Wine growing regions (A-E)

 

Wine UAn appellation is an officially recognized geographically defined region for growing grapes. The practice originated in France as a way to ensure quality of wines produced in specific regions. The French system regulates the grape varieties that may be grown in a specific appellation, how vines may be planted, what yields are permitted and other aspects of wine making. The thought behind the appellation system embraces the notion of  terroir: the impact of a region’s soil, climate, sun, water quality, and geography acting in concert to produce a wine of unique and irreproducible character. Appellations range in size: from very small single vineyards to vast expanses of land spanning hundreds of miles.

In the U.S. appellations are formally called American Viticultural Areas or AVAs. This system is less strict than the French (or other European) systems. Established by Congress in 1978, it was administered by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF), until 2003 when it was assigned to the newly formed  Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). The AVA system assures consumers that the wine they are drinking originates from a specific winemaker and growing area. However, unlike the French system, the AVA system requires only 85% of the grapes used come from within that specified AVA (in most cases). This is different from the requirements pertaining to labeling wines as  varietals. Such wines must contain a minimum of 75% of the grape variety indicated on the label (in most cases). The AVA system also does not limit the regions in the types of grapes grown, or regulate growing or winemaking practices.

Below are the major Californian AVAs with focus placed on the Central Coast. 

 

A

Amador County: (AVA)  "The Heart of the Mother Lode", as it’s promoted, Amador County is located in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, south east of Sacramento. While our focus is on the central coast, we acknowledge that winemakers in the North Coast and Central Coast will source fruit from outside their appellations. It was in fact the heart of the gold rush, but wine replaced gold in the 19th century. The rolling hills with iron rich volcanic, decomposed soils of granite bask in a warm, sunny climate. Zinfandel (and sibling, Primitivo) put the county back on the wine map. Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier as well as Barbera, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese, Syrah and Touriga Nacional are the most widely planted varieties. 

Arroyo Grande Valley: (AVA) A 16-mile-long serpentine valley in southern San Luis Obispo County, this valley moves eastward and then northeast as one travels deeper. The mouth of the valley is funnels in marine fog and breezes which cool the area. The climate of this region changes the farther one travels inland. Closes to the coast, at the valley’s mouth, is the coldest part of the appellation. Here sparkling wines dominate.  The the mid-portion of valley is more moderate in climate and Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are the predominant varieties grown. At the deepest reaches of the valley (which also attain elevations above the fog line, Zinfandel and Rhone varieties are grown with success.

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Arroyo Seco: (AVA) In the center of Monterey County's Salinas Valley, this appellation's claim to fame are white wines characterized by tropical fruit flavors. Many vineyards in this appellation also supply fruit to many prominent producers in California. The first plantings here were in 1962. The region can be divided in two uneven parts based on mesoclimate and, consequently, grape varieties. The larger eastern and central areas are planted predominately to Chardonnay and Riesling. Benefiting from one of California’s longest growing seasons and a balance of warm days and cool winds from Monterey bay, the grapes from this section of the appellation develop great complexity. The western portion of this appellation is much smaller. It forms a gorge that plunges into the Santa Lucia Mountains. These mountains block the cool Pacific winds. The resulting warmer climate is preferential to Zinfandel and Bordeaux and Rhone varietals. In addition to the geography, there is a distinct geology (in the form of 3-4 inch stones (or cobblestones) called "Greenfield Potatoes" which store and release heat and aid drainage) that defines this part of the AVA. Less fertile soils force the vines to develop deep root systems. As a result, the fruit on such vines is more concentrated and resulting wines benefit. There is a spectrum of salt and mineral content in the soils from east to west.  AVA Map.

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C

California: (AVA). Considered the leader in American viticulture and one of the best in the world. It was the first of the New World wine regions to compete with the classic French regions in quality and price. The turning point came in 1976 when several wines were rated better than their French counterparts in a blind tasting. Traditionally, the state’s strengths have been: Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Merlot, and Chardonnay. More recently, Rhône varietals such as Syrah, Grenache and Viognier have made a stake for the state in the world of wine. The state boasts more than 120 wine growing regions with Napa and Sonoma the historical leaders in quality. However, regions such as Santa Barbara County and its sub-regions and other appellations within the Central Coast region are rapidly becoming major players and leaders in wine production. Viticulture was brought to California nearly four centuries ago by Spanish missionaries who grew the Mission grape. Currently, there are over 1200 wineries with a cumulative 480,000 vineyard acres distributed across over 120 appellations which produce 560 million gallons of wine annually.

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Capay Valley: (AVA). Located in northwestern Yolo County, this region lies to the northeast of Napa, Lake and Colusa Counties but is not contiguous to any of them. Bounded by Blue Ridge Mountains to the west and the Capay Hills to the east, the valley received AVA status in 2003. Of the 102,000 acres total, there are 25 acres under vine as reported by the Bureau f Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF). Located more inland, and with mountains along its western border, it has a warmer climate than Napa. The growing season starts about a month earlier than in Napa and, along with hot, dry summers, tends to be very long. On the other hand, budbreak occurs about 2 weeks later than in growing regions to the north. To some extent, the higher temperatures are mitigated by breezes from the Sacramento Delta and San Francisco Bay as well as some coastal fog rolling in over the Blue Ridge when the bay itself experiences heavy fog. The ground fog typical of Sacramento Valley does not make it past the mountains surrounding this AVA. While there are several wine growers in this region, Capay Valley Vineyards (who presented the petition for AVA status) seem to be the leading producers growing Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo, Syrah, and Viognier.

