The Case for California Colombard

The Case for California Colombard

Yannick Rousseau owns a winery in Napa Valley, so, of course, he makes Merlot, Chardonnay, and Cabernet Sauvignon. But for 15 years, he has also made wine with Colombard, first as a varietal wine and later in a blend. The white grape isn’t thought of as a classic Napa variety; if known in California at all, it’s as part of a blend for sweeter, five-liter wines.

But Rousseau is from Gascony, in southwestern France, where Colombard is used in the region’s Côtes de Gascogne IGP blends: light, crisp, low-alcohol whites that have grown in popularity over the past couple of decades. Given this, he says, Colombard deserves to be better known in California.

Rousseau’s enthusiasm is more than an expatriate’s fancy. An increasing number of winemakers believe that Colombard is part of the state’s heritage, just as significant as Zinfandel, Carignan, and Mission in restoring the state’s old vines to their proper place in history. Colombard might lack the century-old pedigree of some of the other varieties, but it was the state’s workhorse white in the three decades before Chardonnay’s takeover in the 1980s.

Winemaker Greg La Follette, who today makes Colombard at Marchelle Wines, in the Russian River Valley, began his winemaking career with André Tchelistcheff at Beaulieu Vineyard and was the founding winemaker at Flowers Vineyards & Winery. He says, “I don’t think you could have had the modern California wine industry without Colombard, since it was so widely planted in the 1960s. It needs to be known as more than the lowly, much-maligned Colombard grape.”

History Lesson

Colombard is the offspring of two vinifera varieties, Gouais Blanc and Chenin Blanc. The former, though little known as a modern wine, is legendary for its role as a parent of a range of noble grapes, including Chardonnay, Riesling, and Gamay, and it has given its high acidity to Colombard.

Prolific in the vineyard, Colombard can be one-dimensional in the winery—hence its role as a blending grape for the jug wines that dominated the California wine business before the mid-1980s. Colombard is reliable and offers good acidity, and its late ripening is suited to California’s longer growing season.

Colombard has long been a staple in southwestern France, where it’s a key blending grape, along with Ugni Blanc and Folle Blanche, in Armagnac production. Farther north, it is also a permitted grape for Cognac. In the 1970s, however, many Colombard vines were pulled, because few thought the grape had a future beyond brandy production. Luckily, beginning in the late 1990s, dry white blends from producers such as Tariquet and Duffour became immensely popular, filling a niche for quality inexpensive wines that weren’t white Bordeaux. These wines are rarely varietal but blend Colombard with Ugni Blanc, Gros Manseng, Petit Manseng, and even Sauvignon Blanc. Colombard is a crucial component, because it can retain acidity in hot, dry environments, like that of southwestern France. Its role in these popular white blends helped arrest the decline of plantings elsewhere in the country.

In California, Colombard’s history dates to the late 19th century, when it was among a handful of whites (along with the Spanish Palomino) that growers and winemakers experimented with to identify which grapes grew best in the state. By the early 1970s, Colombard was the most planted grape in California, according to USDA figures, with about 20,000 acres—5,000 more than Zinfandel, the most planted red, and six times more than Chardonnay. Yielding as much as eight tons per acre, it was often called West’s White Prolific, named for George West, a mid-19th-century California wine pioneer, grower, and nursery owner, who imported Colombard vines from France. Fred Peterson, who has been making wine in California since the 1970s and today oversees his family-named winery in the Dry Creek Valley, recalls that, though it wasn’t unheard of to see a varietal Colombard, it was the ideal grape for blending. There were even a couple of acres of it on Ridge Vineyards’s Lytton ranch back then.

Acreage peaked in 1987. After that, almost no Colombard was planted, and vines were pulled out and replaced with Chardonnay—especially in prime, more expensive North Coast vineyards. As the market evolved and consumers wanted fruitier, more complex wines, the blends featuring Colombard fell out of favor, and winemakers sought alternatives for success.

The concept of the field blend, in which different vines grow together and their grapes are combined in the same wine, may have helped red grapes survive these market evolutions. Even if no one was quite sure of the mix, the grapes from a given field were often granted a single variety’s name and sold to make a varietal wine.

But, the winemaker Joel Peterson, who founded Ravenswood and his newer brand, Once and Future Wine, explains, “There really wasn’t the idea of a white field blend. The focus was on reds, because it was easier to make red wine than white.” It wasn’t until after World War II and the advent of refrigeration and other improvements in winemaking technology, such as microfiltration, that the idea of white blends became established in California.

Per USDA figures, by 2022, an estimated 16,000 acres remained in the entire state. By comparison, almost as much Pinot Gris is planted. Even the big producers had eventually shifted from Colombard, opting for the less expensive Thompson seedless to be sold as table grapes.

Joel Peterson says, “The market changed the demand for Colombard. We’re just not making the wines today we were making 20 years ago.”

The name West’s White Prolific didn’t stick, either, and today—despite some two dozen synonyms listed on its UC–Davis page (Psalmodi Blanc, anyone?)—the grape is often called French Colombard in California and elsewhere in North America. No one knows exactly why this name is used more than simply Colombard. Maybe it is sexier, says Joel Peterson. Maybe it is for marketing, says La Follette, in the same way that Riesling was previously known as White Riesling and Johannisberg Riesling.

