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Appellations of California Wine – Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys, Delta and Sierra Foothills

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Viticulture in California's vast interior valley, nestled between the state's coastal mountain range and the Sierra Nevada, is actually two valleys: the Sacramento Valley in the north and the San Joaquin Valley in the south, which includes the Delta area located in the middle where the two valleys meet. Although the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys are not designated American Viticultural Areas (AVAs), the region produces 70 percent of the state's winegrapes and is home to 15 AVAs. The Sierra Foothills region is an AVA that runs adjacent to both valleys on the east side, along the Sierra Nevada Mountains. About 0.5 percent of the winegrapes grown in the state are produced from the Sierras.

American Viticultural Areas are to appellations of origin as grapes are to fruit. AVAs are delimited grape growing areas distinguishable by geographic, climatic and historic features, and the boundaries have been delineated in a petition filed and accepted by the federal government. In size, AVAs range from extremely small to extremely large. AVAs are one kind of appellation, but not all appellations are AVAs. An appellation can also be a political designation, such as the name of a country, a state or states, or a county or counties within a state.

 

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The Sacramento Valley runs for approximately 120 miles from Red Bluff in the northern end of the valley to the city of Sacramento. Bordered by the Sierra Nevada to the east and the Coast Ranges to the west, this level, sun-drenched, agriculturally rich area is unaffected by ocean influences. The region has about 8,000 acres of winegrapes. Chardonnay is the most prominent variety and Zinfandel follows. There are some 16 wineries, and approximately two percent of the total state winegrape crush comes from this region.

 

The Delta

The Sacramento and San Joaquin Valley meet at the river delta about 100 miles east of San Francisco, roughly encompassing portions of Solano, Yolo, Sacramento and San Joaquin counties. Here Chardonnay is also the most widely planted variety with Zinfandel a close second.

Within the Delta area, the Lodi AVA has been a major winegrowing region since the 1850s. Grapes were always part of the local landscape, growing wild, dangling from the trees along the riverbanks. Early trappers called one stream "Wine Creek," due to the abundance of wild vines. The river was later renamed the Calaveras River, and flows through the southern part of the Lodi area. Today, the Lodi AVA is farmed by more than 750 growers. About 60 wineries are located in this picturesque rural area known for its older head-trained grapevines. Like the other Delta wine areas that include the Clarksburg AVA with its 10 wineries and 9,000 vineyard acres and the Merritt Island AVA, Lodi is also defined by its proximity to the Pacific Ocean and the coastal gap where the northern and southern coastal ranges meet at the San Francisco Bay. As temperatures rise in the state's vast interior valley, cool maritime breezes are pulled directly through the Delta area, creating a distinctive climate that has allowed premium winegrapes to thrive for more than a century. Lodi has a Mediterranean climate, with warm, dry summers and cool, moist winters. Deep, sandy clay loam soils predominate.

 

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One of the richest agricultural areas in the world, the San Joaquin Valley measures about 220 miles in length and 40 to 60 miles in width, extending from around Stockton south to Bakersfield. There are five million acres of irrigated farmlands planted to cotton, grains, vegetables, fruits and nuts. The majority of wine, table and raisin grapes in California are grown in this valley. French Colombard is the leading variety. Chardonnay is the second most planted grape. The red winegrape with the most acreage is Zinfandel. By far the largest producing area in the state, the San Joaquin Valley accounts for more than 44 percent of the total state winegrape crush. There are more than 30 wineries and four AVAs.

The Sierra Nevada mountains form the eastern border of this grand expanse of land, and the lower, more irregular Coast Ranges define it to the west. Irrigation of this land with limited rainfall comes from two huge reservoir and canal systems that bring water from the length of the Sierras to the valley farmers. Although grapes have been grown in the region for more than 100 years, there has been a continuing advance in grape and wine quality due to viticultural refinements, including new varieties, rootstocks, trellis systems and irrigation techniques. These advancements are helping to transform the San Joaquin Valley from a generic into a varietal wine producer.

 

Sierra Foothills

sierra foothills highlight SMALLThe California Gold Country is also a wine region. Originating back to the gold rush days, the first grapes were planted in the 1850s, as a lot of wine was needed to quench the thirst of the Forty-Niner population that migrated to the state at this time. The Sierra Foothills AVA stretches from Yuba County in the north to Mariposa County in the south, along the western portion of the Sierra Nevada, with Amador, El Dorado and Calaveras counties in the center. Within the entire Sierra Foothills AVA, which totals 2,600,000 acres, there are five other AVAs: California

Shenandoah Valley, El Dorado, Fair Play, Fiddletown, and North Yuba. The total winegrape vineyard acreage in the Sierra Foothills AVA is 5,700 acres. Zinfandel has the largest amount of plantings, followed by Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Chardonnay, Merlot, , and Barbera. More than 100 wineries are nestled throughout the nooks and crannies of the foothills, with vineyards generally located between 1,500 to 3,000 feet where elevation creates a four-season climate. The shallow, mountainside soils create moderate stress on the vines, producing low to moderate yields and high quality.

The Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys, the interior of California, are the agricultural heartland of the state. Winegrapes are only one of the bountiful crops grown in this immense expanse of farmland. Lodi, Solano and the rest of the Delta area differ from the vast valley regions in their proximity to the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay influence of maritime breezes. The Sierra Foothills could be described as an interior AVA, but its climate and soil conditions starkly contrast all aspects of those viticultural areas on the extensive valley floor below.

 

(Wine Institute sources contributed to this article.)

 

Links to the websites of thousands of lodging and dining options in the Central Valley and Gold Country regions can be found in Taste California Travel's Resource Directory. Also in the Resource Directory are links to most, if not all, of the wineries.

 

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