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NorCal Wine Blog

The Fastest-Growing Wine Grape Varieties in California

As I reported yesterday, California  vineyard acres increased by nearly 77,000 during the past five years, 2007 - 2011. Which grape varieties got the most new acreage during that period and why? 56% of the new acreage was dedicated to dark-skinned grapes. Let's look at some of the details.

Note: The numbers above only consider planted acres. They do not distinguish between bearing and non-bearing vines. Nor do they consider vine spacing, per-vine yields, etc.

Wine Grape Varieties with the Largest Increase in California Acreage, 2007 - 2011


New Acreage

2007 - 2011

Total Acreage


Counties of Greatest Increase

Pinot Noir



Monterey, Santa Barbara, Sonoma




Monterey, Sonoma, San Joaquin, Mendocino, Napa

Cabernet Sauvignon



Napa, San Luis Obispo, San Joaquin, Sonoma

Pinot Gris



San Joaquin, Madera, Sacramento




San Joaquin, Amador




Fresno, Madera

Sauvignon Blanc



Monterey, Sonoma, Lake

French Colombard




Petite Sirah



San Joaquin, San Luis Obispo, Napa, Yolo

White Riesling



Merced, Monterey

The increase in the top three grapes above is no surprise. The “Sideways Effect” drove sales of Pinot Noir way up for several years and the momentum continues. Chardonnay has long been America’s favorite varietal (by volume). The ABC (anything but Chardonnay) movement has been countered by Chardonnay with less oak and butter. It remains the most planted grape in California. Cabernet Sauvignon is the king of robust red varieties. But, Pinot Gris?

As consumers, critics and sommeliers sought Chardonnay alternatives in recent years, delicious Pinot Gris from cool zones in Sonoma and Mendocino Counties have garnered attention. But that’s not where the boost in Pinot Gris acreage came. Those two counties combined accounted for just 64 new acres of Pinot Gris in five years. The new Pinot Gris plantings did contribute to Chardonnay alternatives, but not at premium price points. Coming from Sacramento, San Joaquin and Madera counties, most of it will have filled bottles sold for less than $8.

Rubired, French Colombard and White Riesling boosts came in similar areas. The first two varieties will have been used almost exclusively in inexpensive blends. White Riesling is also blended from time to time, but a lot of it is made into inexpensive varietally-labeled wine too. [Rubired is a disease-resistant cross of Tinta Cao and Alicante Ganzin that thrives in the hot Central Valley and makes a richly-colored juice for blending.]

Wine Grape Varieties Plantings that Grew by More than 20% in California, 2007 - 2011


Growth Percentage

Total Acreage 2011

Counties of Greatest Increase




San Luis Obispo, Yolo, Monterey




San Joaquin




Merced, Fresno








San Luis Obispo




Monterey, San Joaquin, Sacramento




Amador, San Joaquin

Muscat Hamburg




Grenache Blanc



San Luis Obispo, Madera




San Joaquin, Merced, Monterey





Muscat Blanc



Madera, Fresno

Triplett Blanc



Fresno, Merced, Tulare

White Riesling



Merced, Monterey, San Joaquin




San Luis Obispo, Mendocino

Muscat of Alexandria



Merced, Fresno, Madera

Orange Muscat



Madera, San Joaquin

We see a different picture here. The high-percentage growers are almost all varieties which had very small existing plantings. The dramatic exception is those grapes suited to sweet, aromatic white wines: White Riesling, Muscat of Alexandria and Muscat Blanc. Can you say “Moscato?”

There are some things worthy of quick note among the other varieties, but nothing indicative of a major trend as of yet:

  • The Pinotage growth, virtually all in San Joaquin County was likely the work of  Vino Con Brio, a Lodi vineyard and winery. They were a pioneer of Pinotage in the United States. They made Pinotage from it themselves and also sold to a few wineries out of the area. Vino Con Brio left the business in June, 2011. Their winery and vineyards were sold to Mettler, one of Lodi’s largest growers. Mettler recently started their own label and has been renovating the winery and tasting room. Their current wines don't include Pinotage.
  • Like Rubired, Symphony is a cross created at U.C. Davis by Dr. Harold Olmo. Muscat of Alexandria and Grenache Gris are its parent varieties. It is primarily used for blending and provides slightly spice apple, pear and stone fruit flavors. 
  • Dornfelder in Merced County isn’t something I would have expected. Dornfelder is yet another cross (Helfensteiner and Heroldrebe), but one created in Germany where the grape is now the second-most grown red. It is capable of very high yields, but its most unique advantage is that it grows well in extremely cool areas that would otherwise be suitable only for white wine grapes. Merced County isn't especially cool, so I'm interested to discover exactly where and why it was planted there.
  • The Lodi AVA straddles two counties, San Joaquin and Sacramento. The Alta Mesa AVA, nested within the Lodi AVA, is entirely within Sacramento County and is climatically similar to Alentejo in Portugal. The Silvaspoons Vineyard in the Alta Mesa AVA produces darned good Verdelho.
  • There was no Triplett Blanc in California until 2004. From then through 2007, 856 acres were planted. It is a neutral, high-yielding white wine grape that was created by crossing French Colombard and Vernaccia Sarda. It’s chief attraction is astoundingly high yields — 20,000 tons per acre or above. A number of Central Valley growers have been experimenting with it to see if they can thereby increase production without expanding their overall acreage. One of the challenges in the experiments so far has been insufficient water availability to support the potential yield. For more about Triplett Blanc see Central Valley Fights Low Prices with Tripplet Plantings by Melinda Warner for Wine Business Monthly.


Data: U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Statistics Service

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for breaking wine news, information on events and more. Become a fan and join the NorCal Wine community on FacebookAlso check out our comprehensive Northern California winery listings. They are very useful for planning a tasting trip or just getting in touch with a winery.

This article is original to Copyright 2012 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved.


Richard Jennings
#1 Richard Jennings 2012-09-07 23:56
Interesting statistics Fred. I'm glad to see good sized increases for Albarino and Aglianico.
Fred Swan
#2 Fred Swan 2012-09-08 00:13
Thanks, Richard. I was also pleased to see growth in those two, and of course Roussanne and Grenache Blanc. I know you've tried at least one Albarino from Edna Valley (the Verdad). I'm looking forward to doing so.

One quick side note about French Colombard too. While it's been used for volume rather than distinction for quite some time in the Central Valley, Buena Vista Winery is reviving it as a featured varietal of quality, along with several other grapes Haraszthy imported. I understand it's quite good. More on that soon...
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