Found Food Photos: Miner's Lettuce
Grapes of the Rhone Valley: Counoise

Grapes of the Rhone Valley: Grenache Blanc

This article is the first in what will be an ongoing exploration of the principal varietals of the Rhone Valley.  A version of this article first appeared in the Tablas Creek newsletter.

GrenacheBlanc Overview
Grenache Blanc is the fourth most widely planted white grape in France. It produces rich, full wines with bright flavors and crisp acidity and is a key element in our flagship white wine, the Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc. It is also growing in popularity as a single-varietal wine, particularly in California’s Central Coast. As the name suggests, it is related to the more widely known Grenache Noir. Many grape varietals have both red and white variants; the best known is Pinot, which has Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris variations. Grenache Blanc, like Grenache Noir, is drought-resistant, vigorous, easy to graft and ripens fairly early in the cycle, after Viognier and Marsanne, but before Roussanne.

Since we brought Grenache Blanc into our nursery, we have sold budwood and grafted vines to a number of other Rhône-producing vineyards in California. The California climate of hot days and cool nights seems to be perfect for the varietal and encourages its two prime qualities: richness with crisp acids.

Early History
Grenache Blanc originated in Spain, and still plays a role in the wines of Rioja and Navarre. From Spain, it spread to France, and has thrived in the vineyards of the Rhône valley and Châteauneuf-du-Pape. In Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the crisp acidity of Grenache Blanc is used to balance the honeyed richness of Roussanne, and white Château de Beaucastel is roughly 80% Roussanne and 20% Grenache Blanc.

Grenache Blanc at Tablas Creek
We imported cuttings of Grenache Blanc from Beaucastel in 1992, and the vines spent three years in quarantine at the USDA station in Geneva, New York. In 1995, the cuttings were declared virus free and released to Tablas Creek Vineyard. These vines were received into our nursery and the first grafted vines went into the ground in 1996 . Our first significant harvest of the varietal was 1999. For the next three years (up to and including the 2001 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc), we could only refer to the varietal as Grenache on our label because Grenache Blanc was not yet recognized by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Not surprisingly, many people found this confusing and we were regularly asked why we added a red varietal into our white blend.  In 2002 we petitioned the BATF to recognize Grenache Blanc as a separate varietal.

Grenache Blanc in California
Even as plantings of other white Rhone varietals have plateaued, the planting of Grenache Blanc has increased; almost 40% of the 159 acres planted in California were planted since 2005. To date, almost one third of all Grenache Blanc in California is planted in San Luis Obispo county, and most of the single varietal Grenache Blancs released in California have come from the Central Coast.

Aromas and Flavors
Grenache Blanc is straw-colored and produces wines that are high in alcohol, with crisp acids. The nose has bright green apple and mandarin orange aromas, with clean flavors of more apple, mineral and a touch of peach. It typically has a lingering finish with a hint of licorice. Although it can stand confidently on its own (as most recently in our 2008 Grenache Blanc, which will be sent out to our wine club members as a part of our spring 2010 wine club shipment), its crispness and long finish make it a tremendous blending component. The crispness of Grenache Blanc shows well at low temperatures, whereas many white Rhône varietals shut down when served too cold. In our Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc, the Grenache Blanc allows the wine to show well, even highly chilled (as many restaurants often serve all white wines). As the wine warms up in the glass, the other varietals unfold, and the full richness of the wine is displayed. Anyone interested in learning more about Grenache Blanc and Grenache is encouraged to attend the Rhone Rangers tasting in San Francisco (March 27-28, 2010), where one seminar will be devoted to the grape.