Every sub-region for wine grapes in California has a calling-card variety that seems to work best in that area, and which is relatively well-recognized.
The most obvious example, and one that cannot be denied by even the worst curmudgeon, is how well cabernet sauvignon does in the Napa Valley. It makes America’s most widely recognized “great” wine, it commands the highest prices, and the wines are compared favorably with the greatest wines of France.
In many of the other sub-regions, as important as one or two grape varieties are, others have come along in recent years to challenge the old order and to provide consumers with interesting if not exciting alternatives.
In many cases these alternative grapes are not widely recognized, and part of that is dependent on the public’s awareness of what may only be local news.
Here is my view from region to region:
Carneros: This broad area to the south of both Napa and Sonoma has always been perceived as chardonnay and pinot noir country, but the advent of global climate change has altered the picture slightly.
Over the last decade, syrah and merlot have become far more significant here than they ever were in the 1980s, and today these two varieties represent an up-and-coming wave of interest.
Russian River Valley: Again chardonnay and PN remain vitally important to this most excellent growing area, and marine influences (cooling winds) have thus far blunted the worst effects of increasing temperatures.
Although zinfandel has always thrived in RRV, and continues to do so, other red wine grapes have recently shown promise.
Syrah and other red Rhone blends now deliver fascinating wines from Russian River, and we are seeing more interesting pinot gris and other white varieties as well.
Sonoma Valley: Numerous varieties do extremely well here, notably sauvignon blanc and chardonnay, but several other grapes have recently crept into the picture, including grenache, cabernet sauvignon and merlot. This is an exciting area to watch.
Sonoma Coast: This huge, amorphous region is generally cool enough to produce fine quality pinot noir and chardonnay, but great cool climate syrah is clearly its destiny. Some of these come from an area that soon will be called the Petaluma Gap, an appellation that is almost certain to be approved.
Sierra Foothills: This fascinating region in gold country has always made superb wine from Italian grape varieties, such as barbera and sangiovese. And zinfandel thrives here as well.
However, the barbera is so good here, and a local festival dedicated to it so popular, that it may dominate the region’s wine image, and that could take away from how interesting sauvignon blanc and viognier here can be.
Lake County: Speaking of sauvignon blanc, it is clearly the lead variety in this north-of-Napa jewel, but anyone who ignores how great cabernet franc from here can be is missing the point of the region.
Napa Valley: After you get past the greatness of cabernet sauvignon, it is clear that Robert Mondavi was right to put such a strong emphasis on sauvignon blanc here. In the last 20 years we have seen a true, if quiet, revolution with this variety. And prices for some of these wines now reflect the growing interest in it.
Santa Barbara County/southern San Luis Obispo: The best varieties in this most important region remain chardonnay and pinot noir, but several other grapes have always showed great potential, including syrah and now grenache.
Moreover, a handful of growers and wineries have explored some Italian varieties with success. Additionally, a small number of high-caliber rieslings, gruner veltliners, and even albarinos have been seen.
Paso Robles: Long home to excellent cabernets and zinfandels, this slightly warmer region has developed quite a nice reputation as well for Rhone varieties, both white and red.
Monterey County: Chardonnay and riesling both thrive here, but in Arroyo Seco and on the Santa Lucia Highlands, pinot noir and a cooler-climate version of syrah have fast developed strong reputations.
Not every small appellation has developed an image for a particular variety, and the government is improving new regions all the time.
Wine of the Week: 2016 Pech Merle Sauvignon Blanc, Big Valley, Lake County ($19): The dramatic tropical fruit (tangerine, mango) aroma of this wildly spicy wine it’s so enticing it’s impossible not to like now. It will change over time to display its Lake County-ness, but for the next several months it will be just so exotic, it will be hard to put down.