Do you know how many grape varieties exist in the world? Their number exceeds 10 thousand! However, only a few of them have become popular worldwide.

While many wine regions specialize in a limited number of wine varieties, with California, that’s not the case. Climate conditions in this state allow for cultivating the most popular wine grapes. So, Californian wine producers offer a great array of different red and white wine styles to choose from. 

Curious about wine varieties worth trying? This article will help you navigate the best wine grape varieties and wines in California.

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Wine grapes vs. table grapes

Do you think all grape varieties are suitable for making wine? There are so-called table grapes that you can find on store shelves and wine grapes used to make wine. Although the latter serves wine production purposes primarily, there’s nothing wrong with eating it. Table grapes do not make good wine, though. As for table grapes in the US, 99% of them come from California. 

What is the difference between wine grapes and table grapes? First, wine grapes typically have thicker skin than table varieties. Second, wine grapes are smaller and tend to have a more concentrated taste. Third, wine grapes have larger seeds compared to table grapes. Fourth, wine grapes and table grapes come from different species. Wine grapes primarily come from the Vitis Vinifera species, while table grapes may come from this and other species, including Vitis Rotundifolia and Vitis Labrusca. Finally, the yield of most wine grapes is lower than that of table grapes.

Wine production in California

Here are some quick stats for you to appreciate the role of California in the U.S. wine industry.

California has been the top wine-producing state for several decades already. As of 2021, 4,800 wineries and 5,900 grape growers in California produced 649.44 gallons of wine, constituting approximately 81% of total U.S. wine production. The total California wine grape acreage was 463,821 in 2021.

The stats speak volumes, right? It is worth noting that, with favorable climatic conditions in the state, these results would be easier to achieve.

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Grape-growing conditions in California 

What’s unique about the climate in California? Due to the state’s large area, diverse topography, and long coastline, a wide variety of environments and soils exist. So, winemakers can choose the optimal terroir for each grape variety. 

Warm and dry summers enable the grapes to ripen to the fullest. In addition, the proximity of Central and Northern California to the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay helps prevent the grapes from drying out in the sun by keeping moisture in the air. Regions with mountains and hills are notable for unique soil qualities that contribute to successful grape growing.

As you can see, international demand for Californian wines is booming for a good reason. Now that you know the prerequisites for making great California wines, it’s time to get familiar with the most popular wine grapes cultivated in the state.

10 most popular red grape varieties and wines in California

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Cabernet Sauvignon

Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the six Bordeaux grapes — the ones grown in the famous French wine region. Also referred to as the king of red wine grapes, Cabernet Sauvignon is the second most widely planted grape variety in California, producing one of the most famous wines in the world. The concentrated flavors, aromas, and noticeable tannins in these dark, thick-skinned grapes contribute to the rich bouquet of Cabernet Sauvignon.

Wines made of Cabernet Sauvignon (also called “Cabs”) are typically full-bodied. Cabernet Sauvignon wines display distinct notes of berries like black currant, blueberry, and blackberry, plus hints of herbs and savory notes of bell pepper. Oaked Cabs often acquire rich notes of tobacco, vanilla, mint, pepper, and chocolate on the palate.

Cabernet Sauvignon wines have excellent aging potential thanks to high levels of tannins. As the wine ages, it becomes more velvety on the palate while retaining its primary flavors.


Merlot is another noble grape of California and a representative of Bordeaux grapes cultivated in the state — particularly in the Napa Valley and Paso Robles regions.

Merlot wines display distinct notes of cherry, plum, and raspberry. Secondary flavors and aromas may include chocolate, orange, mint, cedar, green tea, and violet. Aging Merlot in oak for 8-12 months can make the wine’s bouquet more profound and complex.

Tannic wines made from Merlot are slightly reminiscent of Cabernet Sauvignon, but they are softer and more rounded. California Merlot has a rich, full-bodied texture and a velvety taste. 

California winemakers use Merlot grapes to produce not only single-varietal wines but also blends.


Syrah is a popular grape variety often referred to as a noble. These dark, thick-skinned grapes perform best in sandy, limestone, and granite soils. 

