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Most California producers focus on the noble grape varieties (Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc) for their wines, but there is also a lot of experimentation happening with other, lesser-known varieties. California is far and away the largest wine producing state in the USA and it produces a wide range of quality wine. 

California Wine Regulations

The laws that govern the production of wine here are both different and the same than those you encounter in Europe.

Similarities:

As in Europe, wine regions are delimited based upon geographic, geologic and climatic similarities.  In theory, each American Viticultural Area (AVA) is thus likely to produce a similar style of wine when the same grape varietals are grown within the same region.  In fact, the AVA system in the USA is modeled after the French AOC classification.

Differences:

 

In the USA there are no laws governing what can or cannot be grown in any region.  Producers are free to grow any grapes they choose and put their AVA on the label, as long as they meet certain legal criteria.  In Europe, there are often set rules as to what can be grown in which regions and these rules are usually set by the individual region.

California Wine Law

 To use the state AVA of “California” on the label, 100% of the grapes must have been grown in California.

 To put a regional AVA on a label, a minimum of 85% of the grapes must have been grown in that AVA, unless it is a county AVA, in which case a 75% minimum applies. For example, the minimum percentage for Chardonnay in Russian River Valley is 75%, in Napa Valley it is 75%, in Anderson Valley it is 75%, and so on.

 To put a single vineyard on a label, 95% of the grapes must have been grown in that single vineyard.

California Wine Regions

Like European wine regions, California breaks down systematically into individual regions that are then further broken down into smaller regions and sub-regions. 

Here are some of the major individual regions and their breakdowns:

 North Coast includes: Napa County (Napa Valley), Sonoma County, Lake County, Mendocino County (Mendocino), Marin County, Solano County

 Central Valley includes: Amador County (Lodi), Yolo County (Clarksburg), Sacramento, San Joaquin

 Central Coast includes: Monterey County, San Benito County, San Luis Obispo County (Paso Robles), Santa Barbara County

 San Francisco Bay includes: Alameda, Contra Costa

 South Coast includes: Los Angeles County, Riverside & San Bernardino County, San Diego County

California Grape Varietals & Blends

Cabernet Sauvignon

There are many varietals grown in California, but in an effort for simplification, we are going to focus on the following:

Chardonnay

Chardonnay exhibits notes of apples, lemon, pineapple, melon, vanilla, butterscotch, slightly burned toast, butter, figs, honey and nuts. Most California ones are medium to full-bodied and their weight matches bold flavors and rich sauces (unlike their cousins from Burgundy, which produce steely acidity and more minerality due to the colder climate). The fattier styles from California are ideal for rich cuisine.  They complement buttery dishes, sauces and anything creamy…

Pinot Noir

Pinot Noir is characterized by notes of black cherries, strawberries, raspberries, cranberries, prunes, toasty spice, bacon fat, cola and earthy mushrooms. Fruit-forward California examples contrast well with salty preparations and richer cuisine, while Burgundy and other Old World styles are best with heartier, earthier cuisine.

Cabernet Sauvignon

Cabernet expresses itself with notes of black currants, black cherries, black berries, green or black olives, mint and mushrooms. In its youth, firm tannins are paired well with grilled meats of high fat content. In the mouth, this combination is magnetic! As Cabernet Sauvignon ages and sheds some of its tannic edge, more delicate meats should be considered in order to let the wine shine.

Meritage

Meritage is not what most people think it is: a catch-all phrase that is used to describe any blended red wine that contains Cabernet Sauvignon.  In fact, there are very specific rules to fulfill in order to put the term Meritage on a California wine label. 

Meritage is a combination of the words Merit + Heritage.  The proper way to say it is Merr-ih-tij (heritage, but with an “m”).

Meritage was invented in 1988 by a group of producers who wanted to make a quality estate wine using the Bordeaux blending model.  However, by California law, unless they used at least 75% of any single grape varietal, they were only able to use the terms Red Table Wine or White Table Wine on the label.  Some producers would add a trademarked estate name such as Opus One or Insignia.  To further distinguish these California Bordeaux-style blends, California wineries formed the Meritage Association as a way to market these wines and set up standards to regulate quality and production methods.

Meritage Varietals & Requirements

 Producers are limited to using traditional Bordeaux varietals. There are three white varietals (Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Muscadelle du Bordelais) and five red varietals (Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec, Petit Verdot)

 All wines must consist of at least two of the varietals blended together

 No varietal can be more than 90% of the total blend

 Any Meritage wine should be one of the two most expensive wines a producer releases to assure that quality grapes are used and to enhance the reputation of the Meritage name. (This is a guideline and not a rule.)

 Recommended case production limit of 25,000 cases per year. (Also a guideline, not a rule.)

 Producers must pay fees to The Meritage Association of $1 per case produced per year, capped at $500 per year.

Some things to keep in mind about Meritage:

 The Meritage name is a marketing tool.

 It is not a governmentally regulated term.

 The wines can be either red or white.

 They must contain only Bordeaux varietals.

 Winemakers must pay fees to the Meritage Association. Otherwise, they cannot label a wine a Meritage, even if they follow all of the other rules.

Food Pairing With California Wines

Chardonnay Pairings

Leaner Chardonnay with citrusy notes:

 Roast citrus chicken

 Shellfish, simply prepared

 Delicate fish, simply prepared

 Roast chicken and mild game

 Lighter mushroom dishes

Fuller bodied, richer styles:

 Roast citrus chicken

 Shellfish, simply prepared

 Delicate fish, simply prepared

 Roast chicken and mild game

 Lighter mushroom dishes

Pinot Noir Pairings

Fruity Styles:

 Duck

 Mushrooms of any sort

 Salmon (try Teriyaki)

Earthy Styles:

 Bacon

 Game birds

 Richly sauced pasta dishes

 Beef stews and braises

Cabernet Sauvignon Pairings

 Steaks (tri tip, New York, Rib Eye, flank steak etc.) with demi-glace sauces

 Lamb with rosemary, mustard, your favorite herbs

 Prime rib

 Pork

 Veal chops

 Barbecued ribs

 Grilled or smoked foods