Wine Trends. California wineries are experimenting beyond Cabernet Sauvignon

A group of California winemakers is dedicated to making quality wine from unusual grape varieties.

The world is blessed with more than 10,000 kinds of grapes. So why don’t we see more of them in wine stores, especially in California? That question led to the birth of an annual event called Seven % Solution. In 2012, a small group of winemakers gathered to ponder the dearth of diversity in the wine world. That year, about 93 percent of Northern California’s wine-producing regions were planted to just eight grape varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah and Petite Sirah. Since then, Pinot Gris has crept into the big leagues, too.

seven % solution logo

But what about the other seven percent?

The majority of them were venerable Old World grapes beloved by eccentric and trailblazing wineries that believed in their attributes. The group hit upon a brilliant idea at its 2012 meeting: why not convene these winemakers so that the public could taste a lot of rare and fascinating wines in one location? 

“Each year since we have watched the numbers grow,” reports wine-geek website Bergamot Wine Co., which helps organize the event. “More acreage planted to the ‘Seven %’ grape varieties, more wines made from ‘Seven %’ grapes, and more winemakers and growers attached and dedicated to the ‘Seven %’ movement. This acceleration of change is exactly what the Seven % Solution tasting event is dedicated to.”

article on varietal diversity

I attended this year’s Seven % Solution gathering recently in Los Angeles. There where hundreds of wine lovers and wine industry professionals gathered on a warm Sunday morning to taste exotic wines. The line-up was impressive. In a crowded industrial building, 42 wineries from all over the state poured 200 wines representing 60 grape varieties. Among the trends I noticed this year.

wineries at seven % solution

Chenin Blanc

California standby from the bell-bottom era, is making a comeback. The modest white wine grape from France’s Loire Valley is a workhorse that’s used to make everything from sparklers to dessert wines. Its California incarnation was often bland and unmemorable back in the day.

I can remember a time not long ago when Chenin Blanc vineyards were being unceremoniously ripped out en masse to make way for trendier grapes. But winemakers are finally giving it some respect now, and it shows. Their interpretations of Chenin Blanc are often racy and bracing, lean but full and pleasantly mineral-ish. Among the California producers of quality Chenin Blanc are Birichino, Calder Wine Company, Gamling & McDuck, Gros Ventre Cellars, Jaimee Motley Wines, Leo Steen, Little Frances, Lo-Fi Wines and Thacher Winery.  

Carignan

According to wine guru Jancis Robinson, it’s “a curious red wine grape that provokes strong reactions in those who know about it”. Robinson claims it was once the most common wine variety in France until it was overtaken by Merlot. But most wine drinkers in America are completely unfamiliar with it.

Because of its high yield it was used to produce cheap, bland wine in France. For years that stigma has adhered to it like a case of bad mildew. Yet in California, older head-pruned vines with low yield are producing some lush, complex Carignans. Among the better California producers are Calder Wine Company, Horse & Plow (both Carignan and rosé of Carignan), J. Brix Wines, Lioco, Preston Vineyards, Sebastien Wines, Trail Marker (a rosé), Two Shepherds and West of Temperance.

seven % solution event in Los Angeles

Other varieties showing some trendiness

  • Aglianico. It’s an ancient, hardy red grape, originally from Greece, that’s full-bodied, tannic and acidic.
  • Cabernet Franc. It’s a familiar red grape that’s commonly used in Bordeaux blends. Cabernet Franc wasn’t often successfully produced on its own in California until recently.
  • Cinsault. It’s a heat-resistant, high-yield French red grape that was traditionally used in bulk blends.
  • Trousseau Gris. Like Chenin Blanc, is a white grape that fell out of favor in California a generation ago. However, it’s crisp, clean and aromatic if made properly.
  • Vermentino. Light-bodied white Italian grape that seems ideally suited to certain Californian appellations. Tablas Creek near Paso Robles, not represented at this event, makes an excellent example.

California’s biggest winemakers aren’t going to change their growing and marketing practices anytime soon. However, it’s heartening to see wine follow the gastronomic trends of curiosity, experimentation, and the rediscovery of old traditions.

There are more than 10,000 possibilities. California’s grape growers and vintners have just begun to explore their world’s vast reservoir of diversity.