Syrah grapes produce dense, strong, deeply colored, and very aromatic wines with hints of blueberries, raspberries, fruit jam, peppers, and herbs. Still, the flavor profiles of Syrah wines may vary depending on how long the wine has aged. That is, young Syrah wines have distinct notes of dark berries and black pepper, while aged wines tend to acquire a flavor profile enriched with herbal, spicy, and floral notes.

Pinot Noir

The Pinot Noir grape variety is a tricky one. Unlike other red wine grape varieties, thin-skinned Pinot Noir grapes are prone to various issues in the vineyard. Pinot Noir performs best in cooler climates like Sonoma, Santa Barbara, and the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Although Pinot Noir is quite challenging to grow, wines from it conquer wine lovers with their freshness and cherry tones in the bouquet. Red wines made by Pinot Noir are light-bodied and almost translucent in color, with a flavor profile of fruit, flowers, and herbs. Thanks to their high acidity, Pinot Noir wines age well. 

Along with making red wines, this grape blends exceptionally with Chardonnay to produce sparkling wines like Champagne.


The Zinfandel grape variety appeared in California in the early 19th century and has since built a reputation as California’s signature grape. Just like Pinot Noir, this grape variety is quite difficult to grow. That’s why the best Zinfandel wines are pricey. Lodi, the city in San Joaquin, leads the production of Zinfandel in California, with over 40% of the state’s grapes being cultivated there. 

Zinfandel grapes produce white, rosé, and red wines. Coming in dry and semi-dry versions, red Zinfandel is typically full-bodied and rich in tannins. The tasting profile displays bright berry notes, with slight hints of tart spices appearing at the finish.


Known as one of the six Bordeaux grapes, Malbec is a thin-skinned grape variety that performs best in higher elevations. When growing Malbec in high-elevation areas, winemakers can achieve the desired acidity to produce a long-lasting wine. 

Malbec wines typically have a full body, medium tannins, and low to medium acidity. Their tasting profiles may display dark fruit flavors like plum, pomegranate, black cherry, and raspberry and spicy flavors like tobacco, black pepper, and cloves. The notable feature of Malbecs is a smoky finish. When aged in oak barrels, Malbec wines derive vanilla, dark chocolate, coconut, and mocha notes from the oak. 


Grenache or Garnacha is a thin-skinned grape variety with a versatile character. Grenache grapes can produce not only standalone red and rosé wines and amazing blends with other grapes like Syrah. 

The flavor profile of California Grenache wines is typically fruit-forward, with black cherry, strawberry, and raspberry being the primary notes. The secondary flavors and aromas may include citrus rind, cinnamon, and anise. Grenache wines typically have low tannin levels and bright acidity.

Cabernet Franc

Known as a parent to Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grapes, Cabernet Franc grapes have thin dark skins and are lower in tannins. Compared to Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc requires a cooler climate and performs best in chalk, clay, and limestone soils. 

The primary flavors of Cabernet Franc are raspberry, strawberry, and bell pepper. Along with single-varietal wines, Cabernet Franc grapes produce unique blends with Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Petite Sirah

While people mistakenly believe that Petite Sirah is a lighter version of Syrah, it is a different grape variety. These grapes appeared as a result of crossing Syrah with a rare variety Peloursin. 

The tasting profile of Petite Sirah wines dramatically depends on the climate where the grapes have grown. Petite Sirah grapes cultivated in warmer regions like Lodi and Central Valley produce rich wines with chewy tannins and jammy bramble or blackberry notes. In Napa Valley, Petite Sirah wines display a more complex bouquet of flavors, including blueberry, black pepper, and cocoa notes. 


Coming from Tuscany, an Italian region, the Sangiovese grape variety performed well in California’s climate and soils. Still, in terms of acreage, other red wine grape varieties occupy way more significant positions. 

Wines made of California Sangiovese are full-bodied, tannic, and high-acid. Their fruit-forward profile displays distinct flavors and aromas of cherry, raspberry, and black currant, together with subtle notes of thyme and cinnamon.

