The Grape Glossary: A guide to hip varietals
When it comes to grapes (and many other things), colour is but skin deep. Peel back the coating of a red variety, for example, and you're left with clear pulp, which is how Champagne producers make white "blanc de noirs" wine from pinot noir and pinot meunier. With grenache blanc, however, you might say there's the soul of a red beneath its pale exterior. In fact, technically speaking, it's not a white variety per se. Rather, it's just an accidental colour mutation of the more familiar red grenache (or garnacha), the crimson grape with which it shares an identical DNA profile.
As with the red variant, grenache blanc thrives in southern France and northeast Spain. We may never know where it first emerged with its peroxide-blond dye job, but it's probably safe to say that grenache blanc owes its most widespread notoriety to the intriguing white blends of the southern Rhône Valley, from basic Côtes du Rhône and Côtes du Ventoux to the regal, if somewhat rare, whites of Châteaneuf-du-Pape. Occasionally, producers in the region will even add a splash to their red wines to add rich mouth feel and extra aromatics.
When properly grown (and perhaps also treated to oak-barrel aging and the mellowing influence of malolactic fermentation), the grape can make a substantial wine, with fleshy texture, moderate acidity and nuances that suggest green apple, stone fruit, herbs and flowers. Despite its fine inherent qualities, grenache blanc is prone to oxidation, perhaps a key reason it's much more commonly combined with other, sturdier or higher-acid varieties, such as roussanne, bourboulenc and clairette. The famed estate of Château Rayas in the Rhône crafts a coveted, low-production Châteauneuf using equal parts grenache blanc and clairette, for example.
In the Roussillon region, grenache blanc has also long been a component in the sweet, fortified wine style known as vin doux naturel. Further afield, the grape has been championed in particular by growers in California, such as Tablas Creek in Paso Robles, founded as a joint venture between the Perrin family of Rhône Valley fame and the American importer Robert Haas.
Southern Rhône whites (and those made in a similar style elsewhere) tend to speak with more subtlety than, say, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc, and I find that a big part of their charm; change is good. They also make fine foils for simply prepared seafood, including freshwater fish, as well as roast poultry or even lean "red" meats such as roast veal or pork tenderloin. There's the soul of a red wine inside grenache blanc, after all.
The Flavour Principle by Lucy Waverman and Beppi Crosariol (HarperCollins) won top prize for best general English cookbook at the 2014 Taste Canada Food Writing Awards.