Susy Atkins, Romain Bourger and Keith Kirkpatrick tasted 56 affordable California whites with 16 recommended wines.
Entry criteria: producers and UK agents were invited to submit California whites, including sparkling, with availability in the UK and/or US, with a retail price of up to £30/$30
While Chardonnay (in 35 of 56 entries) dominated this tasting, it wasn’t the whole story. As with the less-traditional grape varieties fielded for the reds, our expert panel was excited to see an eclectic mix among the remaining whites. ‘I was quite impressed to see Fiano, Grenache, Grüner Veltliner, Chenin Blanc… I think there were some really nice wines in there,’ said Keith Kirkpatrick. ‘They may struggle to be competitive at their price points in the UK, but they were thoroughly enjoyable wines to drink.’
Romain Bourger agreed: ‘I actually preferred these lesser-known varieties to the Chardonnays. It’s always interesting to taste different examples around the world of, say, Albariño, Grüner Veltliner and white Italian varieties. Even the Rieslings were easy-drinking with good aromatics.’
Susy Atkins noted that many ‘lacked the crisp acidity and freshness – that varietal clout – that you’d see in their European equivalents, but it’s great to see such interest and variety is on offer, particularly for US drinkers.’
Scroll down to see tasting notes and scores for the top affordable California white wines
Turning their attention to Chardonnay, Bourger noted a real improvement in Chardonnay quality from the more southern AVAs. ‘Santa Cruz, Monterey, Santa Barbara County – these areas for me scored relatively well,’ he noted. ‘We don’t know the prices, but I would expect great value for money from these regions. Fantastic, more elegant Chardonnay compared with many northern areas.’
The Chardonnays did come in for some criticism, however. ‘We failed to find any absolute stars’, noted Atkins, while Kirkpatrick felt producers hadn’t ‘moved with the times’ with this variety as much as with others. ‘At this price point, it seems they are sticking rigidly to the same winemaking methods they’ve been using for the past 20 or 30 years,’ he said. ‘There’s still too much obvious oak, too much heat from the alcohol, some unnecessary sweetness and not enough fresh, pure fruit character coming through.’
Kirkpatrick said there was no doubt that California could deliver lovely expressions of Chardonnay at a premium price, but ‘in this middle ground, it looks like producers are still working too hard to try to elevate what is essentially a simple, entry- level wine by throwing money – oak – at it, rather than focusing on getting really good fruit and the most elegant expression they can.’
Atkins defended the oak use in certain examples. ‘Some are good, honest, oaked California Chardonnays, and why shouldn’t they be?’ She did, however, have a problem with acidity. ‘Some of the Chardonnays were hot and flabby, lacking acidity. Then others had too much, with producers trying too hard to get a fresh finish, so we ended up with pithy, sour wines.
‘Getting that balance right still seems an issue in California,’ she said. ‘For the Sauvignon Blancs, as well, many of which were quite clumsy in relation to what we find from Europe.’
Bourger was particularly impressed by the small number of sparkling wines that were entered. ‘Regrettably we don’t see as many as we should in the UK, as they are consistently very good,’ he said. ‘Yes, some were quite rich and full, but that is sunny California! But they still had good balance with enough acidity and freshness.’ Atkins was encouraged by the quality and hoped UK consumers would see more sparkling wines in this price range, while Kirkpatrick praised those that had undergone judicious barrel fermentation and ageing.
Discussion copy by Tina Gellie
The affordable California whites scores:
56 wines tasted
Highly Recommended 16
About affordable California whites
Can the Golden State’s white wines provide value, interest and balance at the £30/$30 level? After assessing the reds last month, we turn our focus to mid-priced whites. Susy Atkins poses the questions
California white wine is almost synonymous with Chardonnay. It’s the state’s most widely planted grape variety of all, with nearly 37,800ha in 2017. And anyone who thinks it’s going out of fashion should think again. Chardonnay has been California’s leading grape for the past decade with sales increases every year, according to the California Wine Institute.
