California's best-known and most popular white varietal wines are Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Other widely available California white varietal wines include: Riesling, Chenin Blanc, Pinot Grigio/Gris, and Gewürztraminer.
Varietal wines are named after their sole or dominant grape variety. U.S. federal regulations dictate that a wine must derive at least 75 percent from the grape variety that’s named on the label.
The Chardonnay grape is a white grape that makes white table wines and sparkling wines. Because the Chardonnay grape is easy to grow in a wide range of climates and types of soils, it grows throughout California’s wine regions.
Chardonnay wines usually have some toasty, smoky aromas and flavors that come from oak. They also have fruit aromas and flavors that include apple, citrus fruit (especially lemon), and tropical fruits such as mango or pineapple. You can also sometimes find aromas and flavors that suggest butter, butterscotch, vanilla, or caramel; these particular aromas and flavors come from oak or winemaking processes, not from the grapes.
California’s Chardonnay wines tend to be full-bodied and range from dry to rather sweet. The least expensive brands are most likely to be somewhat sweet, probably because the wineries are targeting a broad audience that appreciates a wine that’s not truly dry.
The Sauvignon Blanc grape variety is the number two most popular domestic white varietal wine, behind Chardonnay. Some wines based on the Sauvignon Blanc grape call themselves Fumé Blanc, which U.S. authorities recognize as a synonym for Sauvignon Blanc.
Sauvignon Blanc wines vary considerably based on where the grapes grow, how ripe the grapes get before they’re harvested, how the winemaker chooses to vinify the juice, and how he or she ages the Sauvignon Blanc wine.
Generally, Sauvignon Blanc wines are crisper than Chardonnay and medium-bodied rather than full-bodied, with more vivid, pronounced fruit flavors, which include citrus, pear, or passion fruit. The wines can also have herbal or vegetal aromas and flavors, such as mowed grass or green peppers. Many Sauvignon Blanc wines are made without any use of oak, and therefore they lack the smoky, toasty, vanilla-like aromas and flavors of Chardonnay.
Other California White Varietals
Other common California varietal white wines that you’re likely to see include the following:
Pinot Grigio/Gris: Sometimes these white wines are called Pinot Gris, and sometimes they’re called Pinot Grigio, the Italian name for the wine. California Pinot Grigios tend to be sweeter than the Italian versions, less crisp, and fruitier in flavor. Sometimes when a winery names the wine Pinot Gris, it signifies a fuller-bodied, more flavorful style of wine.
Riesling: California makes a few very good wines from the white Riesling grape variety and some fairly sweet wine that’s made to appeal to wine drinkers who don’t like truly dry wines. The best wines come from cooler regions such as Mendocino County, Monterey County, and cool sections of Napa Valley. They’re dry to medium-dry and unoaked, with rich fruity aromas and flavors (peach, apricot, citrus, melon, apple, and so forth).
Chenin Blanc: This is one of the world’s classic white wine grapes. In California, Chenin Blanc wines generally range from medium-dry (even though some are labeled dry) to medium-sweet and are fairly full-bodied, with rich texture. Most of the Chenin Blanc juice in California ends up in inexpensive blended wines, but some good varietal wines do exist.
Gewürztraminer: Only a small amount of this flavorful grape grows in California, mainly in cooler areas such as Mendocino County and parts of Sonoma County. The wines are generally full-bodied, unoaked, richly textured, and rich in perfumed aromas and flavors that can include lychee fruit, rose, peach, apple, and citrus fruit.
Pinot Blanc: California boasts a few very fine wines from the white Pinot Blanc grape. These wines are dry, fairly full-bodied, and unoaked or gently oak-influenced, with subdued aromas and flavors.
Viognier: This white variety makes full-bodied, dry white wines that are rich in aroma and flavor, particularly peachy and floral notes. These wines can be unoaked or made using oak barrels, but they usually don’t taste oaky.