California’s Awesome Alternative White Wines

Photo by Thomas Martinsen / Unsplash

In a white wine kingdom ruled by Queen Chardonnay and Princess Sauvignon Blanc, California winemakers are increasingly rocking the royal court by opting for alternative varietals. While it’s unlikely these usurpers will dethrone the historic and deeply entrenched ruling class any time soon, there’s tremendous energy to this rebellion, which will continue to surge so long as winemakers keep focused on improving quality and consumers keep their palates open.

The Central Coast’s myriad microclimates make the region a hotbed of this exploratory trend. The most common alternative tends to be grapes from the Rhône Valley region of France; Viognier was heralded a decade ago as Chardonnay replacement, but Roussanne is rising in popularity, as is Grenache Blanc, whose plantings have grown exponentially in recent years.

Also relatively common are bottlings of Pinot Grigio and Pinot Gris. They are the same grape, although those deemed Grigio often tend to be lighter and crisper in style, more like Sauvignon Blanc, and those labeled Gris trend ever so slightly toward a richer style.

But this trend also marks a shift back toward regional roots. Riesling was widely planted in the early days of the Central Coast, and winemakers from Monterey to the Santa Ynez Valley are tapping back into that noble variety. Though quality varies widely, there is a renewed focus- on making Rieslings that are bone dry and mineral-driven.

Perhaps the most surprising, and promising, of the bone-dry movement is GewĂĽrtztraminer. Rather than treacly and cloying, these wines are vibrant with minerality, citrus zest and palate-cleansing crispness.

Reviews by Matt Kettmann and Jim Gordon


Cutruzzola 2012 Riven Rock Vineyard Riesling (San Luis Obispo County); $28, 91 points. Honey-roasted almonds, seared lemon vinaigrette and honeydew melon show on the delicious nose of this off-dry wine from an extreme coastal vineyard above Cambria. Though slightly sweet, it remains rich and intriguing, with lots of citrus peel, grapefruit pith, squeezed oranges and touches of petrol. Editors’ Choice.

MaidenStoen 2013 Coast View Vineyard Chualar Canyon Riesling (Monterey County); $22, 91 points. The delicate but intriguing nose on this wine from young but experienced vintner Michael Callahan shows dried honey, lemon blossoms, beach sand, yellow cake and a touch of coconut shavings. It’s rich and waxy on the palate, with flavors of cooked Meyer lemon, yellow flowers and a petrol-driven grip.

Kaena 2013 La Presa Vineyard Riesling (Santa Ynez Valley); $25, 89 points. Coming from a vineyard near Solvang, this wine by Mikael Sigouin shows orange sponge cake, honey and the slightest twist of petrol on the nose. The palate boasts orange blossoms and bright acidity, gaining complexity from chalky white rocks and the slight bitterness of Japanese pear peels.


Felten Cellars 2012 Gewurztraminer (Paso Robles); $15, 92 points. Extremely light in color, this dry wine has aromas that show Key lime pie, apple blossom and white rocks. It’s tight and interesting on the bone-dry palate, with chipped chalk followed by apple tart, Bosc and Asian pear, lime juice and pith, and a dainty touch of honey on the finish. It’s held together by strong but not bracing acidity. Best Buy.

Thomas Fogarty 2013 Gewürztraminer (Monterey County); $18, 90 points. Though the aromas of orange and apple blossom, honey and peach extract feign a touch of sweetness, this wine’s steely minerality belies such a conclusion. And so does the palate, where a lemonade acidity and wet slate element cut clean through fresh apples and pear flesh, revealing that it’s not sweet at all. Editors’ Choice.

Fetzer 2013 Shaly Loam Gewürztraminer (Monterey County); $10, 87 points. A rainy cement minerality on the nose of this sweet wine manages to cut through the sugared oranges, honeysuckle and ripe, tropical white fleshed fruit, from peach to cherimoya. The palate is full of honeyed apples, white peach and pineapple, but the decent acidity and chalky element stops it short of treacly. Best Buy. 


Miraflores 2013 Estate Viognier (El Dorado); $23, 90 points. A luxurious texture, with generous fig, vanilla and almond flavors make this reminiscent of a Danish pastry, though not as sweet. It smells subtle but ripe and opulent. Figgy and buttery flavors are broad and mouthfilling, yet a backbone of acidity lends freshness.

Eberle 2013 Mill Road Vineyard Viognier (Paso Robles); $23, 89 points. The grape’s usual peachy aromas show on this wine from regional pioneer Gary Eberle, along with lemon juice, honey and a touch of minerality. There is a nice mineral-driven tension on the palate, with flavors of apple and pear cider. It’s a solid, down-the-middle take on the grape—not too ripe, not too thin.

Martin Ranch 2012 Thérèse Vineyards Viognier (Arroyo Seco); $30, 88 points. An oxidized style of the grape, this shows dried apricot, marzipan and macadamia nuts on the nose, all cut with a lemon juice freshness. Once sipped, there are roasted nuts, dried peaches, figs and even dates on the palate, with an iodine character through the center and a lively acidity. The exotically honeyed finish is reminiscent of baklava.

Pinot Gris/Grigio

Aequorea 2013 Spanish Springs Vineyard Pinot Gris (San Luis Obispo County); $34, 93 points. This wine offers very yellow aromas of stewed lemons, pound cake, egg flour, peach blossom, ambrosia melon and even a shy bit of hazelnut on the nose. The fascinating palate shows orange sponge cake, acacia flower, dried papaya, stone fruits and a pithy minerality. Scents and flavors are altogether mysterious yet delicious. Editors’ Choice.

Palmina 2013 Pinot Grigio (Santa Barbara County); $20, 91 points. There’s a honeyed, mead-like character on the nose of this Steve Clifton wine. It also shows buttered brioche, lemon curds and an underlying white rock minerality. Ruby-red grapefruit flesh and ripe nectarine flavors arrive once sipped, and a chalky grip ensues, making for a very dynamic and intriguing wine.

Maldonado 2013 Los Olivos Vineyard Pinot Gris (Napa Valley); $25, 90 points. The light yellow-gold color is more vivid than usual. Rich aromas are fragrant with floral, honeyed, buttery notes that seem to swell in the flavors as well. This is a full-bodied, creamy-textured wine that amps up the ripeness and buttered-toast flavors to a clearly heard volume, but stops short of blasting.

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Published on June 24, 2015
Topics: RieslingViognierWhite Wine