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Grenache Blanc’s time to shine

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I’ve been reviewing some really good Grenache Blancs lately that me me wonder if this isn’t the up and coming white variety in California.

Other critics, it seems to me, give more emphasis to Roussanne and Marsanne than they do to GB. But good as those wines can be, they’re sometimes too oaky or heavy in some way. GB on the other hand is usually unoaked or just neutrally oaked, and so pure and bright in fruit and acidity, it offers something for everyone.

For example, the Jaffurs Vineyard 2011 Grenache Blanc, from the Thompson Vineyard in the Santa Ynez Valley, is one of the best I’ve reviewed this year. It was 35% stainless steel fermented and 65% fermented in neutral oak, which must be responsible for the creamy, smoky notes. But you’d never say this wine is oaky because it isn’t. Also typical of the successful GBs, the wine did not complete the malolactic fermentation, which is the secret behind the bite of green apple acidity that is so cool and refreshing.

I always get orange and tangerine fruit in GBs, although judging by winemakers’ notes, others find everything from melons (cantaloupe and honeydew) to peaches and citron. I can’t imagine a Chardonnay lover not enjoying the richness of a good GB, but I also can’t imagine someone who likes a crisp Pinot Gris or Sauvignon Blanc turning it away. It’s right in that middle of the spectrum, light-bodied, light-hearted and low in alcohol. Makes you think of a summer day in a garden (which is how Hugh Johnson used to describe Rieslings, but it applies equally to GB).

Other fine producers include Zaca Mesa, Tangent, Coghlan, Stark, Tres Hermanos and Tercero. Note the prevalence of Santa Ynez Valley origins. There’s no question that this wonderful, warmish inland valley, in the heart of Santa Barbara’s wine country, has established itself as the capital of Rhône varieties, red and white, in California. The Thompson Vineyard, by the way, is from the Los Alamos Valley, which, I understand, will be an official appellation sooner or later. It’s a very interesting part of the greater Santa Ynez Valley. I think of it as wedged between the warmer, more famous stretches around Los Olivos, Santa Ynez town and Ballard, and the cooler Santa, err, Sta. Rita Hills to the west. Los Alamos Valley, then, sits at the balancing point where the valley goes from cool to warm, which is always a nice place for a wine region to be. I suspect somebody could grow a nice Merlot down there, but I don’t know anyone who does, because it would be a hard sell.

If you’re ever down that way, make a quick visit to the funky little town of Los Alamos, which is on the west side of the Freeway. It has some  big antique shops to browse. Eat at Full of Life Flatbread Restaurant, which makes pizzas to dream about. All the local winemakers hang out there. They have a great local wine list. If I lived in the area, I’d be at Flatbread all the time.

  1. Hans Van Dale says:

    The Curran Grenache Blanc from the Tierra Alta vineyard is also worth checking out.

  2. Grenache Blanc is indeed wonderful, unplanned, its the wine that put my tiny brand on the map and have gone from 25 cases in 2010, to 100 in 2011, 150 in 2012, and 250 planned for 2013.

    Its a grape that responds more than people realize to vinication style. I ferment and age mine in 100% neutral oak (which means zero oakiness) and full malolactic, sur lees, picked early, so both bright and round at the same time. The 2011 Stark Grenache Blanc, picked and trucked same day, fermented in stainless with a few months neutral oak, produces an equally enjoyable, but very fun wine.

    I agree Santa Ynez is an amazing spot for GB – driving 6 hours south to haul 3-5 tons of grapes back is a labor of love, but the Saarloos family quality, and what the AVA produces with long, modest hang time, gives me the acidity and ripeness balance that makes it worth it.

    The 2012 is bottled soon, and features a few other elements, including portions in concrete and full skin contact, bottled next month, will be sure to send a few samples.

    To your comment on it being the next big thing – until more gets planted its cant get too big – only ~220 acres were planted in the entire state in 2011, but I do hear of more and more small plantings going in, so hopefully that will inch up.

    thanks for the GB love, cheers!

  3. GrenacheBlanc…”up & coming white variety”??? Seems like we’ve heard that claim before.

    Not that I’ve had that much experience w/ white Rhone varietals…but some of the GBs I’ve had seem to be on the soft & porky side…which may be a characteristic of the variety unless grown properly. They often have really beautiful aromatics, much like Viognier at times. But their track record for aging is not there and, like, Viognier, it may be sorta iffy. Whereas Marsanne & Roussanne have shown, in Calif & elsewhere, they can age into magnificent old Rhones. Least many of the Qupe & Jaffurs have. Of course, GB has been known to age if you consider Rayas. But that one’s always an outlier.

