I'm going grey – as far as white wines go anyway. I'm finding the grapes responsible for more and more seriously interesting wines that I come across end not with a Blanc for white but a Gris for grey. Sauvignon Gris is enjoying a huge vogue thanks to its softer appeal and perfume than Sauvignon Blanc – both in Chile and in France, where I see it has been added to the list of permitted varieties for virtually all appellations previously dominated by Sauvignon Blanc.
The most popular Gris grape of all is of course Pinot Gris and, especially, the Italian version Pinot Grigio that seems to have so much more market traction than, respectively, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Bianco throughout Alsace and Italy.
Gris grapes are genetically identical to those whose full names end with Blanc or Noir but have more deeply coloured grape skins, generally pink, than most white wine grapes so the wines they produce tend to be darker and, often, deeper flavoured, too.
One particular Gris grape whose wines have recently been tickling my fancy is Grenache Gris, the pink-skinned cousin of Grenache Blanc. Grenache Blanc is much more widely planted than Grenache Gris but in my experience can result in rather big, blowsy wines. Partly because of this, Grenache Blanc is often blended with other crisper varieties such as Bourboulenc and Clairette in the Languedoc and Roussanne and Clairette in the southern Rhône.
Varietal Grenache Gris is relatively rare; the variety traditionally grew interspersed with Grenache Noir, perhaps because the nurseries supplied a rather careless mix of plants, and the grapes were often fermented together. But two wines from the Minervois opened my eyes to the potential of the variety as a 100% ingredient.
In the village of La Livinière, Benjamin Darnault makes the Boulevard Napoléon wines, named after this street sign, for Trevor Gulliver of St John restaurant in London. Their 2011 Grenache Gris is still going very strong – wonderfully herbal and just the right side of oily. The 2012 and 2013 are widely available from independent wine merchants in the UK, and the younger vintage (which I have not tasted) can even be found in New York.
Ch Maris's Brama bottling comes from a vineyard at 400 m (1,312 ft) above the little village of Félines-Minervois. It was planted exclusively, way back in 1938, apparently, with Grenache Gris. This thrillingly complex wine suggests strongly that the best Grenache Gris wines have more tension than Grenache Blanc. 'So much more interesting than the average white burgundy', I rather cruelly wrote in my tasting note, adding 'Very expensive'. The 2012 sells for £27 a bottle - but then yields are extremely low: just 10 hl/ha.
Also in the Minervois, the iconoclastic winemaker Jean-Baptiste Senat based in Trausse-Minervois made a Grenache Gris-dominated wine in 2015 called Aux Amis de ma Soeur (my sister's friends) that has some of the nerve of Brama. More typically, this wine is a blend - 70% 30-year-old Grenache Gris with even older Grenache Blanc, from 40-year-old vines.
Much of the Grenache Gris grown in southern France is in Roussillon, a hangover from the days when the vineyards around Perpignan were best-known for strong, sweet vins doux naturels such as Rivesaltes, Banyuls and Maury. The standard ingredients for these were all three hues of Grenache: Grenache Blanc, Grenache Gris and the dark-skinned Grenache Noir that is the dominant grape variety in the southern Rhône for wines such as Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
The one wine appellation I have come across in which Grenache Gris plays a major part is white Collioure, the dry(ish) wines of table-wine strength made from vineyards that also produce strong, sweet Banyuls around the eponymous seaside town south of Perpignan famous for anchovies and art.
These are heady wines that could not be accused of any excess of acidity, being produced so far south, but they can have massive appeal, and a structure and flavour not unlike (the much more expensive) white Hermitage, although I would be extremely surprised if any of them aged as well.
The other day I tasted 11 current white Collioures, most of them dominated by Grenache Gris with Grenache Blanc, Vermentino, Roussanne and occasionally a little Macabeu, the grape known as Viura over the Pyrenees in Rioja.
The coastal climate in Collioure is very much more temperate than in the hills of the Minervois so these Collioures tended to be broader than the two Minervois examples described above, but many finished with a rather appealing light quinine-like bitterness that saved them from flab. And a number of them, like many a fine Roussillon white, are grown on the schist that seems to result – we know not why (yet) – in particularly nervy wines.
White Collioure is what you might call a niche product; the Collioure Blanc appellation dates only from 2002 and represents only about 15% of Collioure production. Most of the wine is hearty, spicy red, with a tiny bit of potent rosé. But these wines showed just how distinctive white Collioure can be. Grown on fewer than 50 hectares (125 acres) of terraces of ancient vine stumps, many of them with a view of the Mediterranean, these vines give exceptionally little wine – typically less than 20 hl/ha – and the grapes are generally picked in August before acid levels fall too low. Whole bunches of grapes are pressed and the resulting must often fermented and aged in oak – very occasionally too much oak.
Two of the most successful of these Collioures came from the excellent Domaine de la Rectorie, one of them made like sherry under a film of yeast but with only a light, appetising suggestion of breadiness.
Table wines based on Grenache Gris blended with other Roussillon grapes have been emerging from the woodwork. Les Clos Perdus (L'Extrême), Clot de l'Oum (Cine Panettone), Gauby (Coume Gineste), Domaine Jones, Mas Janiel (Traou de l'Ouille), Matassa, Olivier Pithon (Cuvée Laïs), Roc des Anges (Iglesia Vella) and Treloar (La Terre Promise) are some of the best examples.
But fine blends incorporating Grenache Gris can also be found outside France – most predictably just over the Pyrenees in north-east Spain. Acústic in the hills of Montsant and various heady whites in Empordà on the coast have Garnacha Roja, as it is known in Castilian, as a minor but not unimportant ingredient.
GRENACHE GRIS GEMS
Boulevard Napoléon 2013 Vin de Pays de l'Hérault
£16.95 Slurp.co.uk, £19.50 Philglas & Swiggot
Ch Maris, Brama 2012 Vin de France
£27 Hic Wines
Jean-Baptiste Senat, Aux Amis de ma Soeur 2015 Aude
Cardoner, Les Tines 2015 Collioure
Dom de la Rectorie, L'Argile 2015 Collioure
Dom de la Rectorie, Voile d'Argile NV Vin de France