When he arrived at Miner Family Winery recently for a four-month harvest internship, Charles Sabon probably hadn’t expected a little bit of the Rhône Valley to follow him to Oakville.
So his eyes widened when, two days into his working visit to Napa Valley, he found out that there’s more to this winery than cabernet and chardonnay—namely that we were about to release a first-ever bottling of Miner Family Grenache Blanc.
As a white wine grape, this relative of red grenache isn’t just a rarity at Miner, but in California’s vineyards at large. From Santa Barbara to Sonoma County and beyond, there are only 600 acres of grenache blanc vines in the ground. Compare this to the more familiar sauvignon blanc, of which over 16,000 acres are planted across the state.
Meanwhile, in Charles’ home region of the Southern Rhône Valley, grenache blanc plays an outsized production role. According to many Rhône wine authorities, it’s the most widely planted white grape in the Côtes du Rhône and Châteauneuf-du-Pape appellations—the Sabon family makes wines from both at Domaine de la Janasse—and the fourth most in France overall.
Those smaller California figures notwithstanding, Dave Miner and our winemaker, Michelle Shafrir, are a couple of the grape’s biggest proponents. For Dave, this new Miner white is a perfect addition to the winery’s Rhône category, befitting his longtime enthusiasm for Rhône-style wines.
“Something I really love about white Rhônes, including grenache blanc, is their complex aromas and unique flavors,” he commented at the winery in mid-July. “They have a hint of nice bitterness that follows the fruit and viscous characteristics. For me, it’s such a different flavor profile than chardonnay.”
“Plus,” Dave added, “they age exceptionally well. They’re very unique.”
Michelle agreed. “One of the things I love about white Rhônes, especially, is the aromas that you get. They’re so floral,” she said. “I feel that with this grenache blanc, it’s starting to open up now that we’re a few months post-bottling. I get what I’m thinking is a honeysuckle note, which reminds me of viognier, but the grenache blanc isn’t quite as perfumed as viognier. It has more of a citrus character.
“Additionally, we pressed the juice and fermented it in barrels—all neutral oak,” she continued. “We avoided new barrels because we just wanted to see what it could do without any oak influence.”
The grenache blanc was 100% wild yeast-fermented, which Michelle noted gives a bit more complexity, then went through malolactic fermentation. “I didn’t know if we were going to do ML when the fruit came in. If the acids were too low, if it tasted a little flabby, I wouldn’t have done malolactic fermentation, because I would’ve wanted that malic acid to kind of boost the brightness of the wine. But after it finished primary fermentation, just tasting it, I knew we needed the acid to kind of back off. So the malolactic gives it kind of a creamy character.”
At a production of just under 100 cases, the Miner Grenache Blanc is among the winery’s most limited releases. And the 2022 vintage was inaugural, but based on Dave’s and Michelle’s impressions while tasting it, they’re off to a great start.
Comparing it to Rhône Valley whites from France, where the pair had traveled together this past spring, Michelle made an interesting observation. “I think it’s generally part of a blend in the Southern Rhône and all the different little appellations. I’m sure someone’s probably bottling it by itself, but when we were there, I don’t remember seeing 100% grenache blanc anywhere on the trip.”
To create a little context, we asked a couple of wine colleagues in France what role the variety plays in their neck of the woods.
Tim Johnston, a longtime Paris restaurateur and wine merchant, replied in an email that he thinks of grenache as a very good blending grape, both the white and red versions. “But I think grenache blanc stands a better chance than red of making something delicious on its own,” he wrote. “I believe it has to be harvested ripe, but not overripe”—a scenario Michelle watched play out in the Alexander Valley vineyard she accessed last harvest.
While he’s heard of single-variety bottlings from at least one Southern Rhône winery, Tim suggested that grenache blanc can give brightness and lift to other white Rhône grapes, as is the case with Miner Family’s The Iliad in the upcoming ’22 vintage.
Another grenache expert is a friend we met at Hospices du Rhône last year, Jérémie Castor. He and Dave poured their wines over the three-day event in Paso Robles. It was something of a California homecoming for the vigneron, who took a break back in 2007-08 helping run Château Saint Nabor to come work for a Sonoma County winery.
At his family’s Southern Rhône wine estate, Jérémie told us, “we grow grenache blanc, but we blend it with roussanne and ugni blanc, as we don’t have enough to make a single varietal. I do see however how it can be great on its own.”
Though they haven’t met, Jérémie and Michelle are probably on the same page when it comes to grenache blanc, both in the vineyard and the cellar. “On the growing side,” he emailed, “grenache blanc likes dry and rocky soils, so it is very well- adapted to growing in California. It is a tough grape that will give its best in this area.”
He added that barrel-aging adds a creaminess to its texture, making a wine “rich in the mouthfeel with a medium level of acidity, but that still holds it together and gives a balanced freshness and a great aging potential.”
“It will hold a few years!” he summed up. Dave would no doubt agree.
And, of course, we wanted to ask our new French intern. Charles told us he’s worked in his family’s vineyards and winery, La Janasse, since he was a teenager. While he knew grenache blanc wasn’t a unique bottling there, he directed us to his aunt Isabel, who runs the estate with Charles’ father, Christophe. “Grenache blanc provides the body and structure of the wine,” Isabel put in her own email back to us. “It’s a fundamental component of white Côtes du Rhône and white Châteauneuf.”
Here in Napa Valley—cabernet and chardonnay country—the Rhône category is fundamental to Michelle and Dave’s and the entire winery team’s efforts. “I think because we’re in California, not in France, everything is open to us,” Michelle said during our grenache blanc tasting. “You know, we’re not constrained in that sense of what we’re allowed to use.”