Wine-Growing Areas

Riesling in California

Riesling in California

Here is an overview of principal California American Viticultural Areas, (AVAs), the U.S. equivalent of appellations, associated with premium Riesling. For a deep dive into specific regions, please visit our Regional Guides.

California Riesling Acreage by County (2020)
COUNTY 2020 TOTAL GRAPE ACRES
(bearing and non-bearing)
2020 TOTAL GRAPE HECTARES
(bearing and non-bearing)
Monterey 1,427 578
Merced 846 342
Yolo 435 176
San Joaquin 213 86
Santa Barbara 163 66
San Benito 105 42
Napa 76 31
Sacramento 72 29
Mendocino 55 22
Solano 51 21
Other 216 87
STATE TOTAL 3,659 1,480

Mostly in mountain areas and in the valley’s southern portion.

With less than 40 hectares (100 acres) planted, Riesling’s presence here is diminutive. But the best examples are old vine and ageworthy and among the state’s most celebrated historic names: Trefethen, Smith-Madrone, and Stony Hill. The variety here is muted in expression when young, but over time exhibits classic tones of petrol/kerosene, along with aromas of juniper berry, citrus blossoms, just-ripe yellow apple, and white flowers.

Marin County

Sonoma County is not a Riesling leader per se, with the exception of adopted neighbor Marin County being sort of a DMZ (“demilitarized zone”) between southern Sonoma County and the San Francisco Bay area.   

  • Marin County: Pey Marin Wines is the leader here. Their Riesling is all about white peach, pear and apple, with hints of juniper and spice, braced by steely acidity.

Anderson Valley, Potter Valley, Cole Ranch

Some of the state’s oldest Riesling vines and longest history with the variety can be attributed to Mendocino County. The county’s Rieslings are delineated by their ample acidity, with bright lemon, tart apple and occasional cantaloupe-like flavors. Most of the Riesling is planted in Anderson Valley, but these wines are a labor of love, as the spotlight has now been trained on the area’s sought-after Pinot Noir, pushing vineyard prices higher and higher and making Riesling less economically viable. 

  • Anderson Valley: Riesling here displays floral aromas and a nice balance between freshness and aromatics of just-ripe pineapple, medium-ripe citrus, apples blossoms and a snap of petrol as the wines age. They can and do evolve gracefully for an extended period of time. Known for late harvested styles as well as dry.

Cienega Valley

Close to San Francisco, Monterey County may not be the first place one thinks of when it comes to Riesling, but it is quite prominent. It is so prominent, in fact, that as a county, it leads the Golden State in plantings, with just over half the state’s harvest emanating from various parts of the region, notably the Santa Lucia Highlands and Arroyo Secco. Quietly, San Benito County has become home to some delightfully chiseled expressions of the grape. 

  • Monterey: Pineapple, stone fruit, soft lychee, and kiwi seem to be consistent hallmark aromas. In the Santa Lucia Highlands, high winds, dry days, and bay fogs create a cool, and very long, growing season -- ideal for Riesling. These examples are still tropical-scented, but often have a sea spray-like salinity and snap of petrol.
  • Cienega Valley: The highly sought-after Wirz vineyard is the pride and joy of the AVA, with its half-century-old Riesling vines that are own-rooted, head-trained and dry-farmed, some of which are planted directly on the San Andreas Fault. The wines are lean and muscular, with zesty, rapier acidity levels.

Los Alamos, Santa Maria Valley, and the Sta. Rita Hills

Riesling was one of the principal varieties planted in Santa Barbara in the 1960s and ‘70s, when Americans had a taste for sweet and off-dry whites. However, it was largely grafted over, as tastes started to shift toward Chardonnay and other dry wines. In fact, many so-called “own-rooted” Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and other vines in the region today are actually grafted onto Riesling rootstock. Santa Barbara County Riesling is making a comeback as a dry, low-alcohol wine. It is the second largest premium region in the state, after Monterey County, with an increasingly high-quality reputation. 

  • Santa Barbara: While it is challenging to dissect micro-regional differences, a signature Santa Barbara Riesling will have floral notes of honeysuckle and citrus blossoms, supported by flavors of apricots, tangerine/mandarin, and lemon curd.

Riesling Around the World

More than most other white grapes, Riesling is reflective of where it is planted. Consensus is that it does not grow well either in very warm locations or cooler sites, where the quality and character of the wine can vary enormously. The most elegant and precise Rieslings come from cool to cold climates, while those from warmer spots, such as in Washington State or California, are usually softer, slightly fuller, and can have less precise, less minerally flavors. And there are always exceptions, as distinctively cooler microclimates in overall warmer places can make exceptional bottlings: the celebrated Wirz vineyard in San Benito’s Cienega Valley is a great example.

  • France: Alsace
  • Germany: Rheingau, Pfalz, Rheinhessen, Mosel, Württemberg
  • Italy: Northeast - Alto Adige, Friuli
  • Austria: Weinviertel, Wachau, Kamptal, Kremstal, Burgenland
  • Spain: Castilla-La Mancha, Castilla-León (Rueda)
  • Other European countries: Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovenia, Croatia. Moldova, etc. 
  • Australia: Great Southern, South Australia (Eden Valley, Clare Valley, Padthaway, Adelaide Hills), NSW (Hunter Valley), Tasmania
  • New Zealand: South Island (Central Otago, Marlborough)
  • South Africa: Robertson, Stellenbosch, Elgin, Constantia
  • The Americas
    • Argentina: Mendoza
    • Chile: Aconcagua (San Antonio), Southern Valleys (Bio Bio), Austal (Lago Ranco)
    • Mexico: Valle de Guadalupe in Mexico’s Baja California region
    • Canada: Ontario (Niagara), British Columbia
    • USA (beyond CA): New York (Finger Lakes), Oregon, Washington (Ancient Lakes), Michigan (Upper Peninsula, Leelanau Peninsula)