Don’t Call Them Lesser

Stony Hill Vineyard, Napa, California - Don’t Call Them Lesser Grapes
Exploring vital grapes with big personalities—if tiny footprints

Merely ten grape varieties carpet 83 percent of California’s 473,000 vineyard acres. You’re likely familiar with most—Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Merlot, Zinfandel, Syrah, both Sauvignons—but also French Colombard, a backbone of white blends, and Rubired, a red-fleshed grape used to make MegaPurple, which stains an ocean of grocery store wine.

Grapes 11 through N are worth exploring. These are vines with small footprints but big personalities. Some of these so-called lesser grapes might surprise you. Cabernet Franc, California’s current varietal darling, occupies less than 1 percent of vineyard acreage. Ditto Malbec and Viognier. Mission, the grape that launched California wine, stands at merely 0.1 percent.

My July column for The Tasting Panel Magazine celebrates nine California wines made from oddball grapes, and offers insight from one winemaker who loves to work with them. You’ll find Albariño, Tannat, Ribolla Gialla, Charbono, and more. Find my recommendations in the magazine’s digital edition, or read this one-page PDF.


Photo: Stony Hill Vineyard, on Spring Mountain in Napa Valley, contains some old Riesling vines

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    • Thanks for weighing in, and good call. I’ve not had a Texan Tannat (although I’ve had plenty from Gascony). Can you describe their character? I’m intrigued.

      I tasted a lot of Bonarda when I was recently in Argentina, and it’s generally made in a light-hearted, light-bodied style. It’s actually a bit of a darling among Argentine winemakers, but it doesn’t command the price of Malbec and it definitely doesn’t take to oak.

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