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Cheat Sheet

California Wine For Dummies

From California Wine For Dummies by Ed McCarthy, Mary Ewing-Mulligan

What is it that makes California wine so special? Wines from California constituted almost 60 percent of all wine sales in the United States and 90 percent of all U.S. exports, according to 2012 statistics from the Wine Institute. Get to know the varietals and the regions that produce them, and know the flavors to expect when you're tasting California wines.

California's Main Varietal Wines

You can probably find more than a dozen distinct types of varietal wine from California if you scour the shelves of a good wine shop. A handful of wines are by far the most popular, most widely available, and best-known varietal wines from the Golden State:

Wine Name Color Taste
Chardonnay White Usually dry or fairly dry; full-bodied, smooth-textured; flavors can include ripe apple, tropical fruits, butter, or toasty oak
Sauvignon Blanc White Fairly dry; medium-bodied; pronounced aromas and flavors that can include white fruits (pear, apple), citrus, herbal notes, or fresh grass; usually no oaky character
White Zinfandel Pink Medium-sweet; smooth-textured; fruity flavors such as berries, melon
Cabernet Sauvignon Red Dry; medium- or full-bodied, with some firmness of texture; medium-intense flavors that can include dark fruits, herbal notes, and smoky oak
Merlot Red Dry; medium- or full-bodied with fairly soft texture; medium-intense flavors that can include plum, tea leaves, chocolate
Pinot Noir Red Dry; fairly full-bodied, with silky texture; pronounced aromas and flavors generally of red berries, dark berries, cherry
Syrah/ Shiraz Red Dry; fairly full-bodied with smooth texture; flavors include juicy red or dark fruits, sometimes with earthy, spicy, or herbal notes
Zinfandel Red Dry or fairly dry; medium- or full-bodied, sometimes with firmness of texture; flavors of berries and herbs

Major California Wine Regions and Their Specialties

Here's a quick look at the major California wine regions and their specialties. California wine country is gorgeous and welcomes more and more visitors each year:

Region Wine Specialty
Anderson Valley Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling, Gewurztraminer, sparkling wine
Carneros Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Merlot, sparkling wine
Monterey Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon
Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc
Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Syrah
Santa Barbara Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Syrah
Sonoma County Zinfandel, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay

Texture and Flavors of California Wines

A driving force behind the popularity of California wine is their flavor. Generally, California wines are very fruity (that is, they have aromas and flavors that suggest fruits) and very flavorful (those fruity flavors are intense and easy to notice when you taste the wine). These characteristics appeal to a wide number of palates in the United States and beyond.

Try these white wines:

  • Dry Chenin Blanc: Medium-bodied with rich texture and a crisp backbone

  • Gewurztraminer: Full-bodied, soft, with medium-intense to intense floral and lychee flavors

  • Pinot Blanc: Dry, medium-bodied with crisp acidity and subtle flavors of apple and minerals

  • Pinot Gris/Grigio: Dry to fairly dry, fairly full, with pronounced peach, citrus, and floral flavors

  • Roussanne: Dry, full-bodied, with rich texture and white-fruit flavors

  • Viognier: Full-bodied, dry, flavorful (peaches, floral notes)

Try these red wines:

  • Barbera: Medium-bodied, fairly soft, with tart-cherry flavors

  • Cabernet Franc: Medium-bodied and dry with expressive red-fruit flavors and medium tannin

  • Malbec: Medium- or full-bodied with velvety texture and rich plum flavor

  • Petite Sirah: Full-bodied, dry and firm, with ripe dark-fruit flavors and spicy notes

  • Petit Verdot: Full-bodied, dry and firm with tannin; flavors of blueberry with violet notes

  • Sangiovese: Fairly full-bodied, with firm tannin and red-fruit and herbal flavors

  • Tempranillo: Full-bodied, with dryish texture and flavors of dark fruits and herbs

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