    But you’re rigt on the Full of Life….great place.

    Tom

  4. Nice thoughts–although possibly a bit premature in the sense that it is only in the last couple of years that makers like Jaffurs and others are beginning to capture the crisper side of the variety while maintaining its beautiful aromatics.

    The key, and this is also part of my thinking that you are slightly jumping the gun, is to find not just aromatics and brightness but also more depth, bottom and finish. Grenache Blanc can be made brisk and bright, and there is nothing wrong with that, but that has not been its metier, and it would seem that we still have not seen the best that the variety can do.

    I like brisk and aromatic, and I see the analogies to some of the better Pinot Gris, but Gren Blanc has so much more to offer. It is still early days and it may take a more complete version of the grape to become the next big thing.

    Not so much disagreeing. Just sayin’.

  5. Not in the Santa Ynez Valley but in Paso Robles check out Alta Colina Grenache Blanc

  6. It is interesting that you mention the typically low alcohol of Grenache Blancs while Grenache Noir will tend to jump to 30° Brix in a hurry if you aren’t careful. I wonder what causes the difference?

  7. Tom Ward says:

    I’ve had some pretty ones from, of all places, Spain. I’ve been working strictly in the US the last 5 years so my recollection has faded, but I’ll have to circle back and try some GB’s — always liked the better renditions thereof for exactly the attributes you identified.

  8. Steve Beckmen says:

    We bottled the first Grenache Blanc in Santa Ynez in 2000, before the Fereral Government recognized the variety, had to call it Grenache White Wine. They said I was misleading the consumer by calling it Grenache Blanc. I said you are misleading the consumer by having me label it Grenache White Wine. Thanks to Tablas Creek for doing the legwork on getting it approved as a variety! Although we rarely bottle it on its own now, it is a great grape/wine for the Santa Ynez area.
    Steve

  9. Steve,

    Very nice blog post on a grape variety that I really dig working with. It’s one of those varieties that always leads to a number of questions . . .

    1) Is this ‘white grenache’?
    2) How is this different than ‘red grenache’?
    3) Is the style in which you make your grenache blanc ‘typical’?

    That last one is always my favorite, given how much variability there is in ALL varieties in terms of how they express themselves depending upon where they are grown, the level of ripeness at which they’re picked, the use of oak on not, etc.

    I tend to make mine a bit more ‘austere’ because I find the wine naturally ‘fattens up’ in bottle and develops more richness, as does Roussanne and Marsanne. I’d rather start it rather acid-driven to make it a food friendly wine.

    Let’s see what happens with the variety – it certainly is growing in popularity, but we’re starting with a pretty small base (-:

    And as far as the question of ripeness goes, grenache blanc ripens later than some white varieties but is certainly not the last one to make it into the winery each year. It tends to have a decent size crop and therefore takes a bit longer to ripen than, say, Sauvignon Blanc. And it does NOT normally get as ripe as Grenache does – though I have seen a few late harvest Grenache Blancs and therefore, depending upon vintage, it can get up above 25 or 26. Now as far as Grenache picked north of 30, to me, that’s just crazy! Doesn’t need to get that ripe to make a beautiful wine, though YMMV.

    Cheers!

  10. In 2010 Samantha and I decided to add unique varietals to our established Cabernet vineyard in Happy Canyon. Grenache Blanc was one of the biggest additions for several reasons. Minimal growers and its unique crisp citric profile that helps separate it from the norm.

    We first fell in love with this wine in Steve Beckman’s winery years ago, and never found another white wine that compared to it’s uniqueness. When having the opportunity to expand our vineyard we felt that this grape would become more popular over the years especially with the younger wine pallets.

    A strong belief in our program is to be minimal trying to express fruit and terroir of each varietal. Making our Grenache Blanc in 100% stainless is fun because every year the wines change due to climate and time of harvest, but always have that unique citrus, floral profile. We believe this varietal will become one of the more popular in the Santa Ynez Valley among growers, and we are very proud producers.

  11. We also make a Grenache Blanc and a white Rhone blend with GB as a component. It is estate grown here at Buttonwood. The 100% Grenache Blanc is, like many of my colleagues, made in stainless, non-malo to let the gorgeous floral and fruit character shine. It’s a favorite here (although I wish it would ripen earlier!) I must say that it is a unique grape to work with, as that bring orange juice out of the press is at first a little alarming!

  12. Hi Steve
    As per the ttb there is no application for Los Alamos Valley AVA. Sad to say. Don’t know who started the rumor. You are the second writer I have had to correct regarding this mistake.

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