Spain vs California Part 1

January 11, 2021

(Click HERE for Part 2 to this post!)

To get ready for our Spain vs California tasting on January 31st, we had a chat with Raúl Orantes (our wine expert who leads out Tasting & Tapas sessions!) and he laid out some basic information essential to understanding these two, complex regions that are producing some of the world’s most celebrated wines.

In terms of size, at 430,000 square kilometers, California is slightly smaller than Spain’s half a million square kilometers. California’s population of 39 million is also slightly less than Spain’s 46 million. So, we are looking at two relatively comparable regions, despite one being a state and the other a country. However, Spain dedicates 4 times as much land to growing grapes as California (approximately 600,000 acres in California and 2.5 million acres in Spain). With such considerably larger grape growing territory, does this mean Spain is producing better wine? Not necessarily!

California has many different areas dedicated to the pursuit of grape growing and wine making. Most people have heard about Napa Valley, but the region is not in fact the largest producer of grapes in California. The area churning out the most wine is Lodi Valley located in the center of California’s Central Valley. In Raúl’s opinion though, Napa and the North coast, or from San Francisco to the North, produce the highest quality wines.

To help us understand the reason for growing specific grapes, Raúl broke down the climates in the two regions for us. California, situated on the west coast of the US along the Pacific Ocean, is greatly affected by the cold, ocean draft. Napa Valley and Sonoma are located side by side, with the former lying more inland than the latter.  The two regions are protected from this cold air by mountains and have a generally warmer climate than surrounding areas such as Monterey and Santa Barbara. 

Raúl tells us that there are wildly different climates in the north and south of Napa Valley. The northern part is much warmer than the southern part because of the south’s proximity to the San Pablo Bay. Sonoma’s southern area, where we find the carneros wine region, is the coolest area of the north coast, also receiving influence from San Pablo Bay, making it characteristically foggy and prime land for growing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. As we travel north in Sonoma, the climate generally becomes warmer, except for the area of Petaluma, which is located in a gap in the mountain range that allows for a chilly jet of air to enter, dropping temperatures substantially. The winery of our Sonoma winemaker guest for the upcoming tasting, Palmer Emmitt, is located in Healdsburg in the north of Sonoma County. To summarize, it is difficult to generalize when discussing Sonoma County’s climate, as it is home to an array of microclimates, but as a whole, it is comfortable with mild temperatures, hardly any rainfall, and plenty of fog! 

The country of Spain is completely surrounded by water, a characteristic that generally creates a mild climate with consistent temperatures throughout the year. However, Spain’s climate cannot be summed up quite so easily! The middle of the country, where Madrid is located, has a continental climate with extremely hot summers and very cold winters. The frigid temperatures are due to the large plateau that elevates Spain, making it the second highest country in altitude in all of Europe. If it was not for this plateau, which makes grape growing possible, central Spain would be an unbearably hot desert! The extreme temperatures describe not only the yearly range but also apply to weather in a single day. In Ribera del Duero in summer, for example, you can see temperatures of 40 degrees celsius/105 Fahrenheit during the day and at night temperatures that drop to only 8 celcius/46 F! This nightly cool off, Raúl explains, is a blessing, as it prevents grapes from ripening too quickly and becoming too sweet. Finally, in addition to the extreme continental climate and mild Mediterranean climate, Spain also has a mild yet very wet Atlantic climate in its north western region where Galicia is situated. The diversity of climates present in Spain allows for the growth of thousands of grape varieties and, therefore, the production of an incredibly diverse range of wines.

Spain is famous for its native grape varieties such as Tempranillo, Garnacha, Bobal, Airén, Albariño and Verdejo, to name just a few of the hundreds. California, however, has less variety and focuses primarily on growing French grapes, particularly the Bordeaux blends Cabernet and Merlot and Pinot Noir from Burgundy. According to Raúl, they do Bordeaux styles exceptionally well, as Cabernet thrives in California.  And be careful how much California Bordeaux you are consuming because Raúl tells us the wines have a considerably larger amount of alcohol than their French counterparts. This is due to the later harvest of grapes in California. California has a mild autumn with much less rainfall than in France, allowing them to keep grapes ageing on the vine a bit longer, which subsequently produces more alcohol and bigger flavors.

Stay tuned for our next blog, where we tell you a bit about our tasting co-host, California winemaker, Palmer Emmitt, and reveal his thoughts on Spanish vs California wines. And don’t forget to sign up for the tasting on Sunday, January 31st!

by Meg Emmitt

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