But whatever the grape’s name, its allure remains. At Woodenhead Vintners, in the Russian River Valley, varietal Colombard from 50-year-old vines has been a tasting room mainstay since 2008. Nikolai V. Stez, the winemaker at Woodenhead, says, “Why do we make Colombard? I wanted something that had the electric acidity, the verve, the minerality, and the high-toned aromatics and flavors to compete with . . . Muscadet, Gruner, and Sancerre.”

Colombard Enthusiasts Worldwide

Colombard has persisted in several other regions as well. It remains widely planted in South Africa, where it is made as a varietal wine and is also blended with Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Today, it is having a renaissance among younger winemakers for many of the same reasons that can be cited in California, including the growing interest in older vines. Some are experimenting with off-dry bottlings.

Craig Hawkins, a South African winemaker and the co-owner of Testalonga, says, “I’m not sure why others don’t use it—maybe because it can be quite bland if fermented dry. But I think it’s a perfect grape for blending and bringing high natural acidity, particularly in the style we make wine, without adding acid and yeast.”

Hawkins produces an off-dry pét-nat called “I Wish I Was a Ninja” for Testalonga, which he owns with his wife, Carla. “Colombard,” he says, “is the perfect grape to do this, because it ripens early and has big acidity when picked at the right stage, and this balances the residual sugar I leave on the wine perfectly. It’s basically my Kabinett with bubbles at 8.5% alcohol.”

In 1996, Rousseau interned in Toulouse, in Gascony, as a college student. He says the white blends made there with Colombard have transformed how the grape is perceived in France. It’s no longer a throwaway grape or something added to Armagnac but a variety that plays an important role in French winemaking.

In California, Colombard is perhaps most popular with old vine enthusiasts, though old vine whites don’t have the cachet of reds. One reason for this is that more red vineyards have survived. The other, several retailers interviewed for this article say, is simply that the old vine movement has been more associated with reds.

Yet several old vine vineyards are listed in the Historic Vineyard Society’s register, including the Betty Ann Vineyard, in the Russian River Valley, which was planted in the early 1900s. There are also 60-year-old Colombard vines at the Wes Cameron Ranch, in Sonoma County. In addition, says La Follette, there may be abandoned Colombard vineyards in the Russian River Valley that can be, as he calls it, resuscitated.

“It’s a labor of love to make wine with those grapes,” says La Follette, who makes both a varietal and a sparkling wine with Colombard. “I love those old vines, and I love what they do to the wine. Old vines add complexity.”

The Marchelle sparkling wine is especially impressive: bone dry, a minimum dosage, without residual sugar, zesty bubbles, a hint of yeast and green apple, and an almost Champagne-like minerality. Its style is certainly California, but it’s leaner and zippier than many California sparklers. Despite the high price—the Marchelle bubbly is $55—consumers might be interested in the grape because it is little known and seldom praised. Kiera Hill, who owns Vino Culture, in Norfolk, Virginia, sells some of the Marchelle wines. She says her customers are always looking for something that isn’t mass-produced, and the more eclectic the better.

Colombard’s Future

Despite Colombard’s history and the enthusiasm many winemakers feel for the variety, there isn’t much of it in California. Finding sufficient grapes to make enough wine to sell regularly is challenging. Production is often measured not in cases but in bottles, and this scarcity is why Rousseau started making a Colombard blend.

So what comes next for Colombard? Is it a one-off novelty, a wine geek’s wine? Will it fade from view if the old vine movement loses traction? Or might the variety continue attracting interest, despite the dearth of new plantings in the past decade?

Joel Peterson believes that even if Colombard is not the ideal grape for a warmer California, it has a role in whatever climate change brings next. La Follette, though, is even more assured of its future. He is a passionate advocate for Colombard and sees its role as more than historical; he believes it is the grape that can be used to make white wines for all those consumers who want more than mass-produced Pinot Grigio. He fires off emails and missives to anyone who is interested. “We will stand by it,” he says.

Perhaps the excitement of these winemakers, the quality of the wines they are producing, and the compelling history of the grape in California will be enough to give Colombard a place at the table once again.

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California Crop and Livestock Reporting Service. “California Grape Acreage 1980.” May 1981.

California Department of Food and Agriculture. “California Grape Acreage Report, 2022 Summary.” April 19, 2023.

Foundation Plant Services–University of California, Davis (website). “Grape Variety: Colombard.” Accessed February 1, 2024.

Gray, Blake W. “Domaine Tariquet’s Ripping Yarn.” Wine-Searcher, July 19, 2017.

Historic Vineyard Society. “Betty Ann Vineyard.” Accessed February 1, 2024.

Lodi Winegrape Commission (website). Accessed February 1, 2024.

Sherwood, Greg. “The Old Vine Colombard Movement Gathers Pace.” Greg Sherwood MW, September 30, 2022.

Y. Rousseau Wines (website). Accessed February 1, 2024.