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More Than Meets the Eye

Looking beyond California's big two whites reveals distinctive, aromatic wines
MaryAnn Worobiec
Posted: June 15, 2009

Chardonnay reigns among California white wines in both acreage and popularity, with Sauvignon Blanc solidly in second place. But beyond these two frontrunners are a handful of other white varietals and blends that burst with flavors and aromatics, and in many cases carry appeaing price tags.

Since our last report on this category ("California's New Cool Whites," June 30, 2008), I have reviewed more than 150 of these less-familiar whites in blind tastings in our Napa office. The majority are Rhône-style—varietal bottlings or blends of Viognier, Roussanne, Marsanne and Grenache Blanc. Other important grapes covered in this report include Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris (sometimes called Pinot Grigio) and Riesling, all with an increasing presence in California. You'll also find a handful of wines made variously from Sémillon, Chenin Blanc, Gewürztraminer, Muscat, Verdelho, Albariño, Arneis, Cortese or French Colombard. (An alphabetical list of all wines tasted for this report is available.)

Most of the current releases are from the 2005, 2006 and 2007 vintages—a trio of very good harvests in California. The '05s are perhaps a bit more trim and acidic, while '06 brings more of a mixed bag. The '07s hitting the market are very promising; for most producers, the vintage delivered lower yields, and that can mean concentrated flavors and aromas.

These whites cover a wide spectrum of styles, ranging from full-bodied and rich to light and crisp. The best examples are from 2007 and represent the variety inherent in this eclectic category, from the ripe and opulent DuMol Viognier Russian River Valley Lia 2007 (93 points on the Wine Spectator 100-point scale, $49) to Denner's elegant and refined Theresa Paso Robles 2007 (91, $30), a Roussanne and Viognier blend.

The 13 wines that rate 90 points or higher demonstrate the geographic diversity of the wineries pursuing these grape types, with origins such as Napa, Sonoma, Paso Robles and other regions of the Central Coast. There are Viogniers grown in the Sierra Foothills, El Dorado, Lake County, Mendocino and Temecula; Rieslings from Anderson Valley; and Clarksburg Chenin Blancs.

A number of bottlings show off the talents of some winemakers in blending two or more grapes together. Overall, nearly a quarter of the wines in this report are blends, including top-scorers such as the Morlet La Proportion Dorée 2006 (92, $60), a white Bordeaux look-alike that joins Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle in a combination of elegance and power, and the JC Cellars The First Date (92, $28), which blends Rhône siblings Roussanne and Marsanne for a wine featuring tropical and apple pie notes. For a more unusual combination, try Vinum's crisp White Elephant California 2007 (85, $18), which follows its own rules by blending Chenin Blanc with Roussanne and Viognier.

Many of these whites have strikingly effusive, sometimes exotic aromatics—from floral notes of honeysuckle, chamomile and jasmine to a whole fruit basket of ripe fruit flavors to spicy notes such as pepper and tobacco that jump out of the glass. One of the most alluring wines is the Rubicon Blancaneaux Rutherford 2006 (90, $40), a blend of Roussanne, Marsanne and Viognier that is fragrant with anise, golden raisin, floral and bubblegum. The Treana Viognier-Marsanne Central Coast 2007 (87, $25) is reminiscent of rose petal, honeysuckle and mustard, and the Tercero Grenache Blanc Santa Ynez Valley Camp 4 Vineyard 2006 (89, $18) offers an intoxicating blend of citrus and nuts, with a whiff of petrol.

Another attractive feature of these wines is their distinctive flavors and idiosyncratic styles. Some offer a touch of residual sugar, resulting in sweet or candied notes, a profile you're more likely to find with Rieslings and Gewürztraminers. One tasty and affordable example is the Sterling Riesling Central Coast Vintner's Collection 2007 (84, $10), which has a splash of residual sugar that gives the wine a pleasant and refreshing sweetened iced tea note. But there are no hard-and-fast rules. Some of the best Rieslings and Gewürztraminers are completely dry and crisp, such as the Navarro Riesling Anderson Valley 2007 (88, $18).

The explosion of styles and options reflects vintners' increasing enthusiasm for these underdog grapes. From 1997 to 2007 the state's Pinot Gris plantings grew from about 650 acres to nearly 9,400. The same period also saw significant growth for the white Rhône varieties: Viognier acreage more than doubled, from about 1,100 to more than 2,700, and Roussanne acreage tripled, from 80 to nearly 270. Marsanne and Grenache Blanc were hardly mentioned in acreage reports in the late 1990s, but as of 2007 there were 84 and 111 acres planted, respectively.

These satellite varieties often lend themselves to lower prices, too. Dry Creek Vineyards proprietor Kim Stare Wallace says that lower production costs help keep her Dry Chenin Blanc Clarksburg reasonably priced (the 2007 earned 87 points and retails for $12). "The grapes cost less, we don't oak age it, it's stainless-steel fermented and it's bottled soon after harvest, so it doesn't spend a lot of time in the cellar," she explains.

Not only does eliminating the cost of barrels and storage keep the costs down, Stare Wallace likes that the Chenin Blanc grapes deliver so much personality. "The wine kind of makes itself. There's not a lot of winemaking trickery," she says.

Other bottlings to look for include the crisp, refreshing Viognier Mendocino-Lake Counties 2007 (87, $18) from Bonterra, an organic grapegrower in Mendocino County that makes a variety of biodynamic whites. Mirassou, an historic family winery that is now managed by Gallo, made the focused and juicy Pinot Grigio California 2007 (86, $12) among its several very good recent releases at that price point. And Fetzer's standing as a perennial source of values is reinforced with its refreshingly juicy Pinot Grigio California Valley Oaks 2007 (85, $9).

The world of white wines in California offers more choices than ever, as well as more reason to explore them—whether you're searching out new flavors and aromas or looking for a good quality, budget-friendly bottle. It's difficult to make generalities about so diverse a group of wines, but suffice to say that the best of them will make excellent and potentially provocative quaffs for the warm days of summer ahead.

Napa Valley-based tasting coordinator MaryAnn Worobiec has been with Wine Spectator since 1997.



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