Although California Chardonnay, Cabernet and Merlot are still by far the most popular varietal wines in the U.S., comprising more than half of all California table wine sold in the U.S last year, recent data shows that the state’s winegrowers and vintners are increasingly catering to wine enthusiasts’ thirst for varietal diversity.
From winegrape acreage to the annual crush, a new crop of “emerging” varietals such as Pinot Gris/Grigio, Riesling, Pinot Noir and Tempranillo are gaining in wine production all over the Golden State. Vintners also are increasingly blending new combinations of popular and less-familiar varietals.
“Because of the cultural diversity of California’s growers and vintners, it’s only natural that the state would become a “melting pot” of varietal wines,” says Karen Ross, President of the California Association of Winegrape Growers, who notes that today the state grows more than 110 winegrape varietals.
“As winegrape growing passes from generation to generation, California growers’ understanding of which varietals grow best in their regions, AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) and vineyards has increased exponentially, resulting in the introduction and resurgence of a wide range of varietals.”
Adds Robert P. (Bobby) Koch, President and CEO of the Wine Institute: “American wine consumers are branching out. They still enjoy their favorites — Chardonnay, Cabernet, and Merlot — but have become more adventurous and are more willing to try other varietals.”
Among the emerging varietals are Grenache, now being made at 48 wineries; Gewurztraminer, 32 wineries; Muscat/Moscato, 57 wineries; Petite Sirah, 136 wineries; Pinot Gris/Grigio, 82 wineries; Pinot Noir, 234 wineries; Riesling, 41 wineries; Sangiovese, 98 wineries; Syrah, 315 wineries; Tempranillo, 36 wineries; and Viognier, 123 wineries.
These emerging varietals are a natural outcome of California’s ideal yet varied climate and soil for growing winegrapes. A central fact of California winegrowing is the long Pacific Ocean coastline, stretching nearly 780 miles from Oregon to Mexico.
With 108 AVAs, more than 4,600 winegrape growers and an estimated 3,000 bonded wineries, California grows winegrapes in 46 of its 58 counties.
Its tumultuous geologic history yields more than 2,000 distinct soil types, and each AVA is distinguished by climate, soil structure, topography and elevation. The cooling ocean fog and breezes moderate the state’s steady sunshine. Combined with the north-south axis of the coastal mountains and inland valleys, these conditions create a temperate climate where winegrapes thrive.
Unlike some Old World wine regions, California growers and vintners are free from regulations that dictate where and how certain varietals can be grown, enabling greater flexibility in matching winegrapes to the right soils and microclimates.
Restaurants, in particular, have been on the leading edge of featuring and promoting lesser-known varietals.
“Restaurants find that putting unconventional varietals on the wine list is a competitive advantage; they use it to attract customers,” says Ronn Wiegand, MW, MS, and publisher of Restaurant Wine, who notes the trend has taken hold at fine dining establishments from coast to coast.
“Like a chef always trying new ingredients, restaurants use these ‘discovery’ wines to increase excitement about the dining experience.”