With abundant sunshine and warm weather, most of California exudes an endless summer vibe that’s the envy of many outside its borders. And along with such a bountiful climate comes a jaw dropping array of grapes that produce some of the world’s best wines.
Throughout the past few decades, preferences have been cast for California’s prime varieties. When it comes to white wines, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris or Grigio have emerged as the state’s blanc superstars. These grapes have yielded breathtaking bottlings and catapulted California’s vinous reputation to a level that rivals those of classic European regions with eons of winemaking history and experience.
Chardonnay is the state’s most popular white wine and, overall, its most planted grape variety. The aromatic Pinot Gris/Grigio grape as well as nervy Sauvignon Blanc are also among the most widely grown, each planted to nearly one-fifth of the acreage of Chardonnay.
All three bring something different and delicious to the table. From established brands to up-and-coming winemakers, there’s plenty to explore and experience across these classic California whites.
The Stylized Workhorse
Chardonnay first appeared in viticultural reports from the 1880s as “Pinot Chardonnay.” A century or so later, soon after Chateau Montelena Winery wowed the world at the historic 1976 Judgment of Paris, American consumers would crown the grape as queen of California. And today, despite stylistic swings from lean to rich to racy, the rise of an “Anything But Chardonnay” (ABC) revolution and increased interest and acreage for a diverse range of alternative white-wine grapes, Chardonnay still shows no signs of relinquishing that throne.
From the cool coast and the warm Central Valley up through the Sierra Foothills, there were nearly 94,000 acres planted to Chardonnay in 2017. The state’s second-most planted grape, Cabernet Sauvignon, trailed by more than 1,500 acres. Approximately 614,500 tons were crushed that year, around double the amount processed in 1996.
Chardonnay is the best-selling wine in the U.S. In 2018, it accounted for almost 20% of all table wine sold in stores. And as a single bottling, Kendall-Jackson’s Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay crosses more Americans’ lips than any other wine.
The dominant Chardonnay regions are Sonoma County, particularly the Russian River Valley and Sonoma Coast, and the Central Coast, which includes Monterey County, Edna Valley in San Luis Obispo County and Santa Barbara County, home to the Sta. Rita Hills and Santa Maria Valley.
Few know these territories better than Randy Ullom, who’s made Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve for the past 27 years.
“It’s just cool, coastal fruit,” says Ullom of the statewide cuvee. Total production on the Vintner’s Reserve is more than two million cases, with 95% of the wine barrel-fermented in small lots.
Ullom sources grapes from throughout the state, which gives him perspective on regional characteristics. From Mendocino, he gets crisp green apple, while from Sonoma and the Russian River Valley, more ripe red-apple tones are apparent.
Carneros, says Ullom, presents more pear and some viscosity, and Monterey imparts lemon and lime notes, while Edna Valley and Santa Barbara provide huge bursts of tropical flavor. The Santa Maria Valley delivers more viscosity, he says.
“There has never been a better time and a better price than to drink great Chardonnay in America than right now,” says Jim Clendenen, who’s made Chardonnay in Santa Barbara County since 1978.
Clendenen founded his brand, Au Bon Climat, in 1982, after working a series of harvests both home and abroad. It was in Burgundy that he learned to make the wine in a leaner, more mineral driven style. He’s never wavered from a philosophy to make wine with “elegance, finesse and longevity,” even when tastes shifted toward more oak and less acid.
The oaky style came about in the early 1990s, when praise for buttery Chardonnays influenced a generation of winemakers and consumers. It also fired up the haters, which powered the ABC movement toward other white wines. Though oaky styles persist, the overriding trend is back toward freshness, with higher acidity and lower alcohol.
“In the development of Chardonnay in California since [my first vintage in] 1978, I’ve seen two things,” says David Ramey of Ramey Wine Cellars in Sonoma. “One is a march to the coast. People came to realize that Chardonnay made better-tasting wine in cooler climates. The other is the rise of the Burgundian method.”
