California's North Coast AVA is vast, and covers more than 3 million acres (1.2 million ha) of the five counties immediately north of San Francisco Bay. This area is home to some of the most valuable viticultural real estate in California, the United States and arguably the entire New World. Names such as Napa Valley, Sonoma Valley, Stags Leap, Oakville, Russian River, Alexander Valley and Carneros – the aristocracy of American wine – all fall within the boundaries of the North Coast viticultural area.
A rough-edged rectangle, the North Coast AVA measures 120 miles (195km) from north to south, and half that from east to west. Most defined geographical zones of this size find their boundaries governed by administrative limits such as county/state lines – this is true not just of the United States but also of Australia, France and Italy – but, impressively, this is not so for North Coast. Instead, AVA boundaries here are defined almost entirely by topographical factors, and geography is of prime importance to the area's AVA titles. That said, the 'coast' in 'North Coast' must certainly be taken with a pinch of salt; the AVA's eastern boundary passes a few miles inland of Clear Lake (Lake County), more than 50 miles (80km) from the coast.
The number of well-known AVAs within the North Coast means that the majority of high-quality wines from the area are labeled with the titles of more-prestigious, more-location-specific AVAs. As a consequence, most wines labeled as 'North Coast' are mass-produced blends made from vineyards scattered all over the region. It should be noted, however, that there are various scenarios whereby top-quality wines may be labeled with this 'lesser' appellation title. For example, a premium Cabernet Sauvignon made from a blend of Knights Valley and Calistoga grapes would not be eligible for their county AVAs (Sonoma County and Napa County respectively) and would thus be labeled as 'North Coast'.
The grape varieties grown around the North Coast differ little from those grown all over California as a whole. The obvious king and queen of the collective North Coast vineyards are Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, which together make up roughly half of all plantings. The other significant varieties here are Zinfandel, Merlot, Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc. Of course, the particular expression of each variety differs from county to county and from AVA to AVA, so there is no single 'North Coast' style for any varietal wine.
It is hard to sum up the geological and climatic qualities of such a large area, but there are a small number of generalisations that hold true for all North Coast vineyards. Because it is a mountainous, largely coastal region, summer temperatures here are significantly lower, and the winters noticeably milder, than further inland. Cooling coastal breezes, refreshing fog and crisp mountain air are all key ingredients of the North Coast terroir. Each of these helps in some way to balance out the one constant that affects all vineyards here: warm, bright Californian sunshine.
For more information on the wines produced within the North Coast region, and the vineyard areas they come from, please use the links below.