount of Sauvignon Blanc and Zinfandel being produced. Sonoma’s best AVA’s include the Russian River Valley, Los Carneros (which is also a part of Napa County), Alexander Valley, Dry Creek, Chalk Hill, and Knights Valley.
Although easily the most famous wine region in California, Napa Valley produces just 4% of all California wine. It’s home to 16 AVA’s, 600 wineries, and arguably some of the best restaurants and finest wines in the country. Napa Valley’s most sought after AVA’s include Carneros, Howell Mountain, Mount Veeder, Oakville, Rutherford, Stags Leap District, and Yountville. Napa is best known for Cabernet Sauvignon, but produces fine Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, and Zinfandel as well.
Los Carneros, often simply called Carneros, is an AVA that straddles the county lines of Napa and Sonoma. Adjacent to the San Pablo Bay it’s an ideal growing region for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and produces world-class sparkling wines from these varietals.
The Central Coast
The Central Coast covers a huge stretch of the California coastline and can be divided into two distinct growing regions, north and south. The north part of the Central Coast is home to the Livermore Valley, along with the Santa Cruz Mountains, Monterey, and Carmel Valley, among other smaller AVA’s. The north Central Coast region produces a wide variety of grapes with some areas favoring Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, others producing excellent Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc, and still others planting varietals like Riesling, Viognier, and Gewurztraminer.
The southern part of the Central Coast stretches from Paso Robles in the north to the Santa Maria and Santa Ynez Valleys in the south. The grape varietals here range from the Rhone varietals, like Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre, to Italian varietals like Barbera and Sangiovese, to Burgundian varietals of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. You’ll also find the quintessential American grape, Zinfandel, grown here.
The Northern Central Coast
The Livermore Valley lies east of the San Francisco Bay and has been home to vineyards since the early 1880’s, when pioneer winemakers C. H. Wente and James Concannon first planted here. Both wineries are still in operation and still family run. While this region grows several different varietals, 80% of California Chardonnay can be genetically traced to the Livermore Valley.
Winemaking didn’t become serious business in Monterey County until the late 1950’s when urbanization in the Livermore and Santa Clara Valleys. Coupled with information released by UC Davis that cooler coastal climates would be ideal for producing fine wines, Monterey County winemaking was born. This region produces world class Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but 40 other varietals thrive here as well. Notable AVA’s include Arroyo Seco, Carmel Valley, and Chalone.
Santa Cruz Mountains
The Santa Cruz Mountains is a magical combination of mountains, marine influence, unique micro-climates, and varied soils that produce fantastic California wines. Many varietals are grown here by an eclectic group of winemakers.
The Southern Central Coast
San Luis Obispo County
San Luis Obispo County has a variety of terrain and micro-climates that produce a diverse group of wines. From the damp, foggy hillsides of Arroyo Grande to the ocean breeze tempered Edna Valley, this area is known for its Rhône blends, heritage Zinfandels, Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays.
One of California’s oldest wine growing regions with the first vineyards planted in the 1790’s. Paso’s rolling hills and valleys feel little of the coastal winds or marine fog, which has a considerable effect on grape-ripening. 80% of the wines produced here are red varietals, with the most notable being Rhone grapes, Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot.
Santa Barbara County
This area was immortalized in 2004 by the film Sideways, which celebrated the area’s signature Pinot Noir. The most well-known AVA’s include the Santa Maria and Santa Ynez Valley’s and the Santa Rita Hills and produce top notch Chardonnay, Syrah, Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, and of course, Pinot Noir.
The Central Valley
While California’s coast areas get the glory for producing some of the country’s finest wines, the Central Valley is the workhouse of California’s wine industry, producing some three-quarters of the state’s grapes. This massive region encompasses Sacramento, Yolo, San Joaquin, Madera and Fresno counties and is often the source of wines simply labeled “California”.
The Sierra Foothills
Home to some of the state’s richest history, California’s quaint gold mining towns offer beautiful rolling hills, old vines and delicious wines. Amador County is the center of the wine making movement here and produces top quality zinfandel, Italian stars Barbera and Sangiovese, along with Rhone favorites like Syrah and Viognier.
Southern California is beginning to expand its presence in the states wine profile with wineries in every county with the lower part of the state. A wide variety of grapes grow from the cooler coastal communities to the warm inland valleys, with Malibu, the Temecula Valley, and San Diego County producing some standout wines.