The Rhone Report: About Rhone and Rhone-Style Wines and Winemakers is part of an ongoing series.
Marsanne, Roussanne and Viognier are the best known of the white Rhone varietals. But there are two less recognized grapes that really add a “je ne sais quoi” to the overall quality of a white Rhone blend and each produces a zippy single-varietal wine as well. These are Grenache Blanc and Picpoul. Both are newcomers to the United States and are slowly starting to gain popularity.
Not All Grenache Is Red
Our first experience with Grenache Blanc as a single varietal was late in the French heat-wave summer of 2003. Growers across the Rhone Valley were in a panic about the heat and frantically trying to assemble picking crews in late August (a tough assignment in a country where everyone goes on vacation that month!) to get the harvest in before it was too late.
Our friend Dominique Rocher of Domaine Rocher in Cairanne in the southern Rhone was no exception. He had a crew of student volunteers who literally camped in his back yard. Dominique invited us to dinner at the Domaine one evening. When we arrived, Dominique pulled the cork on a bottle of his Grenache Blanc from the previous vintage. The day had been quite hot, but just as he opened the wine and the sun began setting, a cool breeze kicked up and suddenly, the heat wave was finally over. Dominique was chagrined that he had jumped the gun and picked his white varietals that very day instead of waiting.
The wine was he served us was lovely, with good acidity and had refreshing notes of citrus and herbs. It was delicious, with a few olives to nosh along with it. Because of this marvelous wine and this gorgeous evening, we always recall quite fondly wines made with Grenache Blanc.
Until the Tablas Creek Vineyard brought cuttings of Grenache Blanc from the southern Rhone to its vineyard in Paso Robles, there was no Grenache Blanc available in the United States. BATF approval was granted for the varietal in February of 2003 and Tablas Creek was able to both produce its own wine from it and to sell cuttings from their nursery to other wineries. Now, in addition to Tablas Creek, a number of California wineries are featuring blends which include Grenache Blanc (Edmunds St. John, Mount Aukum, David Gerard and Adelaida Cellars, to name a few). Tablas Creek was the first winery to offer a single varietal Grenache Blanc, and has now been followed by Epiphany, Tercero and others.
Grenache Blanc, like its better known red cousin, is native to northeastern Spain and is planted throughout the French and Spanish Mediterranean basin. The variety, however, is far more prominent in France than in Spain. It is France’s most widely grown white Rhone varietal.
The Lip Stinger
As for Picpoul, we first tasted this varietal at a blending seminar held at Tablas Creek Vineyard, the winery that brought Picpoul to the United States. Tablas Creek did not bring Picpoul here in its first wave of transplants. But after noting the consistent sun and long growing season in the Paso Robles region, Picpoul became a natural addition. At that first blending seminar, the value of Picpoul as a blending grape became very clear to us. Its high acidity and minerality add real backbone to white Rhone blends. The literal translation of Picpoul is “lip stinger” and one taste of the juice and you know the name is apt.
While Picpoul is used almost exclusively as a blending grape, it can earn its chops as a single varietal wine as well. Tablas Creek bottles a Picpoul for its wine club members and some Picpoul imports (most notably Picpoul de Pinet from the Languedoc) are becoming quite popular because of their perky freshness and the modesty of their price.
Picpoul is believed to be a native of the Languedoc region of southern France. It has been grown in that region since the early 17th century.
Both of these lesser-known but hard-working and delicious varietals have added new verve to white Rhone blends, especially here in the United States where sometimes balance is a forgotten art and where the extra measure of acidity is often needed.