The Little Three - Wine & Spirits Magazine

The Little Three

Fresh California whites from a second wave of Rhône varieties

photo of Randall Grahm by Lynn Rich; Tablas Creek image courtesy of Tablas Creek Vineyard

When Rhône-inspired winemakers set out to establish white varieties in California soil in the 1980s, they first went after the Big Three: viognier, roussanne and marsanne. Those varieties, after all, are the raw material for some of the Rhône’s most noble whites, like Chave’s Hermitage Blanc (mostly marsanne), Château Grillet (viognier) and Château de Beaucastel’s Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc Vieilles Vignes (roussanne).

Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyard, an early proponent of roussanne in California, planted his Beeswax Vineyard in 2000, in the cobblestones of Monterey’s Arroyo Seco AVA. He included eight acres of roussanne as well as seven acres of grenache blanc, blending the two into a new white, Le Cigare Blanc, which debuted in 2003. “We’d always operated on the assumption that roussanne was the nobler of the two grapes,” Grahm says, “therefore it should have dominance. But over the years, with global warming, we’ve seen a gradual deterioration or change in the roussanne: Even at ‘normal’ maturity, the pHs were very high.”

The grenache blanc, however, brings balance to the wine. “The grenache blanc has acquitted itself like a champ,” he says. “It gets fully ripe; you don’t have to acidulate; it lets me make Cigare in a more natural, unaffected style. My ambition in life is to make wines I don’t have to fuck with.”

Le Cigare Blanc is one of many Rhône-inspired California blends that have been resuscitated by what you might call “The Little Three”: grenache blanc, vermentino and picpoul, white grapes that play a lesser role in the Rhône, but have found an enthusiastic audience among Rhône-minded Californians. These varieties arrived on the West Coast later than the Big Three, but each has a unique varietal signature in California soil; each produces a lip-smacking white wine, with a vibrancy that few other California white wines can claim. And in addition to giving energy to blends, they are now making some very lively wines in their own right.

“My ambition in life is to make wines I don’t have to fuck with.” —Randall Grahm
All three of these varieties came to California via Tablas Creek, the Paso Robles estate established in 1987 by the Haas family and the Perrin family of Château de Beaucastel. The partnership made an early commitment to bring in and disseminate all thirteen sanctioned grape varieties from Châteauneuf-du-Pape, which included grenache blanc and picpoul. They brought in a handful of others as well, like clairette, bourboulenc and picardan, along with lesser known red varieties like vaccarese and terret noir. On a whim, their French nurseryman also threw in a few cuttings of vermentino, thinking it would do well in Tablas Creek’s limestone soil. (A minor variety in the Rhône, where it’s called rolle, vermentino is more closely associated with Sardinia, Corsica, Liguria and the Languedoc.)

The partners assumed that their vineyard planting would mirror that of Beaucastel (about 80 percent red, 20 percent white). But early trials made it clear the white varieties deserved more attention. “The Perrins were really surprised,” says Tablas Creek GM Jason Haas. “The cold nights and diurnal shift meant more acid retention than they were accustomed to in France.”

Mick Unti’s vineyard in the Dry Creek Valley Mick Unti’s vineyard in the Dry Creek Valley
The first of these new introductions out of the gate was grenache blanc. In monovarietal bottlings, first at Tablas Creek, then with producers like Tangent, Epiphany, Tercero, Shane and Martian Ranch (as well as producers influenced by Spain, like Bokisch and Emanuel Tres), it showed itself to be wholly distinct: bright, salty and lemony, with more energy and character than most versions from the Rhône Valley, and positively sunny alongside the dour single-variety bottlings of roussanne and marsanne.

In 2005, when Mick Unti was looking to plant more white Rhône grapes on his property in the Dry Creek Valley, he attended a session with Neil Collins, Tablas Creek’s winemaker. Collins had traveled north to Sonoma County to extoll the virtues of vermentino, grenache blanc and picpoul, varieties his team thought were showing some promise in warm climate settings. Rather than plant the Big Three, Unti went the high-acid route, and has been generally thrilled with the results. “To get this kind of structure, built on acidity, that isn’t artificially generated—it tears down every preconceived notion of big fat American white wines,” he says.

Unti uses all of the Little Three in his Cuvée Blanc. He typically blends about 50 percent vermentino with 40 percent grenache blanc, making up the rest with picpoul.

“Grenache blanc brings back acidity and, off the Tablas Creek property, it also gives a beautiful nose—you get pear and apple and grapefruit, but also an anise note, that I relate to the limestone.” —Neil Collins
Vermentino leads this wine in its youth—the structure is a bit high-toned and spiky—but when you taste older vintages, it’s easy to see how readily the varieties meld into something more harmonious, with grenache blanc’s structural prowess providing ballast and length. “You get texture and richness,” says Unti, “along with some minerality and verve, without having to resort to any winemaking tricks.”

Even Neil Collins, Tablas Creek’s winemaker— whose affiliation with Beaucastel makes him practically honor-bound to work with roussanne—loves the utility of grenache blanc. In his top blend, Esprit Blanc de Tablas, roussanne plays the lead role, bringing a honeyed, fleshy, beeswax character—but the frame, and the vibrancy, come from grenache blanc. “Ultimately, roussanne here, as it gains ripeness, loses its acidity,” he says. “Grenache blanc brings back acidity and, off this property, it also gives a beautiful nose—you get pear and apple and grapefruit, but also an anise note that I relate to the limestone.”

While neither picpoul nor vermentino can claim the depth or the complexity of grenache blanc, both have their charms, and both can be remarkably versatile, especially in warm vintages.

