California Wine Country: The North Coast Article -
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California Wine Country: The North Coast

Take a tour of America's foremost wine-making state--and find out what foods pair best with California wines.

When you think domestic wine, do you think California? Other states may be coming on strong, but there's no question California is America's foremost wine-making state. An astonishing 9 of every 10 bottles produced in America come from California wineries. In fact, if California were its own country, it would be the 4th largest wine producer in the world!

Let's take a look at some of California's most important wine regions--and the grapes that grow there.

The North Coast AVA (What's an AVA?includes some of the best-known wine appellations in the United States. It is truly an enormous area, comprising all the California wine country north of San Francisco. Wines that are labeled "North Coast" may include grapes from any of the sub-appellations within the North Coast.

Looking for great recipes to go along with your California wines? Check out our pairings at the bottom of the page.

Napa Valley

Napa Valley made its wine reputation on Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. Vineyards here are often touched by cooling winds and by the fog that frequently rolls up the valley from the inlet at San Pablo Bay, creating temperatures that can fluctuate by more than a dozen degrees depending on where you are along the 30-mile-long valley. Climate, soil, sun exposure, elevation--so many factors affect the growing of wine grapes that identifying the best place to plant a particular varietal is no simple task. Over the years many unique growing areas have been identified within Napa Valley. Fourteen of them have earned their own sub-appellation status, including Stag's Leap, Atlas Peak, Wild Horse Valley, Rutherford, St. Helena, Oakville and Yountville. Atlas Peak, for example, benefits from long sun exposure, and its elevation lifts the vineyards out of the fog that hovers in the valley; Zinfandel is finding a good home for itself in Atlas Peak, along with Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. Just to the Northwest in Rutherford, the celebrated "Rutherford dust" (a combination of gravel, sand, volcanic soils and marine sediment) has proven particularly well-suited for building powerful Cabernet Sauvignon.

Major grape varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Zinfandel, Syrah, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc

Notable sub-appellations: Stag's Leap, Atlas Peak, Wild Horse Valley, Rutherford, St. Helena, Oakville and Yountville

    Sonoma County

    Though twice as large as Napa Valley, Sonoma County is home to about 250 wineries, compared to Napa's 400. More Chardonnay vines are planted in Sonoma County than any other varietal. Of the red grapes, Cabernet Sauvignon is the most widely planted. Sonoma's climate shifts from moist Pacific Ocean coastline to dry inland areas. It may seem counterintuitive, but in Sonoma the warmer plots are typically in the north and the cool places in the south, where the temperatures are moderated by coastal winds and fog. To account for its distinct microclimates, Sonoma County is further divided into 13 sub-appellations, including Alexander Valley, Chalk Hill, Dry Creek Valley, Rockpile, Los Carneros, Russian River Valley and Sonoma Coast. As the name suggests, Chalk Hill is distinguished by its chalky volcanic-ash soils where Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc excel. Dry Creek Valley has long been known for its Zinfandel, but Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah are on the rise here as well. The cool conditions in Los Carneros, meanwhile, have helped it earn a reputation for Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and sparkling wines. One of the newer appellations in Sonoma, Rockpile is perched above the fog on rocky soils that demand the most from the vines, helping them produce powerful, sun-warmed Zinfandel, Syrah, Petite Sirah and Cabernet Sauvignon. Pinot Noir has found a happy home in the fog-shrouded vineyards of the Russian River Valley.

    Major grape varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Zinfandel, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Franc, Sangiovese, Pinot Gris

    Notable sub-appellations: Alexander Valley, Chalk Hill, Dry Creek Valley, Rockpile, Los Carneros, Russian River Valley and Sonoma Coast

    Mendocino County

    Long known for its towering redwood forests, Mendocino County now boasts a new claim to fame: a thriving wine industry. In particular, Mendocino County is becoming known for its organic wines. Twenty-five percent of the grapes grown here are certified organic. Mendocino touches on Sonoma County at its southern edge and is hemmed in by the Coastal Mountain Range on one side and the cooling Pacific Ocean on the other. Most of Mendocino's grapes grow in the inland part of the county, in the valleys and along the Russian and Navarro Rivers. The big three wines produced here are Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir, along with Syrah, Zinfandel, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc, among others. The county is divided further into 10 sub-appellations, including Anderson Valley, McDowell Valley, Redwood Valley and Cole Ranch. Vast temperature fluctuations in the Anderson Valley have helped it earn a reputation for excellent Pinot Noir; Riesling, sparkling wine and Gewurztraminer are its leading whites. In Redwood Valley, the reddish soil and cool-climate spell success for Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and Barbera.

    Major grape varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Syrah, Zinfandel, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Petite Sirah, Riesling, and Grenache

    Notable sub-appellations: Anderson Valley, McDowell Valley, Redwood Valley and Cole Ranch.

    Lake County

    Before Prohibition put an abrupt stop to things, Lake County produced more wine grapes than any other California County. Today, after decades of painfully slow recovery, the wine country around Lake County is growing by leaps and bounds. Cabernet Sauvignon has the most plantings, followed by Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot, and Lake County is earning a reputation for its Petite Sirah as well. The vineyards surround the largest natural lake in California, Clear Lake, and reach into the cooling elevations of Mount Konocti, a dormant volcano. The nearness of the big lake moderates the temperature in the vineyards. The soils in this county are distinct enough (range from sandy loam to cinder ash and red volcanic soils) to have warranted four distinct sub-appellations: Clear Lake, Guenoc Valley, Red Hills and High Valley.

    Major grape varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petite Sirah, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Zinfandel, Barbera, Sangiovese, Syrah, Cabernet Franc

    Notable sub-appellations: Clear Lake, Guenoc Valley, Red Hills and High Valley

      Cabernet Sauvignon

      The undisputed king of red wine, Cabernet Sauvignon has found a happy home in California wine country. Full-bodied and tannic, California Cabs are classic pairing partners for meat dishes like beef and lamb. Nothing's better than a simple grilled cheeseburger and a California Cab.

      Petite Sirah

      Neither particularly petite nor Syrah (that's a different grape!), Petite Sirah is a tasty choice with big flavorful meat dishes like grilled steak.

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