What Makes a California Wine a “California Wine?”

It sounds like one of those silly riddles: “Who’s buried in Grant’s tomb?” But there’s more to the question “What makes a California wine a California wine” than first appears.

For although our state is a large one — more than half a million acres of wine grapes, according to the Wine Institute, more than any other country except Spain, France, Italy, China (!) and Turkey (!!) — and while California’s climate and soils vary dramatically from place to place, there’s still an essential “California-ness” to our wines.

I would describe that quality as ripe, fruity deliciousness. It’s important to keep in mind how far south California is, compared to the great wine regions of Europe. For example, Bordeaux’s latitude is 44.8 degrees north, about the same as the State of Maine. Meanwhile, the latitude of Sonoma County is 38.5 degrees north, about the same as Sicily’s. So it’s easy to appreciate the difference in the climates of Bordeaux and California. The former is quite a bit cooler and rainier than most of California’s prime wine growing regions. Since wine grapes are a fruit, they behave like any other fruit. Give them enough warmth, dryness and sunshine, and they’ll get plump and ripe. Deprive them of sun and heat, and they can’t quite manufacture the sugars needed to make them sweet. Bordeaux has this problem several times each decade: a cool vintage leads to wines that can be lean and hard. California, by contrast, almost never has a cold vintage. The 2011 harvest was as tough as the state has seen in decades, yet even in that chilly year California produced wonderful wines, for the most part.

This “California-ness” has been dubbed by some wine writers as an example of a “New World” style of wine that also includes Australia, Argentina and Chile. (The “Old World” style would be Europe’s.) There’s a tendency for experts to lump all New World wines together and describe them as fruit-forward. To a large extent, this is true: The New World growing countries tend to be warmer and sunnier than “Old Europe.”

Yet I still think there’s a special California-ness to our wines, whether it’s a Pinot Noir from the Santa Maria Valley of Santa Barbara County, a Chardonnay from Monterey County, a Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley or a Zinfandel from Mendocino County. These are all going to be fresh, clean, vibrant wines, and each will be true to its varietal character: the Pinot Noir will taste like Pinot Noir, the Zinfandel will taste like Zinfandel, and so on. Each will possess that pinpointed focus that only California’s warm summer sunshine can coax from the grapes.

One final aspect of California’s terroir that sometimes escapes notice is the state’s mountains and hillsides. Anyone who’s ever driven from, say, San Francisco to Los Angeles is aware of how hilly the coast is. That’s because the San Andreas Fault System’s earthquakes have been rocking and uplifting California for millions of years. If the coast were flat, like the Central Valley, then California wine wouldn’t be as good as it is, even with our wonderful climate. But “grapevines love a hill,” says the old saying, and in California’s prime coastal regions, there are plenty of slopes for vines to cling to as they sing their song under the summer sun.

Steve Heimoff is one of America’s most respected and well-known wine writers. The former West Coast Editor for Wine Enthusiast Magazine and a contributor to Wine Spectator, he has also authored two books on the subject of California wine, including “New Classic Winemakers of California: Conversations with Steve Heimoff,” published in the fall of 2007.