You don’t have to be an expert to enjoy wine, but it’s nice to know the basics.
Where did this grape come from? How is it made? What foods are good matches? A little background can help you make the best wine decisions and enjoy that shimmering glass even more. Here’s a brief primer in our wine guide to get you started. They’re all different, and they’re all delicious.
Cabernet Sauvignon Wine
The Popular Grape
Easily the most planted red varietal in the Napa Valley (24,000-plus acres vs. about 4,000 for runner-up Merlot), we’d be remiss if we didn’t include it in our wine guide. Cabernet Sauvignon makes beautiful, complex, full-bodied wines beloved by both collectors and novices. Although the textbook pairing is with juicy steaks or other beef dishes, Cabernet Sauvignon goes well with lamb, cheese, charcuterie, and wild mushrooms. Some people swear by Cabernet and chocolate, though sommeliers and other wine pros decry the combo.
The chance offspring of Cabernet Franc and the white grape Sauvignon Blanc (hence the name Cabernet Sauvignon), this noble red grape variety originated in Bordeaux, France, and grows best in warm, dry climates conditions.
Tasked in the early 1970s to find the best place outside Bordeaux to grow Cabernet Sauvignon, French winemaker Bernard Portet researched sites in Europe, Chile, and South Africa before selecting southern Napa’s Stags Leap District for Clos Du Val’s estate vineyard.
Sonoma County’s Alexander, Knights and Dry Creek valleys and the higher elevation Moon Mountain District; inland areas of Mendocino and Lake counties; and Paso Robles are other California locales known for high-quality Cabernet.
Built to be Blended
Since the 1990s, California Cabernets have tended to be rich and powerful. Well-rounded tannins make the wines drinkable upon release, and higher-end Cabernets with firm tannins, structure, and complex flavors are well-suited for aging. Some wines are 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, with the grapes coming from one vineyard or multiple.
In the French tradition, many Cabernet Sauvignons contain small portions of other Bordeaux grapes: Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Merlot, and/or Petit Verdot (Only 75% of a wine must contain the grape on the label). Not bound by France’s strict blending rules, some California winemakers add Syrah, Zinfandel, or other non-Bordeaux grapes. With superior fruit, any of these combinations can render a memorable wine. Because of this, Cabernet Sauvignon is an essential entry into our wine guide.
The next entry in our wine guide is California’s most popular white varietal, Chardonnay. Originated in eastern France’s Burgundy region, it can thrive pretty much anywhere. Chardonnay expresses itself best in areas with cool marine climates, such as the coastlines of Sonoma, Mendocino, and Monterey counties and Los Carneros, which straddles southern Napa Valley and Sonoma County north of San Pablo Bay. Many Napa and Sonoma wineries make Chardonnay, which is also found in many sparkling wines.
Chardonnay displays a range of characteristics, depending on where and how it’s grown, when it’s picked, and winemaker interventions. Another factor is which clones (plant variants) are use in the wine’s creation.
Two broad styles have emerged in California. One, epitomized by Rombauer’s popular Carneros Chardonnay, accentuates the creamy, buttery notes that oak barrel aging and other techniques can bring out. The other focuses more on crispness, acidity, and what’s often described as minerality. With this leaner style, there’s more emphasis on letting the grapes speak for themselves, with comparatively restrained oak.
Try it Unoaked
Alex Holman, winemaker at Sonoma County’s Notre Vue Estate, encourages beginners to “explore your palate” to find out which style suits you best. Many wineries producing more than one Chardonnay and intentionally differentiate the wines from each other. If you see an unoaked Chardonnay or one made in neutral oak (a barrel used several times, rendering minimal influence on the flavor), give it a try.
Merlot is another Bordeaux varietal, and picking a delicious one is easier than ever. A classic Merlot provides an incredible array of fruit flavors, the potential for structure, and a round ripeness you cannot find anywhere else. It’s also incredibly food friendly and a crowd pleaser, which is why it’s an essential entry on our wine guide.
Merlot will be a rich ruby color with a bluish hue. Aromas and flavors include blackberries, cassis, dark chocolate, baking spices, and vanilla. Well-made Merlots are elegant, powerful and focused.
Napa Valley offers an incredible range of Merlots, from savory, brambly and food friendly offerings from mountain vineyards, to rich and opulent valley floor versions. Paso Robles also dials up the ebullience, while Sonoma and Santa Barbara bring in the spice, structure and bright acidity.
Again, Merlots are quite food-friendly. If you’re in the mood for an easy, straight-forward meal, go for sauced-up chicken, personality cheeses like blue, butter-roasted poultry, ratatouille or grilled vegetables. For special occasions, try pairing Merlot with roasted duck or lamb, grilled steak, or cassoulet.
Pinot Noir Wine
The next entry in our wine guide is Pinot Noir. It is a cool-climate grape winemakers turn into elegant wines with evocative aromatics. Often called finicky, or a heartbreaker, Pinot is delicate because poor weather or other vineyard conditions. This can lead to disaster. The grape has thin-skinned, tightly clustered berries, making it susceptible to disease and mold. Once harvested, the grape can be temperamental during fermentation as well. But when things go right, and they do often enough, the grape produces glorious wines.
