Some 100 grape varieties grow in California, an unrivaled feat made
possible by the diversity of soils and climate within the state's
winegrowing regions. Winemakers turn this fruit into generous,
full-flavored, sun-kissed wines whose taste tells you they could only be
A widely diverse range of topography, soils and microclimates exists in Sonoma County, which encompasses more than 1 million acres, some 60,000 of them in vines. Chardonnay is the most-planted grape, with Cabernet Sauvignon not far behind.
Sonoma County shares its eastern border with Napa Valley and its northern
boundary with Mendocino County. Its warm interior valleys excel at Cabernet
Sauvignon, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah and Zinfandel; the cooler regions
near San Pablo Bay, the Russian River and the Sonoma coast, produce acclaimed
Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs.
Popular Wine Varietals
Often referred to as the king of wines, Cabernet Sauvignon is the best-selling red in the U.S. and No. 2 in grapevine acreage in California, behind only Chardonnay. It makes a tannic, firmly structured and age worthy wine with black cherry, blackberry, cassis and cedar character, plus hints of graphite, olive and forest floor. Cabernet Sauvignon can be blended with Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot.
It's California's most widely planted wine grape at more than 95,000 acres and America's most popular white wine. Chardonnay loves a cool, coastal growing site, yet also flourishes in warmer climes. The typical aromas and flavors are of apple, pear and citrus; richer versions also have toast, vanilla and butter notes, while more delicate Chardonnays are crisp and mouthwatering, with little or no oak taste.
Its soft, luscious, approachable character makes Merlot appealing to those who might not be in the mood for a more powerful Cabernet Sauvignon. Rounder and with gentler tannins than Cabernet, this classic varietal can stand alone, or be joined by other grapes in long-lived, balanced blends. Merlot typically offers plum, currant and black cherry aromas and flavors, with a subtle hint of herbs; barrel aging adds toast and vanilla notes.
This varietal is made from a grape that has a pinkish gray color, thus the name gris (gray in French). It has become extremely popular with U.S. consumers because of its light, exuberantly fruity, clean citrus and melon taste; wines made in an Alsatian style are richer on the palate, often with notable minerality.
Pinot Noir has been produced in California for decades, yet only recently has it caught the wave of broad-based popularity in America. Some credit goes to the movie Sideways, which lustily endorsed Pinot Noir, yet the wine's inviting aromas of violets, truffles and spice, juicy berry and cherry flavors, silky, ethereal texture and compatibility with a wide range of foods make it appealing on its own, without cinematic support.
Sauvignon Blanc (sometimes labeled as Fume Blanc) originates from France, yet Californians have put their own spins on the style, vinifying it into wines
that range from assertive and pungently herbal, to bright in citrus and green apple fruit, to rich and toasty. No matter what the style, Sauvignon Blanc is usually lively and dry, and exceptionally food-friendly.
Although Syrah has been cultivated in California for a century, it's relatively new to most Americans, who have come to embrace it for its lush, ripe blackberry, cassis, black pepper and meaty flavors. Called Shiraz in Australia, Syrah can be rich, bold and spicy when grown in warmer regions; from cooler sites, it has a vibrant fruitiness and an elegant, structured frame. When blended with its Rhone varietal cousins Grenache, Mourvedre, Cinsault and other grapes, Syrah takes on a multi-dimensional personality.
The vines were introduced to California during the Gold Rush, around 1850, and while their origination appears to be Croatia (with a stopover in Italy), Zinfandel is America's grape, and more precisely, California's grape, because from nowhere else does it make such a rambunctious, brambly, wild raspberry/blackberry/boysenberry wine with a spicy clove and blackpepper kick. Zin comes in a range of personalities, from fruity blush wines, to sleek and elegant, to ripe, round styles, to late-harvest sweet wines.