Albariño, Grenache, and Chenin Blanc are California's newest breakthrough grapes.

By Ray Isle
April 02, 2020
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California winemakers are a restless bunch, and even when they’re bound to the Cabernet-Chardonnay mast, the siren calls of other varieties are a constant lure. So much the better for wine lovers: The state’s climate and geography are so varied that it’s almost impossible to find a grape that won’t produce impressive wines here. Lately, adventurous winemakers have been particularly drawn to Spain’s crisp Albariño grape; sultry Grenache, with its wide swing of character from delicate and silky to rich and fruit-forward; and Chenin Blanc, rescued from years of inattention by way of a renewed interest in its mother region, France’s Loire.

Photo by Victor Protasio / Graphics by Abbey Lossing

Albariño

2018 Tangent Paragon Vineyard Albariño ($17)

Tangent has been at the forefront of Albariño in California, with 45 acres planted. One of its most affordable wines, this is crisp and bright, with grapefruit peel notes. (If you find the small-batch Stone Egg bottling, snap it up.)

2018 La Marea Albariño ($26)

La Marea’s Ian Brand focuses on Spanish varieties (He also makes superb Grenache for his I. Brand & Family label). He nails Albariño’s seaside appeal with this stony, saline, zesty white, which comes from a vineyard that lies on an ancient seabed.

2018 Peloton Cellars Squire Canyon Vineyard Albariño ($29)

Peloton Cellars was founded in 2005 by a group of cycling enthusiasts (hence the name). Citrus notes and a touch of sage define this full-bodied (for Albariño) white; Dover sole would be a great match for it.

Chenin Blanc

2018 Leo Steen Saini Farms Dry Creek Valley Chenin Blanc ($18)

A former sommelier, Leo Steen Hansen founded his small winery in 2004, focusing on Chenin Blanc at a time when practically no one cared about the variety. He was prescient, and this apple-scented, crisp bottling remains a steal.

2018 Bold Wine Co. Paicines Chenin Blanc ($25)

Bold Wine Co., part of Seabold Cellars, sources their grapes from little-known cool-climate vineyards, like this one east of Monterey. This wine’s scent suggests flowers and sweet hay; its taste recalls nectarines with a faint note of honey.

2017 Lieu Dit Santa Ynez Valley Chenin Blanc ($27)

In 2011, sommelier Eric Railsback and winemaker Justin Willett decided to turn their friendship into Lieu Dit. This pretty, pear- and peach-inflected white suggests the kind of creaminess that Loire Savennières often have, but with riper California fruit.

Grenache

2018 Birichino Besson Vineyard Old Vines Grenache ($25)

The Besson Vineyard near Gilroy was planted in 1910, and the fruit from its over-100-year-old vines produces this transparently ruby-hued Grenache. Take time to enjoy its beautiful aroma, all wild strawberry, pomegranate, and anise notes.

2017 Nelle Central Coast Grenache ($40)

Winemaker Tyler Russell sources grapes from up and down California’s Central Coast for this smoky, peppery Grenache. It’s rich and mouth-coating but impeccably balanced, with succulent acidity to support all that ripe fruit.

2017 A Tribute To Grace Santa Barbara Highlands Vineyard Grenache ($45)

Angela Osborne’s Grenaches are sought after for good reason. She has a gift for drawing on the variety’s lusciousness while keeping her wines light, almost ethereal. This silky red has far more intensity than you’d guess from its pale color.