California’s Other White Wines

Variety is the spice of life, so they say, yet most consumers tend to stick to the tried and true when it comes to their wine consumption. Wine producers and grape growers whose livelihoods depend upon selling their yearly efforts can hardly be blamed for following their lead when it comes to what they plant and make. In the last 20 years, however, an appreciation for more diversity among white wine grapes in particular has been growing among both wine lovers and producers throughout California.

The top four most-planted white grapes in California are Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, French Colombard, and Pinot Gris. Depending on how well you study the California wine industry, the inclusion of Colombard in that list might seem a little unusual. But think about the value that this heavy-cropping, easy-to-farm grape might have for massive producers of white wines who might need some higher-acid, low-pH juice with a relatively pleasant, neutral flavour profile. Need I remind you that US law allows varietally labelled wines to include up to 25% of another grape entirely?

During the table wine boom of the 1950s and 1960s, French Colombard became the most widely planted white grape in the state. Suffice it to say that there’s still a lot of it hiding in bottles of $6 California white wine with other, more popular grape names on the labels.

Not everyone, however, believes Colombard should be relegated to a covert blending partner. 

‘Colombard was planted on our property when we first purchased it’, says Lisa Peju, whose parents Tony and Herta established Peju winery in 1983 in what would become Napa’s Rutherford AVA. ‘It is near and dear to our hearts because it was the first wine we made.’

The Peju family continues to cultivate about 2 acres (0.8 ha) of French Colombard, which they make into a tasty varietal bottling they call Carnivál that serves as light-hearted and less expensive counterpoint to their serious Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignons.

Indeed, many winemakers whose stock and trade involve the increasingly pricey red wines that have made Napa and Sonoma so famous possess tiny white-wine programmes that can be as much for their own benefit as they are for customers.

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