Top 10 Emerging Wine Regions - California

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rockpile_vitmap.jpgBy Courtney Cochran

With close to 200 American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) recognized in the US - more than 100 of which are in California alone - there's no shortage of interesting domestic wine regions for oenophiles to explore.  And, thanks to the bumper crop of AVAs recently added to California's already impressive lineup, there's an exciting bunch of new regions angling for your attention.  Read on for our picks on those to watch.
Red Hills Lake County
Officially recognized as an AVA in 2004, Red Hills Lake County takes its name from the flaming red soils that blanket its rolling hills.  The soil's eye candy color comes courtesy of nearby Mount Konocti, an extinct volcano that sits on the edge of Clear Lake, the largest natural freshwater lake in California.  Keep your eyes peeled for the area's show-stopping Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and Syrah.

Rockpile
An extreme, high-altitude growing area in northern Sonoma County, Rockpile produces some of the Golden State's most intensely flavored Zinfandel.  Only officially recognized as an AVA since 2002, the region - which doesn't have a single resident winery - is showing up more and more often on wine labels, the result of adventurous winemakers' commitment to sourcing fruit from the area.

Wild Horse Valley
With just over 100 acres under vine and a single winery calling the region home, Wild Horse Valley may seem more like a sleeper AVA than an up-and-coming area.  But the district, located on the southeastern edge of Napa County, produces impressive - though largely underappreciated - wines thanks its advantageous location adjacent to San Pablo Bay.  A region to watch.      

Oak Knoll District of Napa Valley
First recognized as an AVA in 2004, Oak Knoll District of Napa Valley is a bit of a mouthful, but at least it's a promising mouthful.  Situated just north of the cool Carneros district, Oak Knoll is Napa's second-coolest region, a fact that makes it a hospitable spot for both red and white wine production.  Keep your eyes peeled for Oak Knoll Chardonnay, Cabernet, Meritage blends and, yes, even Riesling.    

Malibu-Newton Canyon
Singularly occupied by Rosenthal - The Malibu Estate, whose proprietor first planted a vineyard four miles inland from a bucolic stretch of California coastline in 1987, Malibu-Newton Canyon AVA has enjoyed commercial success with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Chardonnay.  Here, cool, foggy mornings and evening winds lend respite to an otherwise balmy area.    

Sta. Rita Hills
Officially gaining AVA status in 2001, the Santa Rita Hills have lately produced some of the state's most sought-after Pinot Noir.  Thanks to the thick fog that frequently blankets its coastal vineyards north of Santa Barbara, the area is one of the coolest regions for grape growing in the Golden State.  Don't miss its many elegant Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs, but expect to pay a premium when buying Sta. Rita wines.

Madera
Home to more than 10% of California's vines, Central California's Madera AVA has long been a prolific producer of mostly forgettable bulk wine.  But recent efforts by nearby Fresno State's pioneering on-campus winery have had a ripple-effect on local producers, and the quality of wines made in the area is on the rise.  Watch for the region's many sweet Muscat and Port-style wines, as well as some surprisingly good Syrahs.

San Antonio Valley
Newly recognized as an AVA in 2006, San Antonio Valley benefits from a prime location in the Santa Lucia coastal range in southern Monterey County.  A highland valley with significant day-night temperature swings, San Antonio produces fruit with a solid balance between sugar and acidity levels - the foundation of terrific wine.  Watch for Cabernet Sauvignon and Rhône varieties.

Ramona Valley
Located 28 miles northeast of the city of San Diego, Ramona Valley gained AVA status as recently as 2006.  Currently home to a respectable 20 vineyards and 9 wineries (2 of which have tasting rooms), the high-elevation region produces mostly thick-skinned red varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Mourvèdre, which are more disease-resistant than earlier grapes favored in the area.

High Valley
The volcanic slopes of Lake County's High Valley vineyards clock in between 1,600 and 3,000 feet elevation and benefit from the cool coastal breezes that blanket the east-west-oriented valley.  Recognized as an AVA in 2005, High Valley boasts spectacular mountainside and valley floor vineyards that produce muscular Bordeaux blends, Syrah and an impressively diverse lineup of white wines.

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