It was not always so. Although plantings of the grape date back to the late 19th century, its use was somewhat limited for a long time, mainly due to the perception that Chardonnay gave low yields. During Prohibition, 1920-1933, many Chardonnay vineyards were replaced with varieties that had thicker skins, such as Zinfandel, which were seen as hardier.
It wasn’t until the 1970s that Chardonnay’s popularity started to rise significantly. Today, Monterey AVA has the most plantings, at about 6,880ha, many vast vineyards there filling the valley floor. Sonoma is second with 6,313ha, and the hotter San Joaquin region to the east of San Francisco is third with a little more than 5,260ha.
Chardonnay in California: the 20th century
The Wente Bros winery in Livermore Valley, east of San Francisco, was the great pioneer of 20th-century California Chardonnay. The Wente clones, and those derived from them, were the result of genetic research carried out by Ernest Wente, son of the founder Carl. Ernest began experimenting with the then-obscure variety in 1912, importing his stock from France’s University of Montpellier. Wente was almost the only producer of Chardonnay until the 1950s, when Stony Hill winery in Napa and Hanzell in Sonoma became well-known for their varietal wines. At the Judgement of Paris tasting in 1976, Chateau Montelena’s 1973 Chardonnay from Napa beat the white Burgundies present, ensuring its future as the Golden State’s key white grape.
The idea that less expensive California Chardonnay is uniform in style – sweetish, over-oaky and strong – is misguided. Chardonnay can be chameleon-like here as elsewhere, and styles are diverse, from ripe and juicy, tropical-fruited versions to crisper, zestier ones often hailing from cooler spots and, of course, a proportion that have a vanilla and butterscotch, sometimes toasty oak character.
Our tasting was an opportunity to see which of these stylistic interpretations performed best – and from which AVAs.
The late 20th century saw many plantings of Chardonnay in cooler regions with coastal influence or higher altitudes. Did the wines from these vineyards make it into our best buys under £30/$30, though, or are they more premium whites commanding higher price tags? Does the use of expensive oak barrels mean few wines in this style make it into our best buys?
Affordable California whites: what are AVAs?
The geographic regions of California’s wine grapes are identified either by political boundaries, such as county names, or by federally recognised growing regions called American Viticultural Areas (AVAs). For a wine to carry an AVA on its label, at least 85% of the grapes used must be grown in that AVA; for county names, the minimum is 75%. California currently has 141 AVAs.
That said, California Chardonnay grapes are relatively cheap at an average of $924 per tonne, compared to Pinot Noir at $1,688 and Cabernet Sauvignon at $1,553, so perhaps it ought to be easier to make good examples at an affordable price.
While Chardonnay dominated, there were several Sauvignon Blancs – but can California ever compete with Chile for value for money with this variety, and in what style? (Is fumé passé?)
Riesling is a grape now more associated with Washington State and the Finger Lakes in New York State, but back in the 1960s it was one of the top grapes in California. It fell out of favour in the 1980s, seen as unfashionable and often too sweet, but there’s some indication of a revival of interest of late. Pinot Gris, Chenin Blanc, Viognier, Albariño and even Grüner Veltliner were all represented in the tasting too. Can any grape begin to rival Chardonnay as the queen of California whites under £30/$30? Let’s find out.
Top scoring California whites under £30 / $30
Atkins is a widely published and awarded wine writer and presenter, weekly drinks columnist for The Sunday Telegraph and wine editor of Delicious magazine. The author of 11 books on wine and drinks, she has appeared as a wine expert on BBC1’s Saturday Kitchen show over 12 years. www.susyatkins.co.uk
Bourger is head sommelier at The Vineyard at Stockcross, owned by Sir Peter Michael and one of the UK’s top specialists in California wine. He studied hospitality and catering in Moselle before starting out in 2008 as a sommelier at Hotel du Vin Winchester. He won the Taittinger UK Sommelier of the Year competition in 2019
Kirkpatrick is a buyer for Roberson Wine – winner in the USA Specialist category in the 2020 Decanter Retailer Awards. He began his career as a sommelier in Belfast in the late 1990s, then moved to London and joined retailer Oddbins in 2000, taking on a new role in on-trade sales in 2009 before joining Roberson a year later