Most modern winemakers proclaim affinity for classic Burgundian techniques, such as harvesting while grapes are a little less ripe, fermenting in barrels with native yeasts, aging on lees and allowing full malolactic fermentation.
Greg Brewer appreciates both rich and lean expressions of the grape. He makes bolder Chardonnay for Brewer-Clifton and stripped-down versions for Diatom, both labels he co-founded and for which he serves as winemaker, but he believes that the grape’s staying power and broad likability is due to its “varietal humility.”
“I see it as a skeletal thing, an empty canvas,” says Brewer. “All of the aesthetics are beautiful, if people see them that way.” —Matt Kettmann
Lynmar 2016 Monastery Chardonnay (Russian River Valley); $55, 98 points. Salty, briny and beautifully spicy, this wine offers full-bodied richness that’s completely in balance and remarkably memorable on the palate. Everything is well integrated, from the entry to the long, lingering finish. Editors’ Choice. —Virginie Boone
Au Bon Climat 2015 Nuits-Blanches au Bouge Chardonnay (Santa Maria Valley); $40, 95 points. Rich aromas of sandalwood, cinnamon, brioche French toast, vanilla and nutmeg make for a lush and attention-grabbing entry to this bottling. There’s great cohesion of those spices on the palate, alongside a bright lemony streak that cuts through the white peach and Marcona almond flavors. —M.K.
Grgich Hills 2015 Estate Grown Chardonnay (Napa Valley); $43, 95 points. This divine and complex white delivers tones of almond paste, sea salt, lime and tangerine that are balanced by fresh, vibrant acidity. This is a well-balanced, food-friendly wine that impresses from start to long finish. Editors’ Choice. —V.B
Chamisal Vineyards 2016 Califa Chardonnay (Edna Valley); $50, 93 points. Soft and mellow yet very classic and inviting on the nose, this bottling offers aromas of poached white peach, buttered brioche, honeysuckle and oak on the nose. That oak looms over the sip but in a balanced manner, giving savory, smoky roundness to the butterscotch, clove and fresh lemon flavors. —M.K.
Le P’tit Paysan 2017 Jacks Hill Chardonnay (Monterey County); $22, 92 points. This bottling by Ian Brand always packs bang for the buck, but he really nailed it in the 2017 vintage. Clean and delicate aromas of Asian pear, lemon rind and edgy chalk lead into a racy, crisp and tightly wound palate. Flavors of grapefruit, nectarine, blanched almond and sea salt are delicious. Editors’ Choice. —M.K.
La Crema 2016 Chardonnay (Anderson Valley); $35, 92 points. This is a serious and sophisticated wine that is full bodied, luxurious in its pear and honey flavors and smooth and mouthcoating in texture. Tasty nuances of vanilla, toasted almonds, and lemon cream emerge on the palate and linger long on the finish. —Jim Gordon
More Wines to Try
Ramey 2016 Chardonnay (Fort Ross-Seaview); $42, 96 points. Hazelnut and stony minerality combine seamlessly in this full-bodied and structured wine, with steely, lively flavors of lemon peel and tangerine. Editors’ Choice. —V.B.
Williams Selyem 2017 Unoaked Chardonnay (Russian River Valley); $39, 95 points. This wine shines in fresh flavors of tangerine and grapefruit. Bright acidity lends structure to the light-bodied palate, giving it an elegant and lasting impression. —V.B.
Thomas Fogarty 2016 Damiana Vineyard Chardonnay (Santa Cruz Mountains); $62, 95 points. From a vineyard planted in 1978, this bottling starts off quite subtle, with white flowers, lemon rinds, nectarine and wet white-rock aromas. The palate is extremely tense and chalky, with white flower, Asian pear and a light brush of vanilla. Drink now through 2036. Cellar Selection. —M.K.
Hanzell 2017 Sebella Chardonnay (Sonoma County); $29, 94 points. The winery’s stainless-fermented white is so good and such a value for the quality that it cannot be recommended highly enough. Licorice, anise and green apple combine around a steely core of crisp acidity and lengthy balance that impresses from start to finish. Editors’ Choice. —V.B.
