Selections for October 2016

A perfect example, considering the price

2014 CHATEAU D’AIGUEVILLE – Cotes du Rhone Blanc, France

Let’s start this little chat about a wine type I love with an assertion:  Not all white wines need be zingy.

I’d get agreement here from the casual consumer of oaky-buttery (anti-zingy) Rombauer-style Chardonnays, but many of you have so overdosed on such weightier whites that your preferences admit only the total opposite style.  Now you like ‘em lean ‘n mean; vibrant, refreshing, lively, virtually electrical with acidic nerve, without an allowance for the occasional fuller-bodied white, regardless of quality.

In our combined decades of wine observation our staff has observed this preference shift more than once.  Our recommendation:  Get off the pendulum.  Certain kinds of truly great wines are inherently fuller-bodied, and others are more zippy by design.  Appreciate the fact that a great Sauvignon Blanc is more often zingy in framework and, conversely, that a Southern Rhone white is meant to convey a bit more body.

- But the conveyance should be correct; elegant and not-overdone.  Here is that wine, per my read, and per its smart little price.  The sun shines a little brighter and hotter in the Southern Rhone, and the varieties grown there thereby develop a more mellow softness.  The trick is to render them at cool fermentation temperatures and with a minimum of oxidation.  Succeeding with that gets you a soft, round white with “quiet” and clean richness.  I hope that’s happening in your mouth right now, with subtle flavors of anise, oranges, apple pastry, and fresh herbes.  Per this wine buyer’s experience, this kind of thing doesn’t happen for us every day, especially at this nominal rate.  I’m pretty picky about the white Rhones we carry, meaning sometimes we don’t even have ONE on the shelf.  This, folks, is a winner per its style. 

Chateau d’Aigueville’s vineyards are just north of the famous appellation of Chateauneuf du Pape and share much of its rocky terrain.  The varieties at play are roughly equal parts of Clairette, Viognier, and Roussanne.  White meats such as turkey or chicken would do nicely as a partner, especially when cold and in sandwich form with good fresh tomatoes and avocados!

“Grenache comes in Blanc?” A great - albeit rare - example

2015 PRIEST RANCH GRENACHE BLANC – Estate Grown, Napa Valley

Grenache – the red grape – is thought to have originated in Spain.  Like Pinot Noir it is susceptible to mutation and now there are many clones thereof.  Its mutation to the white version Grenache Blanc is believed to have occurred in Terra Alta, Spain (the proud locals are especially sure of this).  Nowadays you see it from there, the South of France (it’s an important component in Chateauneuf-du-Pape Blanc), and various parts of California.  From the Golden State we’re sourcing most Grenache Blanc from Santa Barbara County and more recently the Sierra Foothills.  While it’s growing in popularity, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Grigio far exceed its production here.  Grenache Blanc is a niche wine, sought out most often by American drinkers who first experienced the varietal from the European sources.

THIS Grenache Blanc from Priest Ranch is apparently the only Napa Valley example.  It is also the best I’ve tried this year.  Part of our challenge with identifying more good examples is how fast it oxidizes, i.e., ages away from fresh fruit (and from our interest).  If we were to show you the 2014 version of this very wine your experience would be much different.  The white stone fruit and citrus peel nerve would be yielding to a more resinous, “piney” quality which I consider less attractive.  I’m too often being shown and rejecting over-the-hill Grenache Blanc because of slow-moving inventories.  Producers and their salespeople should be quick to get their Grenache Blanc to market and sold with a mandate to the customer, “Don’t lose Grenache Blanc in your cellar.  Stick it in the fridge and drink it tonight!” 

Besides my winebuyer’s directive, as a some-time winemaker and longtime lover of this grape I’ve developed strong feelings for how it should be made.  Remembering its susceptibility to aging, the use of porous oak barrels should be limited or omitted from the program.  Grenache Blanc’s flavors are too delicate to accommodate the oak-derived vanilla enhancement anyway.  That said, when you ferment and store squeaky-clean Grenache Blanc juice in naught but stainless steel tanks it’s hard to evoke very much character.  Solution:  Lees.  Ferment clean Grenache Blancjuice at a low, fruit-preserving temperature in stainless steel, rack off the new wine from the “gross” lees (the first sludge to settle to the bottom) to a new tank.  Let the “fine” lees (the more suspended stuff) settle to the bottom, then re-introduce it to the wine every couple of weeks via batonnage, that is, stir it around.  Repeated contact with these fine lees adds little flavor but contributes a textural aspect of rough velvet or even anaspirin-like bitterness which in controlled amounts excites the palate. 

That preferred method was applied to this fine example from Priest Ranch (the second label for Somerston Winery).  Quiet complexity is the result:  Bosc pears, white peaches, lemon zest, and a chalky feel happen with subtle richness.  I highly recommend you invest in halibut as an appropriate food mate.  By the way, due to rarity most GOOD Grenache Blancs cost more than this!