California’s Up-and-Coming Grapes

A vineyard in California
Illustration by Enya Todd

Cali Cab and Chardonnay are holding strong in the spotlight, but winemakers continue to innovate and experiment with different grapes. Here are seven other varieties that should be on your radar.

Cabernet Franc

Cab Franc has never played a starring role in California. That’s too bad, as it can be beautiful in the right hands. There are rumblings of increased interest and attention to it, though. With nearly 1,200 acres planted, Napa is leading the charge. There, it’s often blended into Cabernet Sauvignon to produce violet aromatics and Old World herbaceousness. Look for varietal bottlings with coffee and chocolate balanced by fruit from die-hard Cabernet Franc aficionados Lang & Reed, Crocker & Starr, La Jota, Chappellet, Ashes & Diamonds and Corison. —Virginie Boone 

Roussanne

Controversy over vines labeled incorrectly undercut the rise of this Rhône grape during the 1990s. The less-than 400 acres planted today, mostly on the Central Coast, are all true Roussanne vines imported by Tablas Creek Vineyard and John Alban. If not managed carefully, the grape’s thick skins can lead to wines that are quite ripe, nutty, peachy and oily. But savvy winemakers bottle the lightning before it gets too dense to produce balanced, structured white wines capable of aging for decades. —Matt Kettmann 

An illustration of red wine from California
Illustration by Enya Todd

Chenin Blanc

Widely planted before Chardonnay took over, this Loire Valley native is now in the midst of a major comeback across the state. From Santa Barbara to Clarksburg, coveted old vines produce high acid juice that can be crafted into apple-forward expressions that range from racy and lean to rich and waxy. Fans include classic producers like Dry Creek Vineyard (every vintage starting in 1972) to a roster of young brands like Roark Wine Company, Leo Steen Wines, Birichino and Haarmeyer Wine Cellars, some of which dabble in sparkling, too. —M.K.

Barbera

In California, this grape is not so much an up-and-comer as it is a down-and-comer. Approximately 32,000 fewer tons the of Italian variety were grown in 2017 than a decade prior, but high quality bottlings are on the rise. Winemakers, especially in the Sierra Foothills and Central Coast, have found a groove with its high-acid and relatively light-bodied wines bursting with cherry and berry flavors. More than 70 wineries will be pouring their versions at this year’s Barbera Festival in Amador County. —Jim Gordon

Carignan

A pre-Prohibition player in “mixed black” field blends, this red Mediterranean grape is a re-emergent chameleon: You never know what the next bottle will bring. There are fresh and herby carbonic expressions, down-the-middle showcases of spicy red fruit and more opulent displays with tobacco leaf and cedar. The excitement should continue, as pockets of very old vines grown across the state lure adventurous vintners to explore diverse terroir. —M.K.

White wine from California
Illustration by Enya Todd

Sémillon

There are fewer than 600 acres of Sémillon in the entire state, 175 acres of which grow in Napa. The white wine grape is native to Bordeaux, where it’s typically blended with Sauvignon Blanc or made into the famous botrytized wine known as Sauternes. In California, however, many producers use the variety for blending, where it adds richness and texture. A scant number of varietal bottlings are produced; those are full-bodied expressions with buttery peach notes. —V.B.

Albariño

Ten years ago, there were so few acres of this Iberian-import grape that it didn’t even show up in reports produced by the state. Now, the same variety that makes lean wines in Spain and Portugal creates more generous, but still finely balanced lime- and apricot-laden bottlings in places like the cool-climate districts of the Central Coast and Carneros. The latest data indicates Albariño currently accounts for 0.1% of the state’s white wine crop, so the variety has plenty of room to grow. —J.G.

Published on May 13, 2019
Topics: Wine and Ratings


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