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California’s great white hope, or how to spot a coming trend

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Here are some of the California whites I’ve been tasting lately: Albariño, Verdelho, Torrontes, Vermintino (AKA Malvasia Bianca), Tocai Friulano, Gruner Veltliner, Cortese, Edelzwicker and Muscat Blanc.

Who woulda thunk? We’ve certainly moved beyond the Usual Suspects, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc! Not to mention Chenin Blanc, Roussanne, Marsanne, Viognier, Pinot Gris/Grigio and Grenache Blanc

It would have been impossible for me to have tasted this wide a variety of white wines even five years ago, because few wineries, if any, were making them. For example, in 2002 there were less than 100 tons of Tocai Friulano crushed in the state. Last year, it was over 400 tons. Ditto for Verdelho, 169 tons in 2007 versus a paltry 14.8 tons in 2002. Six years ago, there were about 950 acres of Muscat Blanc planted. Last year, it nearly doubled, to 1,700 acres.

So what’s up?

Partly, I guess, it’s vintners looking to hop on the next variety train before it leaves the station. After all, look what happened with Pinot Grigio. But it got me thinking about how to identify the early warning signs of a coming trend. I went down to our big BevMo store in Oakland and asked the guy who works the floor what was happening with white wines. Not much, he said. It seems that retail stores are not the leading indicators of trends. Nor, apparently, is the California Department of Food and Agriculture’s Grape Acreage Report; the 2007 edition doesn’t even list Gruner Veltliner, Edelzwicker, Torrontes or Albariño as growing in the state, even though I’ve been drinking them! So I’m concluding that one early indicator of a coming trend — maybe the best one — is what wines are being discovered by critical critters like me (and being reviewed favorably, I might add).

If there is a new wave of whites, it’s great news. It indicates that the A.B.C. movement (“Anything But Chardonnay”) is working. Growers and vintners are thinking that the American consumer is ready to try new things, and they’re responding by making new kinds of wines.

Here are some of the more interesting of these new whites I’ve had lately. The italicized numbers are my Wine Enthusiast scores:

88 Cambiata 2007 Albariño (Monterey); $24
87 Dancing Coyote 2007 Albariño (Clarksburg); $11
90 Lee Family Farm 2007 Silvaspoons Vineyard Verdelho (Alta Mesa); $15
88 Stevenot 2007 Verdelho (California); $14
87 Stevenot 2007 Gran Reserva Torrontes (California); $22
87 David Noyes 2007 Pagani Vineyard Tocai Friulano (Sonoma Valley); $20
87 Von Strasser 2007 Gruner Veltliner (Diamond Mountain); $40
88 Navarro 2007 Edelzwicker (Mendocino); $13
88 Gianelli 2007 Vermentino (Tuolumne County); $18

P.S. Please check out my new blog post at Wine Enthusiast’s Unreserved.

  1. Dr. Horowitz says:

    I don’t think the newest trends are going to be “variety trains.” WLTV and Crushpad are making waves, and I’m curious what will happen after Bottelshock hits the screens…Sideways 2.0?

    That said, it’s great that CA is offering more variety among white varietals!

  2. Me too. Let’s see where it goes.

  3. Steve, do you know much about the Foch varietal? I live up here in BC and recently tasted some wines at Quail’s Gate winery in Kelowna. I felt that their Foch was one of, if not the best wine they had to offer and I have never seen it anywhere else.

  4. Richard, I don’t. What did it taste iike?

  5. Steve,

    I think it’s great to see that not only are growers growing and vintners producing these different white varietals, but that reviewers are actually reviewing them ta boot! I remember tasting Michael Havens’ Albarino a number of years back and thinking – now that’s a cool wine, not the same as its Spanish counterpart, but a wonderful alternative to other whites currently available.

