White Wines of Placer:
Ahead of the Curve in Mediterranean and Emerging White Wine Varieties
White wine varietals comprise only 10 percent of the the varietals planted and produced in the entire Sierra Foothill AVA. In Placer County, it is less than 10%, however in the past five years we are seeing the numbers of plantings and production of white varietals increase, as we learn what grows consistently well and with ease in our Mediterranean-like climate. The expansion is largely due local winemakers answering the demand of local consumers, as well as an increased willingness and eagerness to experiment and explore the opportunities of Placer’s unique terroir as it applies to white estate produced grapes and wines.
Over the years, Placer County growers have successfully experimented with Mediterranean varietals such as Verdleho, Albarino, and the Italian Vermentino. Even more popular are the white Rhône varietals, Viognier and Rousanne. Teena Wilkins at Viña Castellano explains that after years of waiting for others to take the leap, her father, Gabe Mendez, a Spaniard, decided to bite-the-bullet and in 2008, they were the first to commercially plant the Spanish white clone – Verdejo. The slightly better known Portuguese varietal, Verdelho, sounds similar but in fact is distinctly different and unrelated. Verdelho, and the even more widely planted Rhone varietal Viognier, have been produced in the foothills for over 10 years, though they are still-fairly exclusive. The former Hyatt-Baumbach winery was growing and producing the Italian white, Vermentino, even before the now thriving Placer County once again became legitimate growing destination. After the Gold rush, wine production in Placer County slowed, and it came to a commercial standstill after prohibition. Today, however, it is a little known fact that Placer County has been ahead of the curve in the production of these emerging white varietals – some were even planted in Placer before they were considered “emerging”.
It was four years ago at Foothill Grape Day 2012, (a rotating annual event in various sections of the Sierra Foothill Region put on by the UC Davis Cooperative Extension) where I first heard white wine varietals discussed as a serious option in the Sierra Foothills. According to UC Davis viticulture specialist, Dr. Jim Wolpert at that time, 10 varieties comprised 80% of the entire varietal wine business in California. I do not know how significantly that percentage has changed in California as a whole, but I know that in Placer County we have long embraced the need for regionally grown whites of excellence. According to Wolpert, back in 2012 the increased availability of Mediterranean Whites varieties and clones through the Foundation of Plant Services (FPS) at UC Davis, offered new opportunities to foothill growers.
Chardonnay, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Gris/Pinot Grigio are the most well-known white wines, and although, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc grow decently in foothill soils, there are also a bounty of Rhone-native grapes, from Grenache Blanc to Viognier, and Mediterranean varietals, such as Albariño, Verdelho and Verdejo that flourish in the higher altitudes. When farmed appropriately and harvested at the right time, many white varietals do their best work in the Sierra Foothills, sometimes even better than wines produced in their countries of origin.
All that considered it is the consumer that holds the future of estate-grown white wine in the Sierra Foothills. White wine drinkers are amongst the most ferociously loyal to single varietals. Particularly when it comes to the most widely planted wine varietal in California: Chardonnay. One of the tag lines heard most frequently at local tasting counters is “I’m a Chard gal”, (or person). No surprise, there are 95,000 acres of Chardonnay planted in California. The red varietal, Cabernet Sauvignon, comes in second 15,000 behind, at 80,000 acres.
Some wine drinkers are so varietal loyal that they scoff when offered substitution wines made from different grapes, but none more than the Chardonnay consumer. Offer a loyal Chardonnay drinker a Mediterranean or Rhone white and the look you get back is likely that of shock and awe. In a way, it is a kind of brand loyalty. Having said that, it is seemingly more intense than just preference. For instance, let us take soda pop for example. When it comes to that beverage, many prefer Coke to Pepsi but rarely do they feel insulted when offered the alternative. This is often not the case in the white wine world.
Why are white wine drinkers, and in particular, Chardonnay drinkers so much more ferociously loyal? Likely because Chardonnay wines are often fuller in body and smoother than their counterparts in the dry white category, which is why they are considered to have a wider audience. In the wine world, we say they are more “approachable”. Chardonnays, which are frequently fermented in new oak barrels vs. the stainless vats used for most whites, can have a “buttery” tone that lends a creaminess. This softer acidity combined with fruit flavors makes it highly drinkable for the masses. This is partially the reason that many foothill wineries still produce Chardonnay as well as Sauvignon Blanc alongside the Rhone and Mediterranean varietals, which are more easily grown in the region.
So how do we and how should we handle white wine in the Sierra Foothills where Chardonnay is more challenging to grow? First, we need to address the fact that Chardonnay is very adaptable and excellent wines of that variety are produced in every region of California, including Placer County. Napa and Sonoma growers will often say that the coastal influence is what makes their region better suited for Chardonnays and that the day to nighttime cool down, makes their area superior. While that gives them a certain advantage, the reality is it that it simply makes their regions easier for growing certain varieties, not impossible for the rest of us. Likewise, their conditions lend themselves to the typical buttery and less tropical forms of Chardonnay. However, the real reason that Chardonnay is a more difficult fit for foothills growers has less to do with our warm summers then it does with our cold winters. The day to nighttime temperature change in many of the microclimates of the sierra foothills is similar to that of Napa and Sonoma. Contrary to popular belief, the temperature drops significantly enough in many foothill locations to provide enough cool down at night to delay and lengthen the ripening and give us plenty of hang-time to get the fruit where we need it. Most of the vineyards reside between 1,500 to 3,000 feet where elevation creates a true four-season climate. The shallow, mountainside soils create moderate stress on the vines, producing low to moderate yields and high quality. The stress point for growers in the foothills is the winter and the threat of an early spring followed by a random late frost. This does not affect quality: it affects production.
Chardonnay is an early budding vine. It requires aggressive pruning just prior to bud break in all regions, but in the Sierra Foothills it is extremely important to shock the vine and delay bud break until consistently warmer weather can arrive. To grow Chardonnay requires additional cultural practices and close attention to detail in the Sierra Foothills, but many growers go through the pain-staking details to achieve this. A fair amount of local winemakers take the less costly route and take advantage of their ability to contract grapes and produce wines from non-estate sources outside of their district or even outside the Sierra Foothill region.
Both of those options are great ways to offer the consumer what they are craving, but the third and increasingly more popular route is through experimentation and consumer education. Other white varietals can be made stylistically similar in body and mouthfeel to Chardonnay, lending to the approachability that sells many oenophiles on white wine. These varietals are grown more reliably and with less risk to the farmer. So, if you are a white wine drinker, Chardonnay or otherwise, I challenge you to get out on the trail and see if you can’t find a local solution to your solve your white wine affection.