Régions en Vedette
VINEX turns the spotlight on California to give an overall assessment of the US’s most important wine region, its impact and significance on the global wine industry and what we can expect from the 2020 harvest.
Any conversation about US wine production turns inevitably to California, as the state accounts for over 90% of the country’s total output.
With production levels nearly three quarters of that of France, and a third larger than that of Australia’s, California also supplies over 60% of all wine consumed in the US.
Today California is home to some of the world’s largest wine companies, churning out vast volumes for the mass market, as well as a number of boutique wineries producing wines that have achieved near cult-status. But this is a long way from the early days of wine production in the state, when Spanish missionaries planted the first vineyards for Mass back in the 18th century.
The Californian gold rush of the mid 19th century attracted a new wave of enterprising settlers to the area, pushing up the population - and the demand for wine. The first commercial winery was Buena Vista in Sonoma, founded in 1857 and still in production today.
The first half of the 20th century brought war, prohibition and the Great Depression to the US, effectively crushing the nation’s fledgling wine industry. It wasn’t until after Second World War that things began to change.
By the mid 1960s California was mainly known for its sweet port-style wines made from Carignan and Thompson seedless grapes. However, a new wave of forward-thinking winemakers came to the fore at this time, employing new winemaking techniques, with the emphasis very much focused on quality.
Slowly the region started to attract more international attention and accolades, but what really put Californian wine on the map was the so- called Judgement of Paris. Back in 1976 British wine merchant Steve Spurrier challenged several Californian wineries to take part in a blind tasting in Paris to compare the best Californian wines with the best of Bordeaux and Burgundy. To the shock of the traditional wine world the Californian wines trounced the French, and this did much to shake off old pre-conceived notions about New World wine and helped launch it on its path to untrammelled success.
Main wine producing regions
There are four main wine producing regions in California: the North Coast, which includes Napa Valley, Sonoma, Lake County and Mendocino; the Central Coast which includes the coastal region as well as the area south and west of San Francisco Bay down to Santa Barbara County; the South coast which includes the coastal regions south of Los Angeles down to the Mexican border; and the Central Valley incorporating the Sierra Foothills and Lodi.
The principal varietals grown in California are Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, though a large rage of traditional European vines also flourish, including Pinot Noir, Merlot and Syrah. Zinfandel is also widely planted. Sparkling wines are also produced here, with many French Champagne houses muscling into the territory and setting up wineries in the state.
Terrain and climate
California is extremely diverse geographically and climatically, spanning almost 10 degrees of latitude and boasting over 107 official appellations, known as American Viticultural Areas (AVAs).
California’s wine regions generally benefit from a Mediterranean climate, though there are also regions with a more continental dry climate.
Most of the state’s wine-growing regions are situated between the Pacific Coast and the Central Valley with the ocean and large bays like San Francisco Bay acting as a tempering influence on the heat providing cooling winds and fog that balance the heat.
In extreme cases, fog has been known to travel as far as 100 miles inland, cooling the land as it goes. Mountainous terrain between a vineyard and the Pacific limits the influence of a maritime climate, but this relationship can vary widely across the state.
Drought is sometimes an issue for grape growers, but most areas of California receive sufficient rainfall, with the regions north of San Francisco getting between 24 – 45 inches of rain a year, compared to the southern regions receiving between 13 – 20 inches each year.
Winters are generally mild, with minimal risk of frost.
Generally, the cooler regions closer to the coast are better suited to cool climate grape varieties such as Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Further inland – where the climate is much warmer– some of California's most well known red wine is made from Cabernet Sauvignon.
To say 2020 has been a challenging year for Californian wine producers would be something of an understatement. Not only have they had to contend with the worst wildfires on record, with some producers losing property in the blazes, there was also the resultant smoke taint to worry about. That, in tandem with the unprecedented problems posed by the Covid-19 pandemic have tested some of them to the limit.
So they can be forgiven for breathing a very big sigh of relief now that the 2020 harvest is safely behind them, with many expressing excitement about the quality of the vintage, though volumes are expected to be smaller than average.
Following a cool and mild growing season, and a dry winter with just half of the region’s typical rainfall, an August heat wave boosted the ripening process, resulting in an early start to the harvest for many producers, of between one to two weeks ahead in most regions.
In Napa Valley, which has over 45,340 acres of vineyards, the accelerated growing cycle resulted in many wineries bringing in their white grapes before or in the very first few days of the LNY Complex Fires, and the white wine harvest looks very promising, according to the Wine Institute’s 2020 harvest report. Many red wine grapes were also picked earlier than usual, with some harvested before the outbreak of the Glass Fire, though wineries are conducting a thorough analysis for smoke impact.
