Although California has an outstanding reputation for fine white wines, don't overlook some of it's red wine offerings. The climate, soil conditions and proximity to water make much of California highly suitable to growing wine grapes. There are three very nice red wines that are produced in California that you should consider when giving a gift of California wine.
Merlot is a thin-skinned red grape that originated in Italy in the early 19th century. California has dedicated well over 50,000 acres to growing the Merlot grape varietal. For many years, Merlots were primarily used as a blending wine but the proper vintage can be enjoyable on it's own.
Some of the highest quality Merlot grapes are grown in California, mainly in the Sonoma and Napa Valley wine regions. The excellent soil conditions in those areas help to produce Merlots that are delicious stand alone wines. The variety in soils can produce Merlots that range from a smooth, velvety wine to wines that are more similar in composition to Cabernet Sauvignon.
Merlots are low in tannin which creates a smooth, easy-to-drink wine that has a low acidity level. This is due partially to the thin skin of the grape as well as to it's earlier ripening stage. It lends itself to a huge variety of flavors such as black cherry, plum and current as well as tangier notes like bay leaf and bell peppers.
Merlot tends to be less intense than other red wines and so is easier to pair with different food combinations. It is worth noting that Merlot should be served slightly colder than other red wines. Room temperatures bring out the best in other reds but Merlots can develop unpleasant notes if it is allowed to get too warm. Chilling for just a brief time will help to keep this wine at it's best.
Another red wine that is rising in popularity recently is the Pinot Noir. Traditionally this varietal is difficult to grow consistently as it is delicate and mutates easily. This can result in undesirable qualities in the wine produced from these grapes. This difficulty contributes to the somewhat higher prices of fine vintages of Pinot Noir but the quality is well worth spending a bit more.
Pinot Noir wines are lighter in color than many other red wines and are one of the most delicately flavored reds. An aromatic wine, you will often find wines with notes of cherries, berries, spices and even violets. Due to it's delicate flavor, you will want to pair Pinot Noir with less spicy foods so that the flavor of the wine will not be covered.
Another red wine produced in California that makes a lovely wine gift is the Cabernet Sauvignon. Because the demand is so high, some vintages can be a little on the expensive side but if you search you should find a reasonable California vintage. This red wine ages very well, developing a rich complexity and wide depth of flavors. Although it may cost a bit more, this wine will make a very impressive gift.