Everything you need to know about the best California wines

Beth Liston is director of winemaking at California-based winemaker Dark Horse. She shares what makes Californian wines so exceptional

Best California wines, according to Calfornian winemaker Beth Liston

California here we come – and we've got our eyes set on sampling some of the Golden State's spectacular range of wines.

Oenophiles will likely be familiar with some of the Californian regions already: Napa Valley, Sonoma County and the Central Valley are practically common parlance in the world of wine.

But that's only the beginning. What makes Californian wines so delicious, and where should you start if you haven't tried them yet?

We've enlisted the help of Beth Liston, director of winemaking at Dark Horse, to introduce us to the best California wines and explain what makes them so great.

And Liston is in a good position to know: her vision leads Dark Horse, a winemaker known for bringing the unconventional to everything it does – including delivering fantastic-quality Californian wines at a reasonable price point.

Here's everything you need to know about the best California wines.

Best California wines: Dark Horse's Beth Liston in the vineyard

Dark Horse's Beth Liston in the vineyard

What makes Californian wine so special?

In California, winemaking offers a sense of adventure. The sunshine, mild temperatures, soil and diverse terrain create spectacular conditions for growing grapes of all different types in California.

For Dark Horse, we select from over 100 grape varieties that thrive in our backyard – the best growing regions in California. For example, we source cabernet sauvignon grapes from Lodi, California a sun-drenched region where these grapes thrive.

What makes the region so well-suited to winemaking?

With 141 American Viticultural Areas (AVA), California offers everything from high-elevation growing to coastal valleys where chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon thrive.

In many regions, the vines experience high sunlight buffered by cooling marine fog from the Pacific Ocean, rivers and lakes that help lengthen the growing season. At Dark Horse, we work side-by-side with 400 carefully selected growers to take the first of grapes from their harvest so we have the best possible fruit for our wines.

What are the main Californian grapes/wines to look out for?

Our leading grape varieties are cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, merlot and sauvignon blanc. Dark Horse offers all of California's top varieties at a reasonable price, so our fans can explore to their heart's content.

At Dark Horse, we work side-by-side with 400 carefully selected growers to take the first of grapes from their harvest so we have the best possible fruit for our wines.

How do you know you're choosing a quality Californian wine?

If the label says: 'Dark Horse.' I'm only half-kidding. California is the Golden State. Out of all the wine exported from the United States, California makes 95 percent. When you sip Dark Horse, you'll explore wine from some of California's best growing regions – which could be near a dusty goldmine town or a riverside slope where bears used to fish. We carefully select the fruit from these regions, then use innovative vineyard management and winemaking techniques to create exceptional wines that over deliver on quality.

How does Dark Horse choose the growers it works with?

Our winemaking team has built relationships with our growers, who allow us the first pick of their grapes. We work closely with them to monitor the fruit's development from growing season to harvest. Once the grapes arrive at the winery, we manage every detail to ensure we make balanced, varietally correct wines that deliver the unexpected in the glass. I personally taste our wines more than 100 times as it journeys from vine to bottle.

What are the best food pairings with Californian wines, especially ones from Dark Horse?

Dark Horse wine is varietally correct and invites unexpected pairings. We've included some crowd pleasers here, but don't be afraid to serve cabernet sauvignon with a chili con carne or pair merlot with a roast monkfish.

  • Chardonnay is practically made for a bubbly cheese fondue, seafood dishes and citrusy tarts.
  • Cabernet Sauvignon is a natural with everything from juicy steak to grilled tuna or mushroom risotto.
  • Pinot grigio tames the heat of Indian cuisine like masala-spiced winter greens or tandoor-cooked chicken.
  • Sauvignon blanc works well with green vegetables, such as artichokes and asparagus and briny seafood like oysters.
  • Malbec is a must-try with sushi. The umami undertones go well with fish without being overpowered by wasabi.
  • Merlot goes swimmingly with Italian dishes drenched in tomato sauce. Or try it with blueberry compote – don't knock it till you've tried it.
Best California wines: Dark Horse's range

Dark Horse is known for daring winemaking techniques – what inspires you when you're making wine?

Dark Horse has discovery at its core. So, I look for inspiration everywhere, especially when I travel. We make our own rules making bold, ambitious blends using winemaking techniques typically reserved for higher-priced wine. Our hope is that Dark Horse inspires wine enthusiasts to chart their own adventures with cuisine.

Which Californian wines work well at Christmas?

Chardonnay and merlot are so versatile, they're a sure-fire hit with a range of the traditional festive favourites: turkey, stuffing, gravy, roast potatoes, Brussels sprouts, parsnips, Yorkshire pudding and cranberry. For vegetarians, the merlot is delicious with flaky veggie wellington, saffron Brussels sprouts, vegetable stew and vegetarian pie.

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