Top 5 Californian Wines

Published by Ellen Doggett on 05/05/2020

New to Californian wines and want to know the best grape varieties to try first? Californian wine-lover Ellen Doggett takes a look at the incredible diversity of the golden state's wines.

California at Home

Welcome to 2020, the year of social distancing, zoom meetings, secret loo roll hoarders and obsessing over baking sourdough. It is a bizarre time, and we are stuck at home dreaming of the places we will visit when lockdown lifts.

For us, many of those places are in California. Sipping beautiful wines, overlooking sun-soaked vineyards; exploring everything our favourite US State has to offer. Yet perhaps exploring California can take on a new guise these days. Through a wine bottle enjoyed at our dining table, in the garden or a comfortable armchair.

This is the kind of lockdown exploration we can get behind, but where to start?

We have whittled this adventure down to the top five grape varieties that perfectly sum up the diversity and deliciousness of Californian wine.

5. Zinfandel

Despite a reputation for being just sweet and pink, or beefy and tannic, this variety is a chameleon.

To pigeonhole this grape into two styles does it a disservice. This variety is one of the most versatile grapes grown in California today. It is genetically identical to Italian Primitivo and Croation Crljenak, both countries whose immigrants played a big role in the history of Californian wine. From light, fragrant and delicate, to bold, muscular and rich, Zinfandel can fall anywhere on the red wine style spectrum.

Looking for something fresh, with silky structure? Try Viano Vineyards 2016 Zinfandel, one of the oldest wineries in the San Francisco area and completely organic. Interested in a bolder, balanced style? Broc Cellars 2017 ‘Wirth Vineyard’ Zinfandel is a real winner. Based in Berkeley, Chris Brockway is a pioneer in the ‘Urban Winery’ concept, and sources the finest fruit from across California.

4. Cabernet Sauvignon

Cabernet Sauvignon rules supreme in California, and for good reason.

Originally from Bordeaux, this grape found a natural second home in the golden state. It helped catapult California to world acclaim, when its top Cabernets triumphed against their Bordeaux equivalents in the 1976 blind tasting ‘The Judgement of Paris’ (looking for a good lockdown film about the tasting? Try ‘Bottle Shock’). Like Zinfandel, it is extremely versatile. Grown in abundance from north to south, each region in California has its own unique expression.

Napa Valley-styling without the price tag? Slingshot has you covered, with their brilliant value 2017 Cabernet. Something more ‘cult’, from a mountainous area? Mount Eden in Santa Cruz is unrivalled. We love their second wine, Domaine Eden, as an earlier drinking style. A contemporary twist on the classic comes with Arnot Roberts in Sonoma. Their 2016 Montecillo Vineyard Cabernet is the perfect balance between rich fruit and elegant structure.

3. Syrah

A sun-loving variety that thrives in California.

Originally from the Rhone Valley, Syrah gained popularity in the golden state as Americans fell in love with Hermitage and Cote Rotie. Local producers cottoned onto this trend, planting Syrah to try and replicate this success on home soil. It was not an instant success though. For years Syrah lived in the shadow of Zinfandel and Cabernet, but all that changed when a new generation of winemakers tapped into its potential. This is an exciting time to be drinking Californian Syrah.

Seth and Megan Kunin shone light on Syrah in Santa Barbara. We would recommend their 2016 vintage, for the perfect mix of ripe Californian fruit and classic Syrah spice. For something more intense, anything produced by Piedrasassi is a winner. Focusing on cool climate sites, Sashi Moorman and his wife have propelled this grape variety to great acclaim.

Top five Californian wines - on the beach

2. Pinot Noir

Notoriously difficult to grow, but if you get it right the results are amazing.

In California’s sun-soaked climate, Pinot Noir needs to be planted on the coolest sites and grown very carefully. The best Pinot Noir vineyards in the golden state are some of the most extreme, teetering near cliff edges, on the side of mountains, or as close to the sea as possible. Rolling morning fogs, higher altitudes or cool breeze from the coast are the recipe for success for Pinot Noir in California. And what success they have, producing wines that can even rival top Burgundy.

Fancy something fun, light and quirky? Moobuzz produce vibrant Pinot (blended with a tiny percentage of Italian grapes), in the coastal region of Monterey County. Perfect slightly chilled. If you want to go straight to the top, Domaine de la Cote in Santa Rita Hills is a must. Small quantities and unrivalled quality.

1. Chardonnay

Though California is perhaps most famed for red wines, do not underestimate the star power of its Chardonnay.

Chardonnay was the other variety that triumphed in the Judgement of Paris, making the world sit up and pay attention to Californian Wine. Chardonnay is a grape that thrives here. However, it did once fall out of fashion thanks to producers getting a bit heavy handed with the oak. That has changed dramatically in recent years. Now winemakers strive for fresher, leaner, complex Chardonnays that are more salted butter and less rich cream!

Fancy something full flavoured, but still mineral and fresh? Michael Cruse’s ‘Rorick’ Chardonnay fits the bill. Grown in the Sierra Foothills, this is a great example of modern Californian Chardonnay at its best. If you are a Burgundy drinker keen to try new things, we cannot get enough of Jamie Kutch. Playfully nicknamed ‘Kutch Dury’ by his fans, these Sonoma Coast wines are some of the best in the State.


For more fantastic Californian wines, check our our Postcards from California collection and sign up to our mailing list.

Ellen doggett

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