Fess Parker 2017 Ashley’s Chardonnay (Sta. Rita Hills); $40, 93 points. Tangy lime and grapefruit aromas cut through the prominent sense of oak on the nose of this bottling. The palate is extremely crisp, framed by laser-sharp acidity and tense tannins, offering flavors of lemon peel, kumquat and more citrus. —M.K.
Matchbook 2017 Estate Bottled Old Head Chardonnay (Dunnigan Hills); $15, 90 points. This medium-bodied wine is subtle on the nose, but opens up on the palate to rich fruit and spice flavors that coat the tongue. It is balanced toward the soft side, but with underling acidity to balance the richness. Best Buy. —J.G.
The Vibrant Vanguard
When Robin Lail launched her brand, Lail Vineyards, in 1995, it was with Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon in mind. She hired Bordeaux-trained wunderkind Philippe Melka as her winemaker.
But at winemaker dinners, Lail felt she should have a white wine to welcome guests and start the meal. She often served some from her favorite neighbors like Spottswoode Winery and Araujo Estate Wines.
Before long, Lail wanted a Sauvignon Blanc of her own.
“When we started, Sauvignon Blanc was the ugly stepsister,” she says. “Nobody thought much about it. It has been an evolution.”
She asked Melka if he knew how to make a white wine. Melka, who had completed an internship at Château Haut-Brion, which is an iconic estate for white Bordeaux, accepted the challenge.
The two would create a Graves-style Sauvignon Blanc from the Napa Valley called Georgia. First released in 2002, the wine made a strong impression. From a dry-farmed, estate vineyard in Yountville, the selection is fermented and aged entirely in new French oak.
“No one was doing it,” she says. “It was initially met with some animosity because it was priced at a higher level. Then it became something people followed.”
By 2007, Lail began to make a second Sauvignon Blanc called Blueprint. It was intended for earlier release and a broader market, with less new French oak.
“I love this variety,” she says. “It has so much to bring to the table. I love the differentiation. There’s no proper way to make Sauvignon Blanc. It’s just meant to sing its own song.”
Sauvignon Blanc was first planted in California in the Livermore Valley in the 19th century. Across the state, there are nearly 15,000 acres devoted to it, which makes Sauvignon Blanc the fourth most planted white after Chardonnay, Colombard (which is primarily used for bulk white-wine blends or distillation) and Pinot Gris/Grigio.
Even with all that Cabernet, Napa Valley is home to the most Sauvignon Blanc in the state, at 2,715 acres, according to 2017 USDA figures. Though there’s pressure to plant Cabernet Sauvignon over all other varieties, Lail is enthused to see others in Napa Valley aim for a high bar. For her part, Lail has continued to invest in the variety, including recently T-budding a Merlot vineyard over to Sauvignon Blanc.
Sonoma County is next in Sauvignon Blanc plantings at 2,611 acres. Dry Creek Valley remains its strongest advocate, and wineries like Dry Creek Vineyard and Quivira Vineyards have become household names.
Lake County is another significant player, with a little more than 2,000 acres under vine.
Across regions and producers, the grape takes on an array of styles that liken to other regions, from New Zealand to France’s Loire Valley or Bordeaux.
Kathy Joseph, winemaker and proprietor of Fiddlehead Cellars and Fiddlestix Vineyard, moved to Santa Barbara County in 1989 with the goal to make great Sauvignon Blanc.
“Santa Ynez Valley has this unique east-west orientation, with water to the west and the south,” says Joseph. “Inland areas that are warm by day are predictably cool at night as the fog rolls in over the mountains.
“Hence, it is a magnificent district for Bordeaux varieties. Our Sauvignon Blanc is non-herbaceous with great natural acidity, and we can be successful with a range of styles.”
