California Wine Month and a Tribute to the State's Obscure Varietals

by Chuck Hayward

September is the 10th annual California Wine Month, an effort from the Wine Institute (the state wine industry's marketing and lobbying organization) to bring attention to the wine industry's contributions to California's economy. Wineries up and down the state host numerous food and wine tastings while conducting auctions and seminars to get consumers to visit the state's 122 viticultural areas.

The popularity of California's wines has been linked to a series of varietals that ripen easily and garner widespread appeal from a broad swath of the wine drinking public. For whites, that's clearly been chardonnay with sauvignon blanc coming in a distant second while cabernet sauvignon clearly rules followed up by merlot, zinfandel (!!) and pinot noir.

But the state's half million acres of viticultural resources contain much more than these popular varietals. In fact, some 70 different grape varieties are listed in the California government's annual grape acreage reports. Indeed, over the past 20 years, shelves and winelists have been groaning with new grape varieties that have supplemented the standard wines we know so well. Once considered novel and new, viogniers and pinot gris, sangioveses and malbecs have entered the everyday lexicon of the wine industry in many American wine markets.

Yet California’s vineyards contain so much more than even these grapes and California Wine Month seems to be the perfect opportunity for a little fun as we give a shout out to a few grapes that are even more obscure. Many of these grapes, like burger (1162 acres planted) and mission (717 acres), have a long history in the state and have remained obscure, most likely dumped into white and red wine blends respectively. Others, such as tannat (449 acres) and catarratto (159 acres), represent a continued exploration of new grapes by the state’s winemakers.

A few grapes are the equivalent of lab rats, developed by researchers at UC Davis in an effort to boost yields and reduce disease pressures. That’s how rubired, a hybrid of tinto cao and alicante ganzin (12,511 acres) and symphony, a cross of muscat of Alexandria and grenache gris (1703 acres), came about. There's little to be known about other grapes like triplett blanc (948 acres) and salvador (68 acres) which seem destined for commercial blends. Yet one never knows when an enterprising winemaker will rescue them from obscurity to make an interesting wine that will spark our palates and conversations while showing us another example of California’s viticultural diversity.

Here are a few California wines that are different and unique:

2010 Palmina Malvasia Bianca Larner Vineyard

2010 Tablas Creek Vermentino

2009 D Cubed Primitivo

2008 Tofanelli Family Vineyard Charbono

2007 Philip Togni Black Muscat Ca' Togni