California is producing appealing white wines of lesser-known varietals. (Lyle Norton/Special to S.F. Examiner)

California is producing appealing white wines of lesser-known varietals. (Lyle Norton/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Opening up to California alternative white wines

Market offers more than chardonnay


With the warmer spring weather comes increased demand for popular selling white varietals like chardonnay, pinot gris and sauvignon blanc. It is also an opportunity to experiment with lesser known varietals produced and readily available in California.

The origin of chenin blanc is the Loire Valley in France, where regions like Vouvray and Anjou produce it in its finest form. Today, South Africa has become the world’s largest producer of chenin blanc with expanded vineyards throughout the Stellenbosch, Paarl and Swartland regions in the Western Cape Province.

California chenin blanc has had a resurgence in recent decades with expanded plantings that include acreage in the Clarksburg appellation near the Sacramento Delta.

Recently, at the Dry Creek Kitchen Restaurant in Healdsburg, I paired a butternut squash and pomegranate salad with a local chenin blanc produced by Aperture’s Jesse Katz from a 47-year-old dry-farmed vineyard in Clarksburg. The 2018 Aperture Chenin Blanc Clarksburg ($30) has earned consistently high ratings and, in my opinion, is one of California’s best expressions of the varietal. Older vines create a full-bodied wine with distinct aromas and balanced orchard fruits intertwined with a defining minerality from mid-palate through the finish.

For years, as a négociant, Cameron Hughes has successfully purchased wine from small producers to bottle under his label at value prices. His business relies on providing a high quality to cost ratio. I recently tasted and was impressed with the Cameron Hughes lot 752 2019 Gavi ($15), a dry white wine made with cortese grapes sourced from Italy’s Piedmont region. The bouquet served as a nice greeting with floral, stone fruit and mineral hints that extended through rounded flavors on the palate. It is a complex wine for the price and compares to an Oregon pinot gris.

A recent discovery, the 2019 Blindfold White Wine ($32), bottled by Prisoner, is a blend of the classic Rhone varietals roussanne, viognier and muscat with added chardonnay. I enjoy white Rhone blends, but it was the chardonnay that influenced its unique flavors. The wine, aged for 10 months in oak and stainless steel, has bold aromas of baked fruit and spice followed by stone fruit flavors, a lush mouthfeel and long finish. I imagined it paired with grilled oysters.

Nenow Family Wines, a new producer of Rhone-style wines from the mid-state Paso Robles appellation, searched for viognier plantings in the Willow Creek District that would generate enough acidity to balance the intensity of other flavors. Balance was found in the Nenow Family Wines Viognier “The Tightrope” 2018 ($30). The melon and tropical fruit aromas and flavors are boldly expressive, but enhanced with a bright acidity.

The Bucher Vineyard in the Russian River Valley has been sourcing pinot noir and chardonnay grapes to Sonoma County wineries for decades and, in 2011, began its own label. Aside from flagship varietals, it produces fewer than 50 cases of the lush 2018 Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc Bucher Vineyard Russian River Valley ($32), which was paired with Earl Grey crème brûlée at the same Dry Creek Kitchen dinner. It was complex for a dessert wine, not overly sweet with zesty mineral hints and a rich texture that lingered. It was perfect with crème brûlée, but is a dessert in itself.

Bucher Vineyard produced a limited amount of the 2018 Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc Bucher Vineyard Russian River Valley. (Courtesy photo)

Bucher Vineyard produced a limited amount of the 2018 Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc Bucher Vineyard Russian River Valley. (Courtesy photo)

Vermentino is a fairly obscure Italian white grape grown mostly on the island of Sardinia. The wines offer engaging aromas and complex flavors, but are limited and often overshadowed by more popular whites.

The Brickbarn estate vineyard, located in the Santa Ynez Valley north of Santa Barbara and 10 miles from the Pacific Ocean, offers a similar climate to those in Sardinia. The Brickbarn Vermentino 2019 Santa Ynez Valley ($38), aged primarily in stainless steel, has a bright acidity, but the spirited aromas and flavors are round and full, with stone fruits and savory herbal notes.

Chardonnay is the predominant white grape from the Burgundy region of France. Plantings of lesser known Aligoté pale in comparison and primarily serve to blend with chardonnay or a local sparkling wine called Crémant de Bourgogne.

The grapes for the Ernest Vineyards Henry David Vineyard Aligoté 2019 ($32) are sourced from a small parcel in the 18-acre site near my home in the Bennett Valley appellation, outside of Santa Rosa. The rich minerality is present throughout with added floral hints on the nose and citrus and stone fruits on the palate.

Guest columnist Lyle W. Norton is a wine enthusiast and blogger in Santa Rosa who has written a wine column for 20 years. Visit his blog at or email mourvedre

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