    I agree that many wineries are attempting to carve out different niches in the marketplace by producing these wines, but I also believe that the future is bright for nice, crisp, aromatic whites that are food friendly, such as Albarino, Vermentino, and Verdeho. I am also a big fan of rhone whites, and it’s great to see their acceptance. I am especially fond of Grenache Blanc (I produce one under my own label) as well as blends containing Marsanne, Rousanne, etc. . .

    Thanks again for the blog and please keep tasting!

  6. Larry, I knew somebody was going to point out that what these new white wines have in common (for the most part) is that they’re aromatic, dry and crisp. And you did! They’re the un-Chardonnays of white wine, and a welcome addition to the lineup.

  7. Steve, are most of the Unusual Suspects coming from relatively new brands, or are the tried-and-true brands leading the innovate band wagon? I may be wrong, so correct me if I am… those who have been around for a long time have more to lose when they step outside of the box. those just coming into the game have nothing to lose and everything to gin by innovating to their heart’s content.

    It would interesting to note how that one’s playing out. I’m not reading Charles Krug or Chateau Montelena above, although I recognize Navarro, but they’ve always been out there and fun.

  8. everything to “gain”

  9. I think you’re right on, Jo. The tried-and-true brands, it seems to me, usually wait for newer brands to innovate. Then, if the future looks good, they step in and replicate.

  10. Steve, I did not write any notes at the time and my memory is a little hazy, but it seemed to me (and I am a firm believer that all tastings are subjective and personal) that it tasted like a Zinfandel/Shiraz blend might taste. A little peppery with lots of dark fruit. Quite interesting.

  11. Richard, you might want to check out this link at Appellation America:
    http://wine.appellationamerica.com/grape-varietal/Marechal-Foch.html

  12. People who follw this blog and enjoy California are naturally all for variety in varietal wines coming out of the Golden State. However, I can’t see the above amounting to much of a trend, for two reasons:

    1) Volume is minuscule. Without distribution and visibility outside California, nobody is going to be able to buy enugh of these wines to make it a trend. In fact, on the East Coast, the rise of California Pinot Grigio/Gris has not even reached a critical mass where they are noticeable on retail shelves.

    2) The prices of the wines here are absurd in the big picture. A $40 Napa Gruner and $20 TOcai may be interesting, but I can’t see people buying them as more than a curiosity considering the plethora of European examples at a fraction of the price.

    My take is that new plantings may find their calling in provocative blends from California. TO wit, the best Napa white I have had in the past couple years is Matthiasson, a blend of Sauv Blanc, Semillon and Ribolla Gialla.

  13. Tish,

    You definitely make some great points, and I agree wholeheartedly that prices will definitely be higher for the domestic versions of varietals made elsewhere in the world.

    That said, I feel it is important to continue to diversify the types of wines produced throughout the US, especially in CA, and many of these aromatic whites simply make sense. Can they be produced in such a way that we can offer them as inexpensively as our foreign counterparts? Maybe, but maybe not – we must take into account land prices, overall production costs, etc.

    The goal from the winemaking community is to continue to explore our options and take advantage of niches that might be out there. Will you see KJ producing hundreds of thousands of cases of Vermentino? Probably not . . . but then again, do you see that kind of volume in the US at the present time from producers in Italy now? Probably not . . .

    Take care and keep blogging!

  14. Just a remark, Steve: Edelzwicker is not a variety, it’s a blend of varieties grown in Alsace. Navarro’s Edelzwicker contains four different varieties: Gewurztraminer, Riesling, Pinot Gris and Muscat. Still, it fits into the wider category of non-chard, non-sauvignon whites.

    Greetings from Poland!

  15. Andrzej, you’re correct. Thanks for straightening me out on that!

  16. I’m so excited that more unique varietals are getting a name for themselves (what can I say, I get bored easily!) I love a good Torrontes and have had several worth mentioning(one recently from CA). Two good local wineries that make Tocai are Clendenen Family Vineyards and Palmina. (PS. Larry, I’ll have to try your Grenache Blanc.)

  17. And UC Davis just made Coda d’ Volpe plants available. Who knew?

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