Joseph makes three bottlings: a “sassy” all-stainless-steel, New World style she calls Goosebury; one called Happy Canyon that has moderate midpalate weight and good, Loire-like minerality; and a Bordeaux-style called Hunnysuckle that has more weight, but is still lean and savory.
She doesn’t think the variety always gets the respect it deserves.
“I believe the press doesn’t rate it as a wine with elegance and grace, and uses a different scale than it might for Chardonnay or imports,” she says.
Pam Starr, owner/winemaker of Crocker & Starr Wines in the Napa Valley, takes the long view.
“The demand for Sauvignon Blanc has always been ebb and flow,” says Starr. “Consumers seem to relate to value pricing with regards to other countries and expectation of specific acid profiles. When it comes to premium Napa, the consumer needs to know that the producer is consistently trustworthy with the flavor profile. The price seems to be less important than having confidence in the producer.” —V.B.
Aperture 2017 Sauvignon Blanc (Bennett Valley); $35, 94 points. This is a barrel-fermented white that impresses from start to finish, with 4% Sémillon added to the mix. A sublime white-peach flavor is layered and well-integrated within a stony texture. Offering length and breadth, this is defined by an exotic spice note that lingers. —V.B.
Cuvaison 2017 Estate Grown Méthode Béton Sauvignon Blanc (Los Carneros); $35, 94 points. This white is the result of concrete egg experimentation and it succeeds wildly in its lovely capture of acid-driven stone fruit enveloped in a persistence of minerality. Peach and lemon flavors round out a medium-bodied texture of impressive lushness and enduring beauty. The wine was aged 12 months in concrete. Editors’ Choice. —V.B.
Lail 2017 Blueprint Sauvignon Blanc (Napa Valley); $40, 93 points. Always impressive, this is a fleshy, boldly structured white wine, offering a tremendous palate of exotic flavor. Lemon rind, wet stone, peach and a grittiness of background oak mingle effortlessly within a moderate richness of balanced complexity. —V.B.
Dragonette 2016 Vogelzang Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc (Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara); $45, 93 points. A richer style of Sauvignon Blanc, this bottling is a darker yellow in the glass and offers honeyed aromas of almond, orange, dried apple and pineapple brioche. It’s soft, supple and slightly oily on the unctuous palate, where salted apple, petrol and light vanilla flavors converge into a white wine with power. —M.K.
Heritance 2017 Sauvignon Blanc (Napa Valley); $18, 92 points. With lasting tension and a good build-up of fresh acidity, this is a well-made white that offers fruity notes of white peach and apple. It has enough creaminess to be pleasurable on the palate, but ultimately is well built and balanced. —V.B.
Ruby Hill Winery 2017 Reserve Sauvignon Blanc (Livermore Valley); $19, 91 points. This medium-bodied wine is a good choice in the savory style. Vivid cut-grass and shallot aromas lead to a lively palate impression and citrus flavors tinged with mineral. It has great acidity, is not overripe and nicely shows the character of the grape variety. Editors’ Choice. —J.G.
More Wines to Try
Captûre 2017 Tradition Sauvignon Blanc (Sonoma County); $25, 91 points. This is a complex, impressive white with a creamy, lush entry that evolves on the palate to offer crisp, fleshy elements of white peach and lime. The midpalate is balanced in richness, leading the way to a bold herbal and grassy finish. —V.B.
Ojai 2017 McGinley Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc (Santa Ynez Valley); $26, 91 points. Very light on the nose at first, the refreshing bottling offers subtle aromas of springtime flowers and delicate grass, proving quite appealing and even sexy. The subtleties continue on the palate, where rounded Asian pear flesh meets with a honeysuckle sweetness. —M.K.
Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars 2017 Aveta Sauvignon Blanc (Napa Valley); $26, 91 points. This has 10% Sauvignon Musqué, 3% Sémillon and 1% Muscat Canelli. Together, the grapes provide an experience of floral melon, stone fruit and white flower, a pungent nuttiness contributing additional complexity. The midpalate is steely and high toned in citrus. —V.B.
