Know Your Grapes
Want to seem more knowledgeable about wine than you really are? Before you come to Napa and Sonoma, get to know your popular California grapes. While nearly every wine grape known to humankind is grown somewhere in the state, and different varietals go in and out of fashion almost as fast as clothing, California has a few distinctive and easy to find grapes that comprise the basics of vintning in the state.
Most of the white wine made and sold in California is Chardonnay. The grapes grow best in a slightly cooler climate, which lends them well to the vineyards closer to the coast. Most Chardonnay wines are made from nearly 100 percent Chardonnay grapes. Chardonnay is typically fermented in steel tanks, then poured into steel or oak barrels to finish fermenting and to age just a little bit.
Most California Chardonnays taste smooth and buttery and a bit like fruit; they often take on the oak flavor of the barrels they sit in. Chardonnay doesn’t keep (age), so most Chards are sold the year after they’re bottled, and consumed within a few months of purchase.
This pale green grape is used to make both Sauvignon Blanc and Fumé Blanc wines in California. Sauvignon Blanc grapes grow well in Napa, Sonoma, and other warm-to-hot parts of the state. The California Sauvignon Blanc wine has a “food friendly” reputation — it goes well with salads, fish, vegetarian cuisine, and even spicy ethnic foods.
Sauvignon Blanc has such a light, fruity, and floral taste it almost seems to float away. The difference between a Sauvignon Blanc and a Fumé Blanc is in the winemaking more than in the grapes. Fumé Blanc wines tend to have a strong odor and the taste of grapefruit. Fumes also pair well with fish dishes and spicy Asian cuisine.
Unlike the other California-favored red wine grapes, Pinot Noir grapes do best in a cool coastal climate with limited exposure to high heat. The Anderson Valley and the Monterey coastal growing regions tend to specialize in Pinot Noir, though many Napa and Sonoma wineries buy grapes from the coast to make their own versions of this popular wine.
California vintners make up single-varietal Pinot Noir wines that taste of cherries, strawberries, and smoke when they’re great, and of mold and fish when they’re not.
A good California Zinfandel is not what you think is it. For starters, it’s not sweet and pale pink. A true Zinfandel is a hearty deep red wine. These grapes grow best when tortured by their climate; a few grow near Napa, but most make their homes in Gold Country and the inland Central Coast. Zinfandel was one of the first types of grape introduced in California, and a few lucky vineyards have “Old Vines,” Zinfandel vines that have been producing grapes for nearly 100 years.
A great Zinfandel wine boasts the flavors and smells of blackberry jam and the dusky hues of venous blood. Zinfandel often tastes wonderful all by itself, but it’s also good with beef, buffalo, and even venison.
If you spend any length of time in Napa or Sonoma, you’ll hear the phrase “Cab is King.” This always means Cabernet Sauvignon, a grape from the Bordeaux region of France that creates a deep, dark, strong red wine. The grapes that get intense summer heat make the best wine, which makes them a perfect fit in the scorching Napa Valley. In France, Cabernet Sauvignon grapes mix with several other varieties to create the famed Bordeaux Blends. In California, especially in Napa, winemakers use Cabernet Sauvignon on its own to brew some of the most intense single-grape wine in the world.
A good dry Cab might taste of leather, tobacco, and Bing cherries. Harsh tannins can create a sandpapery feeling in the mouth and an unpleasant tree-bark flavor, making Cabernet Sauvignon difficult for newcomers to the wine world to enjoy. Cabs age well, often hitting their peak of flavor and smoothness over a decade after bottling. (By then, the tannins have mellowed and the wine tastes less like chewing on an oak branch.)
© Liz Hamill Scott from Moon California, 2nd Edition