What gives a wine its character, its distinctive quality? It’s the unique combination of micro-climate and soil. The early Anglo farmers in California planted wheat, and quickly learned it was a waste of farm land. Wheat could be grown anywhere. Not so fruit and vegetables. So, California farmers did plant almost everything, and they learned that almost everything they planted would grow. Including vineyards.
Just about every sort of grape will grow in California. If you don’t see a particular varietal from California at your favorite wine store it has more to do with wine style, fashion and marketing than the ability of California vineyards to produce almost any grape you can dream of. Believe it!
French winemakers have a word that describes the distinctive conditions of a place where a grape is grown. That word is terroir. It’s a short word, but it packs a lot of meaning. Terroir is the combination of geographical, geological and all other aspects that relate to the land. This includes the soil, the slope (which makes a grape struggle more or gives them an easy ride), the elevation, exposure to the sun, wind, temperature, and it includes the moisture in the air.
Example: There is a very small vineyard in Sonoma County that used to be called jack-ass hill. It was owned by an older Italian man whose family had been growing grapes in Sonoma for quite some time. A reporter trundled up a very steep hill in a Jeep with the gentleman to get a look at this land. Its red grapes commanded some of the highest prices in California wine country. The reporter asked how the land was irrigated. The man replied, “The only time this land gets any water in the summer is when I come up here and take a pee.” It was his wife who had termed the acreage Jack-ass hill because in her opinion only a jack-ass would tackle that hill. (The reporter agreed with her.)
But, those grapes struggled to grow and keep growing. The vines became old and lush. The grapes’ rich flavor reflected the sun on the slope and the lack of pampering, hence the hefty price per bushel.
California has an enormous quantity of very distinct terroirs. (Grapes grown in a vineyard may create a wine that tastes quite different than the grapes grown in a neighboring vineyard.)
When you visit a winery, take a real look at the California vineyards where the grapes grew. Study the slant of light and the slope of the land. The elevation or the morning mist. The proximity to Mt. St. Helena and her magic volcanic ash. All will add to your authentic wine country experience!