Dancing Crow 2017 Sauvignon Blanc (Lake County); $18, 90 points. This is a nicely tart, palate-cleansing wine with plenty of fruit acidity, rather light body and vivid lemon, grapefruit and fresh herb flavors. It tastes bracing and crisp, making it a great choice with appetizers and on hot summer days. —J.G.
Morgan 2017 Sauvignon Blanc (Monterey); $18, 90 points. A classic Sauvignon Blanc at a fair price, this bottling starts with fresh and inviting aromas of apple blossom and red apple on the nose. Crisp and clean on the palate, it’s tightly woven structure reveals lemon wedge and sliced Granny Smith apple flavors. Editors’ Choice. —M.K.
Quivira 2017 Sauvignon Blanc (Dry Creek Valley); $18, 90 points. High-toned acidity supports bright, fresh flavors of peach, apricot and green apple in this well-made light-bodied white. Floral aromas of jasmine and apple blossom complement the fruit. —V.B.
The Magnificent Mutant
Pinot Gris, a.k.a Pinot Grigio, is a crazy, mixed-up grape variety in many ways. That starts with its tendency to mutate in the vineyard and continues with its twin names and diverse styles.
Despite the incongruities, this late-comer to California has grown at a faster rate than any other leading wine type in recent years.
California vineyards yielded about 79,000 tons of Pinot Gris/Grigio in 2007, according to the state’s annual Grape Crush Report. By 2017, it had more than tripled to just over 252,000 tons, the equivalent of around 15 million cases. Consumers adore the varietal wine’s typical light and clean profile, so growers have planted more vines to meet the demand.
“Pinot Gris has citrus, lemon-lime, sometimes kiwi, maybe even a touch of baked apple, but it’s real bright and super attractive,” says Nicole Hitchcock, winemaker at J Vineyards & Winery in Sonoma County. “I personally drink it all year. It’s the house white at our home, no oak, and nothing that makes it a little more difficult to pair with food.”
The wine’s attributes can vary, and so can the use of Gris or Grigio on the bottle. Those labeled Pinot Grigio are more common on supermarket shelves. Inspired by Italian versions and made primarily from Central Valley grapes, value-priced Grigios are crisp and clean at their best. At their worst, they’re virtually colorless, flavorless and acid-less.
Typically, the highest-rated wines from this versatile variety are small-production offerings from select clones grown in cool coastal regions. They’re also often labeled as Gris, inspired by the wines of Alsace in France.
Wherever they grow, Pinot Gris/Grigio grapes appear pinkish-brown or copper-gray in color, and naturally create rosé wines without intervention by winemakers. Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Meunier are all variants of Pinot Noir, which is well-known for a loose grip on its DNA. Mutations show up frequently in the vineyard.
“When I walk down the rows of Pinot Gris, all of a sudden there’s a Pinot Noir vine, and I think, ‘Where did you come from?’ ” says Ann Kraemer, the consulting viticulturist for Ancien Wines.
On other vines, part of a green leaf may be colorless, and grapes within the same bunches may vary in shade from red to gray or virtually no hue at all. She calls the variations “chimeras,” a monster in Greek mythology with a lion’s head, goat’s body and serpent’s tail.
Ken Bernards, Ancien’s co-founder and winemaker, takes those little monsters and makes one of the state’s best Pinot Gris. The wines from the Sangiacomo family’s Amaral Vineyard in the southwestern foothills of Sonoma Valley are floral, bright and creamy.
Another devotee of Pinot Gris is Tracey Brandt, co-proprietor and co-winemaker of Donkey & Goat Winery, a Berkeley-based operation that uses only organic and biodynamic grapes and values skin contact for white wines.
Her Pinot Gris from the Filigreen Farm in Anderson Valley sports a deep pink color, extra depth and chewiness due to maceration of the juice and grape skins, like a red wine, before pressing.
