After decades in the wine wilderness, the higher-acid Rhone white grapes are ready for their spotlight
June 28, 2020
2019 was a watershed year for us, in a number of ways. We celebrated our 30th anniversary. Our long-time Winemaker Neil Collins was named Paso Robles Wine Industry Person of the Year. We were invited to be the pilot vineyard in the new Regenerative Organic Certification that we think will become sustainable farming's gold standard. We were honored by our first-ever feature article in the Robert Parker Wine Advocate. But for me the most significant achievements were grape-related. First, we completed our collection of Chateauneuf-du-Pape grapes with the grafting of Muscardin into the vineyard. And second, we got our first-ever harvest from three new grapes: Cinsaut, Vaccarese, and Bourboulenc.
Bourboulenc's arrival had particular significance because it meant that we finally had all the approved Chateauneuf-du-Pape white grapes in the cellar, joining Roussanne, Grenache Blanc, Picpoul Blanc, Clairette Blanche, and Picardan. (As well as Viognier and Marsanne, which are allowed in Cotes du Rhone though not Chateauneuf du Pape.)
Rhone whites are generally thought of as settling on the richer, more textural, lower-acid side of the white wine spectrum. And that's definitely one face of what the Rhone offers. But it's far from the only face of the family. It includes rich, low-acid wines (like Viognier). Rich, mid-acid wines (like Roussanne). Rich, high-acid wines (like Grenache Blanc and Bourboulenc). Medium-weight, low-acid wines (like Marsanne). Medium-weight, high-acid wines (like Picpoul and Picardan). And light-weight, high-acid wines (like Clairette Blanche). The fact that the wines that were preferred by growers beginning particularly in the 1970s tended toward the richer, lower-acid part of the spectrum (think the rise of Roussanne, Marsanne, and, most dramatically, Viognier, of which just 35 acres were planted in total in the late-1960s) was a function of the marketplace's preferences toward powerful, aromatic wines, and of what worked in that comparatively chilly decades that preceded the 1990's.
Starting with the 1990s we've seen three decades each warmer than the last, and each the warmest on record world-wide. With the climate warming around the world, all grapes achieve ripeness more reliably than before. I remember my dad commenting five or six years ago that the warming climate had basically eliminated bad vintages in France (typically characterized by thin, acidic wines from cold, rainy years). Of course, those warmer years also produce wines with less acid and more sugar (and therefore more alcohol and body). That reduces the risk of growing the grapes on the higher-acid, lower-body edge of the spectrum, because they're likely to get to full ripeness and have enough body. It also makes the lower-acid grapes more at risk of being heavy or out-of-balance. For this reason, Clairette Blanche is currently seeing a resurgence of interest in Chateauneuf-du-Pape for its ability to bring freshness and elegance to the ever-weightier Roussanne and Grenache Blanc.
Enter the forgotten Rhone varieties: Picpoul Blanc, Clairette Blanche, Bourboulenc, and Picardan. All four have high acids at harvest. All four saw years of decline in the Rhone, and because international markets tend to follow what is in demand in a grape's homeland, all four were late to arrive in California. None pre-dated our arrival. And even as we brought in Roussanne and Marsanne, Grenache Blanc and Viognier, we decided to wait to focus on these less-planted white varieties. It wasn't until we saw what a revelation Grenache Blanc turned out to be here in Paso Robles that we dipped our toes into the water, importing Picpoul Blanc in 1997, planting it in 2000, and getting our first small crop in 2003. All it did was force its way into (and displace Viognier out of) our Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc in 2004, just its second harvest.
Our next round of imports began in 2003, but because these grapes were so rare that we had to take field cuttings, all our imports had virus and had to be cleaned up by UC Davis. The grapes trickled out of quarantine, Clairette Blanche in 2009 (we planted it in 2010) and Picardan in 2012 (we planted it in 2013). Bourboulenc didn't make it until 2015 (we planted it in 2016). But both Clairette and Picardan showed Picpoul's precocity, finding their way into Esprit Blanc in 2017, their fifth and second vintage, respectively, at Tablas Creek.
It probably shouldn't have surprised us. We're convinced that grapes like Picpoul and (to a lesser extent, Grenache Blanc) are victims of a vicious circle in France. Because they're not much respected and don't command a high price on the market, they tend to be only viable economically if they're cropped heavily. So, they're usually overcropped and then earmarked for quick fermentations and inexpensive bottles, which reinforces that they're of low value. Here in California, we crop them modestly, give them the same attention in the cellar as our other grapes, and then allow them to find their place in the blends and varietal bottlings through the blind tastings that kick off our blending trials each year.
For the first time, in 2019, we have all four as varietal bottlings to share with you. They were bottled the week of June 8th, and I opened these four high-acid wines this past week in order to write tasting notes for our Web site. I thought it would be fun to share them with you now. I've linked all the wines (except the Bourboulenc, for which we're still waiting for a bottle photo) to its page on our Web site if you want detailed production notes.
- 2019 Clairette Blanche: a clean mineral nose of lemongrass, lychee, and honeydew melon. The palate is bright and yet mouth-filling, with flavors of fresh apricot, lemon, chalky minerality, and a little sweet anise-tinged spice. The finish is clean, long, and mouth-watering, with a lingering citrus note.
- 2019 Picardan: clean but rich aromas of nectarine, yellow raspberry, and sun-dried hay. On the palate, quite rich texture balanced by yellow plum flavors and a preserved lemon pithy bite. The finish is long and peachy, with a lingering note of saline minerality.
- 2019 Picpoul Blanc: an immensely appealing nose of yellow roses, fresh pineapple, sea spray, and sweet green herbs. The palate is mouth-watering, with flavors of salted pineapple, yellow raspberry, and briny minerality. Tropical and saline notes come back out on the long, vibrant finish. Drink now and over the next few years.
- 2019 Bourboulenc: a rich golden color. On the nose, aromas of marmalade, caramel, and a briny sea spray minerality. The palate is richly textured yet bright, with flavors of mandarin and nectarine, and a little Meyer lemon pithy bite coming out on the long, minerally finish.
We didn't make much of any of these wines: just 70 cases of Clairette Blanche, 80 cases of Picardan, 145 cases of Bourboulenc, and 280 cases of Picpoul. And because we have so many whites from 2019 -- not just these, but Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, Marsanne, Viognier, and our blends -- we've decided to space out their releases. We'll be announcing the release of the first two (Clairette and Picardan) to club members this week. Picpoul will follow next month, and Bourboulenc will go out to members of our VINsider "white-only" club in September.
After my tasting of these four wines, I just can't imagine that these grapes will remain obscure for long. Although each had its own personality, every one had texture and richness, vibrant fruit and refreshing acids, and all showed the saline minerality we attribute to our calcareous soils. We can't wait to share them with you.