A decade ago, there was a flurry of interest around Syrah. A few years ago, it was Grenache. This spring, it seems to be Grenache Blanc's moment in the spotlight. In February, within a week of each other, I got phone calls from the Wine Spectator's MaryAnn Worobiec and the Wine Enthusiast's Matt Kettmann, each looking for insight into this grape that had impressed them in recent blind tastings. The results of these conversations were published recently. [The Wine Spectator article is available behind their paywall, and the Wine Enthusiast article is free access.]
Why Grenache Blanc, and why now? I've got a few theories.
Grenache Blanc has an unusual and appealing combination of bright acids and full body.
There are a few other grapes that can hit this, in the right climates (Riesling in a cold environment, or Chardonnay in a cool one, are two) but most white grapes exist somewhere on the continuum between bright and lean on one end, and rich and soft on the other. Grenache Blanc, like its red-skinned cousin1, is a grape that typically comes in at high sugars (providing glycerine and richness) and high acids (providing freshness). Take a look at its numbers from 2014 (our last relatively normal vintage) compared to our other white grapes:
|Avg. ° Brix
The pH differences between Grenache Blanc and the Roussanne / Marsanne / Viognier trio is even more significant than the above chart likely suggests. The pH scale is a logarithmic scale (so, a solution with a pH of 3 has ten times the acid concentration as one with a pH of 4, and one hundred times the acid concentration of one with a pH of 5, etc). This means that Grenache Blanc, with a pH of 3.33, has 50.7% more acid ions than Viognier (pH 3.51), 214.4% more acid ions than Marsanne (pH 3.82), and 217.3% more acid ions than Roussanne (pH 3.83). It's no wonder that even a small addition of a higher acid grape like this can have a major impact on the taste of a finished blend.2
And yet, with many high-acid grapes, you run the risk of thinning out the mouthfeel of a wine. Not Grenache Blanc. You can see from the above chart that even though its acids are high, it also has the highest average sugar content at harvest.
Grenache Blanc's ideal climate matches California's well.
For many of the world's most popular white grapes -- I'm thinking Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc here -- California is a challenging climate because of its sun and its warmth. These grapes reach their peaks in relatively cool parts of France, and so in California, growers are searching for sites that have significant marine influence, or fog, or extreme altitude, because otherwise they end up picking in August and making wines without much complexity. There just aren't that many spots like this in California, particularly not after you realize that most of these climates are also highly desirable as places to live. Grenache Blanc is originally from Spain, whose warm, sunny climate far better approximates most of California's than does that of Burgundy, or of the Loire. There are far more places where Grenache Blanc is likely to do well. So, whether you're looking in Paso Robles, in Santa Ynez, in Dry Creek, or in El Dorado, you're going to find people doing a good job with Grenache Blanc.
Grenache Blanc is productive and relatively easy to grow.
There are grapes that we feel like we fight with each year, either in yields or in keeping it balanced. Viognier is famously low-yielding. Roussanne and Marsanne (and Viognier, for that matter) pose challenges in keeping acidity levels while you wait for ripeness. Viognier and Roussanne are both susceptible to drought-induced stress symptoms. But Grenache Blanc is pretty easygoing. Its yields are naturally higher than our other white grapes; over the last 10 years, it has averaged a healthy 4.2 tons/acre here, better than Marsanne (3.7 tons/acre), Picpoul (3.4 tons/acre), Roussanne (2.8 tons/acre), or Viognier (2.4 tons/acre). This means that people can produce Grenache Blanc at a reasonable price, which translates into more affordable wines and more opportunities to get it in front of potential new customers.
Grenache Blanc blends well, but it's also good on its own.
We originally planned to use our Grenache Blanc as a complement to our Roussanne and our Viognier, as is typically done in the Rhone. And we still use Grenache Blanc as a supporting player in our Esprit de Tablas Blanc (behind Roussanne) and Cotes de Tablas Blanc (behind Viognier), as well as in a starring role in our Patelin de Tablas Blanc (along with Viognier, Roussanne, and Marsanne). In a blend, it adds brightness, rich mouthfeel, sweet anise spice, and green apple fruit, all flavors that are easy to like and easy to incorporate. But it has exceeded our expectations as a varietal wine. We first bottled our Grenache Blanc in 2002, and we haven't missed a vintage since. Part of the reason why is that, at least at first, it was new to many people, and having it on its own was a great educational tool. But the more time we spent with it, the more we came to appreciate that it's a worthy and appealing grape on its own, textural and rich, bright and lively, with sweet spices on the attack and a dry finish.
So, it's little surprise to me that in the last decade, Grenache Blanc plantings in California have grown from 101 acres to 333 acres, an increase of 229%.3 And based on all the reasons it's done well in recent years, as well as the new attention the wine press has been giving it, I fully expect this growth to continue. It couldn't happen to a more deserving grape.
1 There is also a pink-skinned variant (Grenache Gris). For a longer dive into Grenache Blanc's history, characteristics, and family relations, check out this blog from 2010.
2 You might note that Picpoul shares most of the characteristics of Grenache Blanc. It's one reason that if I had to lay bets on which Rhone white would be the next to be "discovered", Picpoul would be my answer.
3 Over that same 10-year period, Roussanne acreage has increased 96% to 347 acres, Marsanne acreage 90% to 131 acres, and Viognier acreage 34% to 2969 acres. Picpoul isn't sufficiently planted to be included in the California Grape Acreage Reports, which require 50+ acres to escape the category of "other".