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Carmel Valley: (AVA). Beginning five miles inland at Carmel Valley Village, this region’s 300 acres are situated above 1,000 feet along steep slopes following the Carmel River and Cachagua Creek in a southeast direction. Without the cooling effects of marine fog and winds, this AVA has a warmer climate than the northern portion of the Salinas Valley. This makes the region well-suited to Bordeaux varieties such as: Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot but also Zinfnadel.    AVA Map.

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Central Coast: (AVA) California's Central Coast is a huge coastal appellation to receive AVA status from the BATF. This exciting appellation spans from the San Francisco bay to Santa Barbara County. An estimated 100,000 acres under vine (the most territory under vine), cooled by the marine effect off the Pacific Ocean. Wineries in this appellation grow a diversity of grape varieties and range from small, boutique wineries and large-scale producers. This makes the Central coast a wine world onto itself. The Central Coast appellation includes numerous smaller AVAs within its boundaries. Initially planted in the mission period, the area was initially revitalized after prohibition by individual entrepreneurs - large and small, some seeking new land as Napa and Sonoma land prices rose and available vineyard land was less available for growing Bordeaux varieties. Initially, Chardonnay and Pinot noir made up the dominant varieties. Rhone varieties have since gained a strong foothold and are now a prominent portion of annual production. Appellations included in this large region are: Arroyo Grande Valley, San Antonio Valley, Arroyo Seco, San Benito, San Bernabe, Carmel Valley, San Francisco Bay, Chalone, San Lucas, Cienega Valley, San Luis Obispo County, Contra Costa County, San Ysidro District, Edna Valley, Santa Barbara County, Hames Valley, Santa Clara County, Lime Kiln, Santa Clara Valley, Livermore Valley, Santa Cruz County, Monterey, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County, Santa Maria Valley, Pacheco Pass, Santa Ynez Valley, Paicines, Santa Rita Hills, Paso Robles and York Mountain.

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Chalone: (AVA). Located in the Gabilan Mountains, this region stretches across the borders of Monterey and San Benito counties near the Pinnacle National Monument. Characterized by rugged terrain, this small appellation is home to under 300 acres of vineyards. It's location above the fog line results in an arid climate with a growing season with high daytime temperatures and low nighttime temperatures. While these climatic parameters make for balanced fruit, the characteristics of the limestone and decomposed granite-containing soils are believed to impart a minerality to wines from this AVA. The Chardonnay and Pinot Noir produced in this AVA have gained legendary status and a cult following because they are believed by many to have one of finest expressions of terroir anywhere. AVA Map.

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Cienega Valley: (AVA). Located at the foot of the Gabilan Mountains, some 30 miles inland from Monterey Bay, at the western border of San Benito County, the Cienega Valley AVA had largely been the domain of Almaden Vineyards (now a subsidiary of Constellation) in past years. Separated from Monterey County by the Gabilan Mountains, the Cienega Valley AVA straddles the San Andreas fault at elevations around 1,100 feet. The fault creates some distinct soil differences: east of the fault the soil contains granite and sandstone and west of the fault it contains granite and limestone. The Gabilan Mountain Range forms a barrier which prevents direct inflow of cool coastal winds  climate of the Monterey Basin and temperate Cienega Valley. The Diablo Mountain Range to the east, keeps out the intense heat of the San Joaquin Valley summers. This results in a Climate Region II classification. The AVA's only two wineries (DeRose Vineyards has 100 acres and Pietra Santa Has 150 acres) grow: Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Viognier, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignane, Dolcetto, Grenache, Merlot, Negrette (Pinot St. George), Sangiovese, Syrah and Zinfandel.

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E

Edna Valley: (AVA). This coastal region is located in the southern corner of San Luis Obispo County. Eight miles long, it runs east-west and is bordered by volcanic mountains to the north (Santa Lucia Mountains) and to the south (the lower, San Luis Mointains). This AVA is classified as a Climate Region I with a long growing season. Heat does no build up in this AVA. It rises quickly and draws in air from over the ocean. The Los Osos Valley connects the mouth of Edna Valley to Moro Bay. Through this channel, cooling ocean breezes clear afternoon fog. Nearby, to the southeast is Arroyo Grande which is its own appellation. To the north and northeast is Paso Robles - on the other side of the Santa Lucia Mountains. Edna Valley is best known for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir which have the complex flavors reflective of cool-climate regions. Syrah is coming to define itself here - both in acreage and distinct character. The valley has been home to viticulture for over 200 years, since the days of Spanish Missionaries but experienced a revival in the early 1970s when new vines were planted.

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