The weather conditions in Napa made “a good recipe for quality,” according to Jon Ruel, CEO of Trefethen Family Vineyards in Napa who decided not to pick some of his later ripening reds over concerns about smoke damage, though other Napa wineries have gone ahead and harvested the fruit.
Napa’s white wines have fared especially well this vintage according to vintners with Ruel praising the Chardonnay’s “wonderful” fruit character and great stone fruit flavour.
Over in Sonoma county which has around 59,000 acres of vineyards, planted predominantly with Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, the growing season enjoyed “near perfect” growing conditions, bar a mid-August lightening storm.
It has been estimated that between 25% and 30% of the county’s grapes went unpicked this year, and it remains to be seen which wines will be made in 2020. However, many winemakers are optimistic about the quality of the harvested fruit, and fortunately as a result of this year’s early harvest, over 15% of the region’s grapes had been picked before the LNYU Complex fires began and 90% had been picked by the start of the Glass Fire.
Corey Beck, CEO and head of winemaking at Francis Ford Coppola Winery is bullish about the 2020 vintage. Based on small batch fermentation trials he said, “it was like, oh my good, these wines are terrific. What we picked and what the consumer is going to see is going to be absolutely incredible.”
Lodi, where 100,000 acres of land are dedicated to vineyards, the season got off to a slightly later start, with a delayed and slow bud break across the region. Also, winemakers had to overcome challenges posed by mid season heat spikes along with wildfire smoke, though the region was not directly impacted by the wildfires, the closest of which was 70 miles away.
“While Lodi sustained many days of poor air quality, sensory analysis coupled with lab results showed no smoke impact to the wines,” said Markus Bokisch, the owner and winemaker at Bokisch Vineyards.
Meanwhile, Justin Boeger, winemaker at Boeger Winery in Placerville, El Dorado County said that his Italian varietals had fared particularly well this vintage. “Our Italian varietals, Negroamaro and Aglianico, really stood out, with the Barbera making a strong showing as well. Not to stray into hyperbole, but I think 2020 will be one of our best vintages of the last decade.”
Over in Paso Robles where vineyards amount to 40,000 acres, a cool spring and mild summer extended the growing season, with harvest timing average and yields also falling within the typical ranges, though some of the region’s older Cabernet Sauvignon lost as much as 20% of yield due to the heat waves, and most later ripening varieties were down by around 10%. Yields for earlier ripening grapes were flat or slightly up.
While Nicholas Miller of Miller Family Wines, owners of the Bien Nacido and Solomon Hills Estate Wineries in Paso Robles and Santa Maria Valley said it would be more of a “balanced year” he did concede that in Paso Robles the Chardonnay and Cabernet was short in several areas. “With no immediate fires around our vineyards we have felt good so far about the quality of that wine and tests have supported that,” said Miller. “In Santa Maria Valley we’re pretty excited about what we’re seeing with Pinot Noir. We see potential for some great wines from 2020.”
In Santa Barbara where there are 15,750 acres of vineyards, yields were up across the board this year, with most varieties showing good quality. While there is some concern about smoke damage, all of the fruit was harvested and vintners remain optimistic, since the fires were not located in the region. Pinot Noir fared well and the Chardonnay quality is good.
Chad Melville, head winegrower at Melville Winery in Lompoc, Santa Barbara County, reported a near-perfect growing season. “This year’s fruit was intense, vibrant and beautiful,” Melville said,
In Temecula, where 2,500 acres of land is dedicated to wine grape production, April saw record rainfall that posed a headache for vintners with the associated increased mildew pressure. And soaring temperatures in late summer and early September caused some desiccation and sunburn for later ripening varieties. However, the Wine Institute claimed that this will be an “exceptional” year for Temecul’s early ripening varieties, with the growing season bringing in early and late rains, with a dry spell in mid winter.
Timing for the start of the harvest was “typical” for the past 20 years, but later than the last five. Meanwhile record high temperatures in late August and early September caused some heat damage in later ripening varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, but quality for the earlier varieties looks “ exceptional”.
“Fruit quality overall was very solid, and while the vintage might be a riper year due to the heat I believe we managed it well,” said Jon McPherson, master winemaker at South Coast and Carter Estate Wineries. “I would say that 2020 is better than 2019 in respect of richness and depth of character.”