America's New Summer Whites

Your guide to the alternative varieties that are shaking up the California wine establishment.

Cezar Kusik, the wine director at San Francisco’s trendy Twenty Five Lusk restaurant, likes to play “the challenge game” with customers.

“If they ask for something predictable, I’ll say, ‘Try something new—if you don’t like it, I’ll get you whatever you’re accustomed to.’ ”

His older customers, “who have habits they can’t change,” frequently stick with oaky California Chardonnays, “even with the steak,” Kusik says.
But younger patrons almost always embrace his recommendations, even when they’re as exotic as Foxen’s 2011 Ernesto Wickenden Old Vines Chenin Blanc.

“The retail customers I talk to like these fresh, interesting wines,” says BevMo! cellar master Wilfred Wong, referring to varieties like Albariño, Chenin Blanc and Vermentino. “They’re not tied to the Chardonnay past.”

The new fans don’t go by critics or even his own in-store recommendations, Wong says.

“They’re on Pinterest or Twitter and just want to have fun with wines they can drink right away, that aren’t pretentious and can be great for $20 or less.”

Winemakers are taking note of this seismic shift. The white wine market in California is still dominated by Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc, in that order.

But alternative whites are coming on strong, and with the arrival of summer, these light, crisp wines come into their own.

What these wines share in common are moderate alcohol levels, no oak or neutral oak and mouthwatering acidity. Many winemakers avoid malolactic fermentation to preserve the malic acid that can make wines like these so zingy and refreshing.

If oak barrels are employed, they’re previously used, so they impart little or no wood character, just a slight suggestion of toast or roundness. But mostly, these wines never see a stave of oak.

Instead, they’re fermented in stainless-steel tanks, with some winemakers resting batches on lees (spent yeast cells) while in tank to impart creamy notes and complexity. The bottom line is that the majority of these wines are bottled in late winter or spring, mere months after the harvest, to preserve the freshness of each variety.

New Wave, but Old Roots

American consumers proved they had a taste for non-Chardonnay whites when they launched Pinot Grigio/Gris to superstardom years ago. And remember the ABC—“Anything but Chardonnay”—movement?

More recently, consumers have developed an attraction to sweet, Muscat-based wines, while Riesling has long vied for their affections. But the millennial generation has given these alternative whites a go, and the trend, it appears, is here to stay.

The proof lies in California’s vine plantings. Courtesy of California’s Department of Agriculture, here are statistics on seven of the popular alternative white varieties (exclusive of Pinot Grigio, Riesling and Muscat), showing how their acreage expanded from 2003–2011.

Albariño: Many of the new plantings are in Monterey and San Luis Obispo counties.

Chenin Blanc: No significant change. While Central Valley acreage has held steady, there’s renewed interest in dry, crisp styles from the Central Coast.

Gewürztraminer: With new vines all along the Pacific Coast, vintners are taking a fresh look at how to make the variety in a light, appealing style.

Grüner Veltliner: From 0 acres to 266. That’s still not a lot, but the price of these grapes is shooting up in response to increasing demand. Expect more plantings.

Malvasia Bianca: Up only modestly. The lion’s share is grown in the Central Valley, but coastal growers are tinkering with it, mainly in Monterey County. When made in a dry style, it appeals to many sommeliers.

Pinot Blanc: This variety had its heyday back in the 1980s, then it sank into oblivion, with plantings in Sonoma and Santa Barbara virtually disappearing. But growers are taking a new look, especially in Monterey, where the cool climate helps to boost varietal purity and crispness.

Vermentino: Unknown, but up big. California’s Department of Food and Agriculture doesn’t break this variety out separately, instead including it in the “Other White” category, which is up 486%.

Alternative blends

In 1990, Caymus Vineyards introduced a revolutionary wine from the 1989 vintage they called Conundrum, a curious mix of white varieties never blended together before, like Sauvignon Blanc, Muscat Canelli, Viognier and Chardonnay.

By traditional measures, it shouldn’t have worked, but it did. Other wineries were slow to mimic Conundrum’s success. Marketing and sales people argued that such an offbeat blend would struggle without the magic Caymus name attached to it. Maybe they were right.

Nowadays, the same generation that’s willing to embrace alternative white wines also doesn’t care if their wines even bear a varietal name in the first place.

In 2009, I wrote about how Paso Robles vintners were tinkering with unusual red blends, and the high quality of many of those wines. But it turns out it’s not just reds that are being creatively blended in Paso and beyond.

