“Grenache is an unlikely hero of a grape,” says Jancis Robinson. And yet, it is the most planted wine grape in Southern France, (and the second most widely-planted wine grape in the world), is the primary ingredient in the popular Rhône grape trio GSM, and has garnered recent recognition for its contribution in the powerful red wines coming out of the mountainous region of Priorat in Spain. Indeed, it seems that in all cases, Grenache is considered a grape worth blending, playing a supporting role amongst a league of more forceful wines. So, to play on Robinson’s analogy, poor Grenache has both the perceived purpose and popularity as Aquaman among the Justice League.
This need not be the case. Depending on where its grown, how the vineyards are maintained, and the choices made during winemaking, Grenache can actually be quite sneaky-cool. A dedicated Grenache can stand on its own, with the strength and independence of, say, Catwoman.
Grenache originates from northern Spain, where its referred to as Garnacha, and slowly through the years traveled south to its current popular hot-spot, southern France.
Grenache grapes, in general, are quite vigorous, so the most successful plantings are those found in steady, warm climates with dry, well-drained soils. The vines are characterized by their strong wood canopies, which allow them to protect the foliage and grapes from wind. As such, Grenache thrives in the warm, but windy climate of the Mediterranean. But, because of this protection and the grape’s innate nature to become over-productive, Grenache is quite susceptible to grape diseases, rot, and mildew. However, provided the proper conditions — hot soils and warm climate — the overly-vigorous grape incurs stress, depleting the overall yield, and producing grapes with firm, concentrated flavors.
Though Grenache buds early, it’s a late ripener and is often one of the last grapes picked at harvest (sometimes picked up to two weeks after Cabernet Sauvignon). This means the grapes will have softer skins (lower tannins) and higher sugar content (higher alcohol). So, when Grenache was first brought to California, planted in the drought-like environment of the San Joaquin Valley, the high yields and high alcohol made it the perfect ingredient for…jug wine.
It wasn’t until the latter half of the 20th century, with the interest and initiative of the Rhone Rangers organization, that new Grenache cuttings from the Rhone valley were imported to the cooler Central Coast region. Since then, Rhone-focused producers have found several unique plots of land that mimic the idyllic climate of France’s Rhone region — and not all are, as many assume, located in Paso Robles. (See my list below.)
Jancis Robinson ends her piece on Grenache by saying, “For some reason the state’s [California’s] Rhône Rangers, wine producers who have turned their backs on Chardonnay and Cabernet to explore the possibilities of such grapes as Syrah, Mourvèdre, Viognier and Roussanne, have virtually ignored Grenache.”
While single varietal California Grenache may not be popular or easy to find — indeed, based on this mini-study, it’s not too easy to grow well — I want to point out a few producers who have looked Grenache face-to-face and created a hero out of this most unlikely grape.
Mounts Family Winery 2014 Dry Creek Valley Grenache
Passaggio Wines 2014 Heringer Estates Clarksburg Grenache
Tercero Wines 2011 Camp 4 Vineyards Santa Ynez Grenache
Betwixt 2014 Boer Vineyard Monterey County Grenache
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