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In this guide the table wines of California are classified according to color, red, white, or rose, and according to whether they are generic or varietal.
By generic is meant a type of wine with a name, usually of European origin, which has become generic through long and popular usage. The best-known examples of these, among the table wines, are California claret, burgundy, and chianti in the reds; California sauterne, chablis, and rhine wine in the whites; California vin rose in the pink or rose wines.
By varietal is meant a wine, produced principally or exclusively from a particular variety of grape after which it is named. The most popular California varietal red table wines are Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel; Pinot Noir and Gamay; Grignolino. In the white table-wine class they are California Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc; Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc; White Riesling, Traminer, Sylvaner, Grey Riesling and Riesling. In the California rose group they are Grenache Rose and Gamay Rose.
In marketing a table wine with a generic name the producer either tries to approximate the European-wine type or he simply uses the name in response to the demand. The public insists on claret and burgundy, sauterne and chablis. The producers, to stay in business, must comply. In the less expensive brands there is sometimes remarkably little difference between various red or white types save the name of the wine on the label. Generic table wines, being usually the cheaper types to produce, are also the most in demand and there are many fine wines among them.
At the same time the trend toward California varietal table wines is increasing as the public becomes more particular as to quality and flavor. The laws are strict and a wine can-or should-be called after a grape only if 51 or more per cent of the wine is produced from that grape. A varietal wine, also, should possess the distinctive color, aroma and flavor of the dominant grape. These qualities should be easily recognizable, and not only by the experts. They should always be pleasing, representing the basic criteria of a fine wine. There is no point in producing a varietal wine just for the sake of a varietal name. Quality and character are essential. Less distinctive varietals had better be used in blending and bottled as generics.
Some very fine California wines are produced from a careful blending of choice grape varieties, each lending its own character to form that of the final product and with none predominating sufficiently to call the wine by a varietal name. Blends often result in better wines, as any wine maker can confirm. Blended wines of high quality, with typical California names, may well have a great future field of their own. There is a place for blends as well as for varietals, straight or otherwise. They each have their own merits.
Vintage years matter less in California than in France and Germany, where temperatures, affecting the grape harvest and the resulting wines, vary considerably. In California the sun distributes its favors more evenly and frequently so that successive vintages resemble each other closely, with an average variation estimated at 15 per cent. Even so, naturally, some years are more favorable than others, especially in the northern coastal districts.
Indication of a vintage on a California wine serves mostly to identify it and to give the consumer an idea of its age. Vintage charts would only be of real value if made up by each winery for the wines produced from grapes grown in its own vineyards, by type of wine and by vineyard. No such charts are available to date.
Some top-flight California winegrowers market vintage wines regularly; others prefer to blend the wines of various years to ensure continuity of character. If a vintage is mentioned on the label, the wine must, by law, have been produced for ioo per cent in the year indicated.
Which are the finest California table wines?
The answer involves three separate factors: the grapes from which the wines are made, the district of origin, and the reputation of the winegrower.
The best table wine grapes, that is, those imparting the right aroma, flavor, and color, yield the finest table wines. It is therefore useful to be familiar with these grapes, after which the finest varietal wines are named and which also contribute to the best of the generic types. Such varietals are treated in some detail in the text, the greatest of all being printed in capital letters.
The superior table wine grapes flourish the best, on account of climate and soil, in the northern coastal counties, where they like to grow and mature "the hard way." For that reason the finest of all California table wines are produced in that region, notably in the counties of Napa and Sonoma, the Livermore Valley in Alameda, and the counties of Santa Clara and Santa Cruz.
These are the so-called "appellations of origin" to look for on the label when desiring the highest-quality table wines. Any such appellation means, by law, that the wine has been produced from grapes grown and fermented for at least 75 per cent in the designated area.
Table wines of high quality are also produced in other northern sections, as in southern Alameda, San Benito, Contra Costa, and Solano counties. These wines are usually labeled as "California," the district of origin being less familiar to the public.
Separate mention must be made here of the fine table winesnotably those of red Italian types-produced in the Cucamonga district of San Bernardino County in Southern California. Many of these carry the Cucamonga appellation of origin on the label.
The inland valley region, home of many of the standard-quality table wines, also produces some finer ones. All wines of this vast region are labeled with the name of the state. Many of them are blended, for character and quality, with northern coastal county wines.
It is important to keep in mind that if the grapes do not originate in the same county or district where the winery is situated the resulting wines cannot be labeled with the appellation of origin. This explains why many wines produced or bottled by winegrowers in the best-known districts are nevertheless designated as "California" wines. The ultimate guarantee of quality for a table or any other type of wine is the reputation of the winegrower or producer.
There are, finally, a number of small family wineries scattered throughout the state which produce good, sound, inexpensive "country" table wines which have a limited and local distribution. These are well worth while locating and tasting for those who have the interest and the leisure.
Information concerning the location of all California wineries, large and small, can be obtained from the Wine Institute in San Francisco or at its various branch offices.
The red, white, and rose table wines of California, varietal and generic, are grouped in this guide according to over-all similarity in character. Each class is described in general terms and each varietal and generic type separately.
The normal use and service of each class of wine is indicated, as are suggestions for fullest enjoyment. By room temperature is meant the normal temperature of the room, around 65-75° Fahrenheit. By chilling is meant chilling in the refrigerator away from the freezing unit or from the deep freezer. Chilling a wine too long will kill its character. All table wines, red, white, and rose, chilled or not, should be opened shortly before the meal to release their bouquet and flavor fully.