“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.
Considered one of the “noble grapes,” it may come as a bit of a surprise that Cabernet Sauvignon is actually a relatively new variety — born in the 17th century as the child of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc somewhere in the Southwest of France. Cabernet may be considered “popular” amongst grape-growers because of its “ease of cultivation;” indeed, the thick-skinned grape is quiet hardy, naturally low- yielding, a late budder, and resistant to most environmental hazards (such as rot, mildew, and vineyard pests). But the truth is a Cabernet Sauvignon of true elegance and refinement is primarily crafted in the vineyard. It may not be susceptible to environmental hazards, but Cabernet wines are a true expression of terroir.
Colombard, have you heard of it? It’s a lesser-known wine grape varietal that grows in surprising quantities right here in California. Native to France’s South West region known as Côtes de Gascogne, here Colombard is predominantly blended with other grapes (or other fruits) and then distilled into eaux-de-vie, Cognac, and Armagnac.
Despite its French heritage, California has the highest number of Colombard vineyards in the world and, in fact, Colombard is one of the most planted white wine grape varieties in the whole state. So why is it that we see so little of it?
The reputation Miles gave Merlot from his famous line in Sideways is not without merit. Sometime in the mid-1990’s American Merlot plantings boomed: In 1985 there were less than 2,000 acres in California, but by 2003 (just around the time Sideways released), there were over 50,000 acres planted. As a result, Merlot became the go-to red wine of choice or, as WinePros.org says, “the generic red wine flavor of fashion.” Winemakers were virtually mass-producing the varietal to keep up with popular demand. So Merlot became known for its lack of flavor, texture, and structure — an “easy drinker” that didn’t need to be understood. But with Miles’ line, the wine-drinking masses, along with the winemakers, seemed to have woken up. What is this red wine we’ve been drinking without a thought?
Merlot is actually a tricky grape to grow — its nuances so subtle and only noticeable when harvested at the proper time. There are good Merlots in the world — with depth, complexity, and uniqueness. So let’s take a look at what makes Merlot…Merlot.
I feel like Monterey is one of the most under-rated AVAs in California. In fact I just got into a heated discussion with someone about whether or not the minutiae of the appellations (in regards to soil, climate, etc) vary as greatly as the famed Napa Valley. Not really a fair question — two different regions with two completely different things going on geographically. Take the Santa Lucia Highlands — most notably affected by its proximity to the Monterey Bay and Pacific Ocean. And while they’re no Mayacamas Mountains, the vineyards of the Highlands, planted along terraces of the Santa Lucia mountain range, can reach to as high as 3,000 feet in elevation. Thus it seems obvious to say that vineyards planted way up high facing the water are going to have their own unique microclimate compared to those even just a few hundred feet below them facing the opposite direction. So are their as many variances in Monterey’s SLH as the craggy mountain rages of Napa? Probably not. It’s a smaller appellation, but the variances here are no less important.
Fun Fact: The Santa Lucia Highlands is home to one of the vineyards named a California “Grand Cru” by Wine Enthusiast Magazine, recognizing that this location can produce some of the highest-quality wine grapes.