Wines like the Vina Robles 2011 White4—made from Viognier, Vermentino, Verdelho and Sauvignon Blanc—require a certain open-mindedness to accept. But, says Todd Brown, food and beverage director for Lido Restaurant at Shell Beach’s Dolphin Bay Resort, “Younger customers are open to it, especially if they want a nice, summery, crisp white wine.”

The new preference for these light white wines needn’t be limited to those under 40, although Chris Keller, the wine consultant for three L.A.-area restaurants, including Joe’s (often called the best restaurant in Venice Beach), agrees that a younger generation is especially open to them.

“They don’t follow the traditional route in their preferences,” says Keller. “Their information pool is more through social media.”
But, he says, “I’m seeing more and more of the older generation asking for Albariño, Grüner Veltliner [and] Vermentino. They’re getting tired of the same old flavors, over and over and over.”

When he recommends the new wave of vibrant whites, says Keller, “the success ratio is high. My customers say: ‘Wow, I tried this wine I never heard of before, and now I can’t wait to try it again.’ ” 

Malvasia Bianca Grüner Veltliner White Blends Albariño
Birichino partners John Locke and Alex Krause both worked at Bonny Doon with Randall Grahm, who loves Malvasia Bianca. So when they launched Birichino and fruit became available from the Salinas Valley, they jumped at the chance. Birichino’s 2012 Malvasia Bianca (90 points, $16) has tantalizing hints of oranges and honey, with a clean, dry finish. Try it with chicken curry. In the early 2000s, when Grüners from Austria found great success in America, Rudy von Strasser decided to plant some on Diamond Mountain. His first vintage, 2006, scored big. Try his 2012 (90 points, $35), from land that could grow Cabernet Sauvignon for far more profit. The wine is classically dry, low in alcohol and minerally, with a scour of acidity. No oak, no malo—it’s just perfect with fresh oysters or summer-grilled shrimp. If consumers could get over their fondness for varietally labeled white wines, more winemakers would make offerings like Vina Robles’s 2011 White4 (91 points, $16). That would be a good thing. This Viognier, Vermentino, Verdelho and Sauvignon Blanc blend from Paso Robles rested on its lees for a few months, giving it a hint of creaminess. Enormously complex, it’s perfect with rich seafood, such as tuna tartare.  I’ve liked almost all the California Albariños I’ve reviewed. They’re never truly great, but they’re not trying to be. Their dry, aromatic crispness makes them savory with seafood. Kenneth Volk’s 2011 Riverbench Vineyard Albariño, from the Santa Maria Valley (90 points, $24), is textbook. Volk says the valley’s cool climate coaxes out the acids. It saw no oak, and went through only 15% malolactic fermentation.
Vermentino Pinot Blanc Gewürztraminer Chenin Blanc
Paul Vais fell in love with this variety while living in Italy, so when he teamed with his brother Bryan to start Bailiwick Wines, they tried their hand at Vermentino. Their 2011 (90 points, $18) comes from Clear Lake and Paso Robles, two warm climates, but the wine tastes clean, crisp and dry. Try it as an alternative to Pinot Grigio, with similar fare: savory tapas, a spicy chicken taco or grilled sea bass. There’s not much good Pinot Blanc in California, but Clarissa Nagy produces one of the best. Her Nagy 2011 Bien Nacido Vineyard Pinot Blanc (91 points, $24) is a bit higher in alcohol than the other wines profiled here. However, it shows classy Santa Maria Valley acidity and feels rich without being heavy. The wine was aged in neutral barrels for six months before bottling. Nagy recommends pairing it with pork Milanese. Gewürz is uncommon in California, but when done right, this spicy, low-alcohol wine is a pleasure to drink with Asian fare. Courtney Benham’s 2011, from the Russian River Valley (90 points, $16), shows the variety’s appeal at an affordable price. The alcohol is a modest 12.9% by volume, and the finish has just enough sweetness to balance the acidity. Winemaker Bill Batchelor calls it “a winemaker’s wine,” but it’s also a happy wine lover’s wine. Chenin can be tricky—sometimes examples are cloyingly sweet, others watery and simple—but Foxen consistently gets it right. Its 2011 Ernesto Wickenden Old Vines Chenin Blanc (89 points, $25) is from the cool Santa Maria Valley, giving it a refreshing crispness. Its dash of neutral oak complements fragrant dishes like smoked fish with cinnamon and saffron.
Published on May 30, 2013