8 most popular white grape varieties and wines in California

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Known as the “queen of white wine grapes,” Chardonnay is the most widely planted in California. These thick-skinned yellow grapes produce top-consumed white wines in the U.S.

The variety of Chardonnay wine styles is amazing — from light-bodied wines that are crisp and refreshing wines to full-bodied, buttery versions.

Chardonnay wines are very aromatic, with notes of ripe pineapple, apple, fig, melon, honey, and citrus. Unoaked versions of Chardonnay display hints of minerality, while oaked versions that undergo malolactic fermentation get notes of vanilla, toast, and baking spices.

Chardonnay grapes make not only amazing single-varietal white wines but also blends. Moreover, Chardonnay is an essential element of many sparkling wines.

Sauvignon Blanc

Sauvignon Blanc is an aromatic white wine grape variety known for its adaptivity. While this noble grape performs well in many wine regions across the globe, temperate climates are perfect for it.

Californian Sauvignon Blanc is famous for its herbal and light smoky taste, with citrus fruits, melon, fennel, and green olive on the palate. Sauvignon Blanc typically comes in dry versions, although there are sweeter versions. In Napa Valley, Sonoma County, Lake, and other regions cultivating Sauvignon Blanc, you can find high-quality single-varietal wines and blends made using this grape variety.


Riesling is a white wine grape variety with small berries and bunches. The botanical name for these grapes used in California is White Riesling.

Riesling wines are notable for their fruity and floral aromas. The high acidity of Riesling grapes contributes to the great aging potential of the resulting wines. Rieslings may come in different styles — from sweet to bone-dry. 

Pinot Gris or Pinot Grigio

Pinot Gris or Pinot Grigio is a mutation of the Pinot Noir grape variety. Unlike most white wine grapes, Pinot Grigio grapes are pink-red, grayish, or purple. Still, because the grape skins aren’t in contact with the grape juice during the fermentation, Pinot Grigio wines obtain a golden color, just like other white wines.

Pinot Gris grapes produce easy-drinking light-bodied wines with medium to high acidity. The primary notes found in Pinot Grigio wines are stone fruit, white peach, apple, pear, and lemon zest. After undergoing malolactic fermentation, Pinot Gris wines become less acidic and fuller-bodied.

Chenin Blanc

Chenin Blanc is another popular white grape variety grown in California, especially in the Central Valley region. 

In general, Chenin Blanc grapes produce refreshing wines with fruity flavors. Chenin Blanc wines typically have a light to medium body and zingy acidity. The notable feature of Chenin Blanc is its versatility, as it can create an array of wine styles, including dry, sweet, sparkling, and oaked versions.


Viognier grapes are small and low-yielding. While drought-resistant, Viogner performs best in cooler climates and high elevations. In California, you can find Viognier plantings on the North Coast and the Central Coast.

Wines made from Viognier are typically dry, with dominant notes of tangerine, mango, peach, and honeysuckle. Oak aging gives Viognier wines a creamy texture and notes of vanilla, clove, and nutmeg. 


Semillon is a high-yielding thin-skinned grape variety that is relatively easy to grow. What’s noteworthy about this variety is its exposure to Botrytis — a kind of noble rot that can add amazing characteristics to future wine.

Semillon grapes produce dry and sweet wines with citrus, peach, chamomile, and beeswax flavors and aromas on the palate. 

Single-varietal Semillon wines and blends using Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, and other white wine grapes are both sought-after options.

Muscat or Moscato

The term “Muscat” or “Moscato” unites the group of over 200 white wine grape varieties. Muscat is an aromatic grape variety cultivated in many wine regions across the globe, including the Central Coast of California.

Light-bodied Muscat wines may come in various styles — dry and sweet, still and sparkling. The primary flavors of Muscat wines include Meyer lemon, Mandarin orange, and pear.

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Final notes

As you can see, the variety of grapes and wine names is stunning. Each grape variety widely grown in California has unique characteristics adding to the flavor profile of the resulting wine. We hope our guide will help you stock up the collection of wines made of these most popular wine grapes.