In the United States, every white grape variety must ultimately compete with Chardonnay. Here’s what that means in practical terms: While the wine might be a spectacular match with food, it won’t succeed on the mass-market level unless it can be consumed on its own as a cocktail. In that setting, the most valuable attribute of white wine—its acidity—frequently gets in the way.
Prior to Prohibition, and particularly around the turn of the 20th century, Rhône varieties were extremely popular in California. There was a general recognition that they were much better suited to the climate than Chardonnay or Cabernet. Viognier might have become the white grape of choice in the modern era, except that most consumers couldn’t pronounce it. Apart from that, it had all the attributes of a successful cocktail wine: ripe, lush, aromatic, and low in acid.
Grenache Blanc has a similar low-acid profile, along with herbal, citrus-scented aromatics and the potential for high alcohol. It came to the Rhône Valley via Spain, where it had mutated from red Grenache. It’s a major component of white Châteauneuf du Pape and a permitted variety in the red version, and it plays a significant role in both the red and white Côte du Rhône blends. It is rarely bottled as a stand-alone grape variety in the old country, but California demands a varietal identity.
Most of the Grenache Blanc in the Golden State is grown in the Central Coast around San Luis Obispo. The most famous producer is Tablas Creek, owned by the Perrin family of Châteauneuf du Pape, who imported cuttings from Château Beaucastel in the 1990s. Further north, in the Vaca Mountains of Eastern Napa, Grenache Blanc vines were planted in the historic Priest Ranch section of Somerston Estate. Originally founded in 1869 by James Joshua Priest, a Gold Rush prospector, the 660-acre ranch was revitalized in 2006 by Craig Becker, the winemaker and one of the founders of Somerston.
The 2018 Priest Ranch Grenache Blanc ($22) has a light straw color and a lush, tart nose with whiffs of lime blossom, citrus zest and tropical fruit. It is clean, fresh and straightforward in the mouth, with none of the richness implied on the nose. Flavors of lemon, lime and stone fruits persist on the palate, reverberating on a long finish. While it won’t replace Chardonnay anytime soon, a glass of this would definitely sharpen the appetite prior to a meal, and it would make a nice counterpoint to shellfish or fish in buttery or creamy sauces.
Mark Spivak specializes in wine, spirits, food, restaurants and culinary travel. He is the author of several books on distilled spirits and the cocktail culture. His first two novels, Friend of the Devil and The American Crusade, are available on Amazon; his third novel, Impeachment, will be released on October 15.