By far the number one white wine grape grown in California is Chardonnay. In Sonoma County there is 50% more Chardonnay grapes crushed than the #2 grape, Cabernet Sauvignon. The #2 white wine grape, Sauvignon Blanc, has 15-20% of the tonnage of Chardonnay.
It will grow in a lot of places--in cool or warmer microclimates. Chardonnay grown in cooler areas are more crisp and a bit acidic. The Chardonnays most Americans are used to are heavier with tropical fruit flavors because of the warmer climate in CA as compared to most French vineyards.
Why it's Popular
Chardonnay is popular with Americans who grew up on soda pop because:
- Malolactic fermentation turns the natural green fruit flavors into soft buttery flavors.
- Barrel fermentation. Clos du Bois Winery popularized this in California.
- Oak barrel aged. Fermentation and aging in oak barrels gives toasty flavors, creaminess, vanilla and other spices, and fuller-bodied wines. That is, a lot more complexity at the cost of some fruit flavors.
- Residual sugar. Leaving a bit of sugar in your Chardonnay to fatten it up is a wine making secret so don't tell anyone. :) I believe this is done by a very small percentage of wineries, but I believe it's a larger percent of Chardonnay sales.
It's easy to understand this style of Chardonnay. If you're consuming something new and different it works better if you have a frame of reference, that is something you've already experienced (Pepsi) to help you understand something new (Chardonnay). Dry, relatively acidic wines are an acquired taste. Softer (less acidic) and maybe slightly sweet wines just go down easier. Chardonnay is just easy to drink and you don't have to think about it.
Styles of Chardonnay
Much of that extra processing of Chardonnay came from the French where the best Chards went through this, but their wines tend to be stark and acidic. California Chards are already fruity and lower acid and don't necessarily need the extra processing.
In the last couple decades the California style is often over-ripe, over-oaked, heavy and syrupy. You know, taste kinda like the Pepsi of wine. Just recently a few wineries started making unoaked Chardonnay from cooler climate grapes. This newer style is in response to backlash against the heavy Chardonnays and growing "membership" in the ABC club (Anything But Chardonnay).
Of course, it's whatever you like. Some of the most popular "butter ball" Chardonnay come from Rombauer and Sonoma-Cutrer. The ones from Clos du Bois are a little less so and better balanced. One of the more historic Chardonnays is from the Robert Young Vineyard. There are a number of Chardonnays labeled as unoaked. Often those labeled with the Sonoma Coast appellation won't be big and heavy either, as that is a very cool growing climate.
You don't have to like either the big, buttery ones or unoaked. You can like both. Also, there are plenty of Chardonnays in between the butter balls and the acidic, starker unoaked ones. Unoaked Chards will come across more refreshing so I think if you are a Sauvignon Blanc fan you may find the unoaked ones more to your liking.
You may even find you prefer Chards from a specific California appellation. The main ones are Carneros, Russian River Valley, Sonoma Coast, Monterrey, and several in Santa Barbara County--Santa Maria, Santa Rita and Santa Ynez.
Alternatives to Chardonnay
Sauvignon Blanc has been the poor stepsister to Chardonnay forever. Why? It's more acidic (not as soft). Consumed by itself without food it can come across as either "refreshing" or "tart." Some winemakers have tried to "fix" this by making SB like Chard by giving it barrel time.
Viognier made some inroads in California but never quite caught on. I believe it to be the typical problems with a new grape. That is, figuring out where and how to grow it then how to process it into a wine. Some of the first CA Viogniers I tried were oaky--made like Chardonnay. This wine could really catch on once CA figures out the best way to make it and people figure out how to pronounce it.
Pinot Gris is the latest thing in white wines. It's an easy drinking wine like Chard but not as heavy. It's also a bit simple but that may be what people want for a warm day sipping wine.
Q: So what is the best white wine to have with food?
A: A dry rosé (yeah, I know, it's not exactly white)