Weather is more of an issue in Pinot Noir’s birthplace, Burgundy, France, where early frosts and inopportune summer rains can wreak havoc on crops size, than in sunny California, where Pinot Noir thrives in areas with a marine layer. One key to great Pinot Noir, says a vintner in Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley, is having cool summer nights during which the temperature drops below 50℉, preserving the grapes’ acidity as they ripen during the hot (but not too hot) summer.
A Bit about Clones
You’re apt to hear about clones, or variants of Pinot Noir commonly brought in to the New World from France or Switzerland, more often than with other grape types. A variety of Pinot Noir’s in California referred to as Dijon clones, get their name from the capital of Burgundy. Dijon clones have different characteristics, affording greater depth and complexity when blended. That being said, some wines only contain one clone.
Even more important than the choice of clones, says winemaker Jeremy Weintraub of Adelaida Vineyards in Paso Robles, is the soil. “If your ground is any good, you’re talking about the site and not the clone,” he maintains.
Noteworthy California vineyards include Ferrington in the Anderson Valley; Bacigalupi, Dutton Ranch, Gap’s Crown, and Sangiacomo in Sonoma County; Garys’ Vineyard in the Santa Lucia Highlands (Monterey County), and Bien Nacido in the Santa Maria Valley (northern Santa Barbara County). All sell to multiple, carefully vetted wineries, and wines from these vineyards are always worth checking out.
Sauvignon Blanc Wine
Our next wine guide entry, sauvignon blanc, emerged in France’s Loire Valley and later gained a foothold in Bordeaux. This versatile white grape makes crisp, aromatic, light-bodied wines with an acidic kick. Splendid as a summertime sipper or an aperitif, Sauvignon Blanc pairs with a range of foods, most notably fish and shellfish.
Fruitier, Less Acidic
Compared to French Sauvignon Blancs, California’s tend to be fruitier and a little less acidic, especially since fermenting and/or aging are now being done in previously used oak barrels and egg-shaped concrete vessels. A decade ago, nearly all California Sauvignon Blancs were using stainless steel vessels, which yield a crisper wine. Another way winemakers achieve softness or roundness is to follow the French lead and blend another, less acidic grape, such as Semillon.
Warm or Cool Climate?
Some winemakers believe that only warmer climates produce good Sauvignon Blanc, with hot weather accentuating tropical flavors like papaya and passionfruit that undercut the tartness. Others prefer cooler settings to preserve acidity. Many cool-climate Sauvignon Blancs emphasize the varietal’s minerality and grassy and stone-fruit qualities, often with bracing acidity.
Robert Mondavi is credited with uplifting Sauvignon Blanc’s image in the late 1960s by marketing it under the more poetic-sounding Fumé Blanc. His namesake winery still uses the term, as does Sonoma County’s Dry Creek Vineyard, whose founder planted the Dry Creek Valley’s first Sauvignon Blanc grapes.
A good glass of Zinfandel wine can transport you to California’s land of sunshine, abundance, and wholesome opulence. Like the Golden State itself, Zinfandel is a shape-shifter, depending on whose hands make it. This chameleon grape is equally comfortable posing as a jammy, flashy, fruit-forward wine or languid and elegant, exuding soft, dry red and black fruited complexity.
Zinfandel can vary considerably. If you favor a dry wine with bright, fresh flavors, look for lower alcohol levels, at around 13%-13.5%. If you prefer opulence and lushness, look for 14.5% and above. Zinfandel blended with other grapes—such as Syrah, Petite Sirah, Mourvedre, Carignane and Barbera—can create exciting flavors as well. With these blends, you’ll often find more spice, complexity and power.
Best Regions and Pairings
Zinfandel is widespread throughout California. Warmer places, like the Napa Valley, Paso Robles, Lodi, and the Sierra Foothills tend towards bolder and jammier expressions. While cooler, high elevation regions and classic old vine plantings located in the rocky, volcanic, and gravel-flecked soils in Mendocino County and the diverse areas of Dry Creek, Russian River and Sonoma Valley in Sonoma County, will produce concentrated but complex and spice-laden Zinfandels.
Known as a tried-and-true pairing with BBQ and burgers, Zinfadel wine has so many more combinations to explore. Try pairing Zinfandel with pizza (meat or veggie), roasted lamb, or with bold artisanal cheeses, like cheddar, Manchego or smoked gouda. It also stands up well to spice, making it a great partner for curries, Cajun dishes, or tonkatsus. Vegetarians will love sipping Zinfandel with roasted and caramelized squash, tomato and pepper dishes.
A secret way to find a better bottle: Look to see if you can find the age of the vines on the bottle. Because California has such a rich history of 19th century Zinfandel plantings, and because old vines produce less grapes, the ones they do produce often offer more complexity and concentration than grapes from younger vines. Made from vines between 40 and 120+ years, Zinfandel wines are typically value-priced and well-made .