Vermentino may prove to be the most commercially successful of the Little Three. Acreage is still modest (about 80 acres statewide, according to a 2016 report) but in the past few years, new plantings of vermentino have outpaced both roussanne and marsanne.

Berkeley-based winemaker Steve Edmunds’s first encounter with vermentino came while on his honeymoon in the late 1980s—thanks to a conversation with someone who wasn’t even growing it. Through importer Kermit Lynch, he and Cornelia St. John had landed a visit to Domaine Tempier in Bandol. There, Lulu and Lucien Peyraud insisted on cooking dinner for the newlyweds and putting them up for the night. Over the meal Edmunds recalls asking his hosts if they’d ever plant white grapes on the property. Lucien thought about this for a moment, then replied, “Rolle,” and mentioned how much he admired the rolle-based wines of Château de Bellet, some hundred miles east along the coast, in the hills above Nice.

Four years later, in the Cinqueterre, while washing down seafood with copious amounts of Ligurian vermentino, Edmunds remembered this conversation and wondered why winemakers in his home state weren’t making wines like this. “It was so light and expressive,” he says. “Not all tarted up the way they made white wines in California.”

In 2005, Edmunds prevailed upon grower Ron Mansfield to plant vermentino at Wylie Vineyard in the Sierra Foothills. Mansfield happened to have some grenache blanc budwood and talked Edmunds into considering a commitment to that variety as well. He planted them side by side and, ever since, Edmunds has cofermented them in his white blend, Heart of Gold. “The grenache blanc adds a little fat to the wine,” says Edmunds, “countering the leanness and acidity of the vermentino.”

Vermentino handles the dry climate of the Sierra Foothills so well that Edmunds thinks it might actually perform better in drought conditions. “In the last four years, we’ve had the same scenario,” he says. “Low soil moisture, consistent mild temperature; the vines start pushing ripeness, and as a result we’re able to pick at 19 degrees Brix and get plenty of flavor, low pH, lovely acidity.” The 2016 Heart of Gold is lemony and pithy, with white blossom scents that provide length and complexity to the finish.

Vermentino’s heat and drought tolerance probably accounts for all the new plantings in Clarksburg, Yolo County and Lodi, from which winemakers like Steve Matthiasson (Tendu) and Jim Moore (Uvaggio) are making vibrant vins de soif—and we’re likely to see more.

But the most intriguing vermentino project in the state comes from Megan and Ryan Glaab, the husband-and-wife team behind Ryme Cellars. Each came to the variety with completely different notions of what to make with it. Megan wanted a crisp Corsican or Ligurian style of wine, while Ryan wanted to try his hand at something that resembled the Maremma producer Massa Vecchia, which makes a skin-contact vermentino that he loves. “The only way to compromise,” says Megan, “was to each make our own.”

The two cuvées—His and Hers—both draw on fruit from a windswept vineyard in Carneros called Las Brisas, abutting the saltwater of the San Pablo Bay in a roughly Ligurian fashion (though without the cliffs). The fruit for each is grown in the same way and picked on the same day. “We tend to draw more of the sun-side of the clusters for the ‘His’ bottling,” says Megan, “since we’re looking for a little more phenolic development, though vermentino is fairly low in phenolics. It has a very peachy floral tone to it, and in the skin-fermented wine, you want to see that coming through.”

Megan and Ryan Glabb of Ryme Cellars Megan and Ryan Glabb of Ryme Cellars
“Vermentino is fairly low in phenolics. It has a very peachy floral tone to it, and in the skin-fermented wine, you want to see that coming through.”
—Megan Glaab
In fact, that tone comes through in both the 2016 Hers and the ’15 His (they release His a year later): a warmth of fruit that marks a parallel between California and the Mediterranean. Beyond this, these wines diverge wildly. Hers is crisp and citrusy, its tangerine accents enveloped in a salty tang. His hints at citrus but adds a brisk cidery note, a mild clutch of tannins and a satisfying, saturated breadth of flavor.

Picpoul was the last of the Little Three to become available to American growers— Tablas Creek released the first cuttings in 2003. A late-ripening variety, it tends to have more amplitude in California than in the Languedoc’s Picpoul de Pinet AOC, delivering wines with a lush pineapple core marked by firm acids, finishing with a spiky brevity. Some producers— even some who make picpoul, like Randall Grahm—consider it to be serviceable but somewhat boring. However, Neil Collins finds that, along with grenache blanc, it’s one of the surprises of the Rhône pantheon. “It has more structure than it’s given credit for,” he says. “You don’t anticipate that because of Picpoul de Pinet, but it doesn’t feel like a simpleton. It’s a wine you really feel on the palate.”

Plantings remain small—less than 50 acres— but it’s remarkable how many bottlings there are. Tablas Creek’s picpoul has been joined by versions from Bonny Doon, Copain, Broc Cellars and Forlorn Hope; Gramercy Cellars in Washington State is also making a single-variety picpoul. And it has, for Chris Brockway of Broc Cellars, the building blocks for a promising future on the West Coast. “It ripens slowly, but it maintains good acid,” he says. “It seems like a grape meant for the California sun.”

This story was featured in W&S June 2017.
photo of Randall Grahm by Lynn Rich; Tablas Creek image courtesy of Tablas Creek Vineyard

Patrick J. Comiskey covers US wines for Wine & Spirits magazine, focusing on the Pacific Northwest, California’s Central Coast and New York’s Finger Lakes.

This story appears in the print issue of June 2017.
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