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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

Variety

New Acreage

2007 - 2011

Total Acreage

2011

Counties of Greatest Increase

Pinot Noir

8,529

39,273

Monterey, Santa Barbara, Sonoma

Chardonnay

6,686

95,511

Monterey, Sonoma, San Joaquin, Mendocino, Napa

Cabernet Sauvignon

5,555

79,290

Napa, San Luis Obispo, San Joaquin, Sonoma

Pinot Gris

4,383

13,292

San Joaquin, Madera, Sacramento

Zinfandel

1,478

48,354

San Joaquin, Amador

Rubired

1,329

11,832

Fresno, Madera

Sauvignon Blanc

1,234

15,636

Monterey, Sonoma, Lake

French Colombard

1,218

24,143

Fresno

Petite Sirah

1,128

8,335

San Joaquin, San Luis Obispo, Napa, Yolo

White Riesling

1,067

4,147

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

Variety

Growth Percentage

Total Acreage 2011

Counties of Greatest Increase

Albarino

238

176

San Luis Obispo, Yolo, Monterey

Pinotage

124

56

San Joaquin

Symphony

111

1611

Merced, Fresno

Dornfelder

87

41

Merced

Aglianico

83

55

San Luis Obispo

Tannat

71

287

Monterey, San Joaquin, Sacramento

Primitivo

67

254

Amador, San Joaquin

Muscat Hamburg

63

355

Kern

Grenache Blanc

46

278

San Luis Obispo, Madera

Malbec

43

1,611

San Joaquin, Merced, Monterey

Verdelho

43

90

Sacramento

Muscat Blanc

40

2190

Madera, Fresno

Triplett Blanc

38

856

Fresno, Merced, Tulare

White Riesling

35

4147

Merced, Monterey, San Joaquin

Roussanne

24

367

San Luis Obispo, Mendocino

Muscat of Alexandria

24

3842

Merced, Fresno, Madera

Orange Muscat

24

290

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

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

Comments   

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.
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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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