“We want wines that go with food, but we also want something more enticing, or challenging,” says Brandt. “The idea is to coax out the more savory, mineral elements in the wine. Pinot Gris that’s direct-pressed is delicious and aromatically powerful, but it’s just a little bit too pretty for what I am looking for.”
If you’re looking for refreshment and value, California has dozens of decent Pinot Grigios from which to choose. But if you seek something deeper, more aromatic and intricate, you’re more likely to find a winning combination—or perhaps mutation—in a Gris. —J.G.
Lichen Estate 2016 Estate Pinot Gris (Anderson Valley); $25, 92 points. Ripe and round, this generous semisweet wine is quite different from the average Grigio. It has ripe apple and pear aromas, concentrated fruit and light spice flavors, a broad, almost thick texture and lingering finish. Editors’ Choice. —J.G.
Edna Valley Vineyard 2017 Pinot Grigio (California); $15, 91 points. Showing good character and substance, this medium-bodied wine stands out from the pack of bland Pinot Grigios thanks to its light, earthy aroma. The palate brings full-fledged flavors of white cherry and peach, with hints of flowers that add interest. The texture is firm enough, but also rich and mouthfilling. Best Buy. —J.G.
Balletto 2017 Estate Grown Estate Bottled Pinot Gris (Russian River Valley); $20, 91 points. This is a succulent, textured white that’s vibrant in tones of Meyer lemon and blood orange. The acidity is lively and refreshing, accentuating the fruit without distraction. —V.B.
Thomas Allen 2017 Pinot Grigio (Lodi); $20, 91 points. Elegant and well balanced, this smooth and supple wine has just the right equilibrium between fresh appley flavors, brisk acidity and a good touch of viscosity for a smooth mouthfeel and finish. —J.G.
J Vineyards & Winery 2017 Estate Grown Pinot Gris (Russian River Valley); $34, 91 points. This wine is exuberant in juicy tones of Meyer lemon, peach and wet stone. The medium-bodied palate has a fleshy mouthfeel that will appeal to a wide array of wine lovers. —V.B.
Ancien 2017 Sangiacomo Vineyard Pinot Gris (Carneros); $32, 90 points. Light, soft and creamy on the palate, this wine is richly layered in floral aromas of apple blossom and jasmine. On the palate expect high-toned acidity and lovely flavors of honey, apricot and quince. —V.B.
More Wines to Try
Boeger 2017 Pinot Gris (El Dorado); $16, 90 points. This medium-bodied wine wraps crisp apple and lemon flavors in a buttery texture that brings in vanilla and nutmeg on the palate and finish. It’s a relatively lightweight wine with big flavors that leave a lingering impression. —J.G.
Brassfield 2017 Pinot Gris (High Valley); $19, 90 points. Fresh herbs and fragrant pine aromas lead to a crisp, vivid citrus flavor in this medium-bodied, well-balanced wine. Bright acidity keeps the mouthfeel vibrant while the satisfying fruit and herb flavors linger on the palate. —J.G.
Thirty-Seven 2016 Pinot Gris (Sonoma Coast); $22, 90 points. Grippy, floral and meaty on the palate in stone fruit and key lime, this is a thirst-quenching, dry and deliciously balanced white that’s perfect as an aperitif or at the table. —V.B.
Via Romano 2017 Pinot Grigio (Sierra Foothills); $22, 90 points. Rich fig and almond flavors follow a floral aroma in this full-bodied and mouth-filling wine. Melon, mineral and consommé notes add complexity while the generous texture coats the tongue and creates a lingering finish. —J.G.
Benessere 2017 Pinot Grigio (Napa Valley); $25 90 points. Bright, fresh and balanced, this is a fruity white with bold flavors of baked peach and apricot. A nutty undertone adds a touch of richness and texture. —V.B.
Estancia 2017 Pinot Grigio (California); $12, 89 points. Light citrus aromas and tangy apple flavors give this light-bodied wine a lively personality. From a long-time value-oriented brand, it has good fruit acidity, very fresh fruit flavor nuances and a crisp, clean finish. Best Buy. —J.G.