Winemaker prejudice can be stubborn; many experts believe that if a particular region, or grape, suffers from a poor image, then such connotations will stick like super glue.
“If an appellation or wine style starts out with a prestigious reputation, then even its quotidian wines shine in the reflected light. But the prestige has to be firmly established. It has never worked the opposite way,” says wine importer Terry Theise.
Grenache, the sultry red grape of the Mediterranean, appears to be an exception to the rule.
A new seriousness
Although Grenache has been a key component in the blends of Châteauneuf-du-Pape for decades, few European winemakers outside of the Southern Rhône Valley took the grape seriously in the 20th century.
Prolific throughout the sun-kissed vineyards of Languedoc-Roussillon, Grenache was derided in the 1980s by quality-focused growers for its tendency to produce in abundance, producing flabby wines that would oxidize quickly. It became the region’s workhorse grape, mainly used to add alcohol to cheap-and-cheerful plonk. Its champions were few and far between.
“Grenache has been regarded as a little bit of a second-class citizen, playing a supporting role in wine blends,” says Randall Grahm, founder of Bonny Doon Vineyard in California. “But under certain conditions, and if its natural vigor is curtailed, then the genius of Grenache comes out — it can shine as a mono-varietal style of wine.”
Grahm was part of an inaugural symposium, first held in 2010, that united winemakers from across the world in an attempt to prove that the grape was no poor relation. His relentless proselytizing has helped to put Grenache on the map in the U.S., introducing skeptical consumers to its charms. His European counterpart is Alvaro Palacios, the godfather to Spain’s Grenache movement.
Born in Rioja, Palacios arrived in Priorat in the late 1980s, quickly sizing up the potential of the ancient bush vines for fine wine production. He believed that Priorat’s unique terroir, mineral-rich black slate, and quartzite, would produce Grenache wines of hitherto unseen intensity and class. Released to rave reviews in the 1990s, the single-vineyard Grenache expression, L’Ermita, is in a league of its own. Unfortunately, as the hype intensified, so too did the asking price; the current vintage sells for over $1,200. However, Palacios also makes an old vine Grenache wine in Rioja: Palacios Remondo Propiedad. It’s delicious and available for under $40.
The Grenache pioneers
Ferran Centelles — former head sommelier at the legendary El Bulli restaurant in Catalonia — is in no doubt that Palacios has done much to reignite Spanish passions for the grape. “There is no other variety in Spain that transmits the characteristics of a particular site with such clarity and precision,” he says. “Alvaro’s success kick-started a revolution in attitudes towards Grenache, inspiring winemakers in Rioja, Navarra, Madrid region, and La Mancha.”
According to Centelles, growers across Spain are becoming “more adept at handling the variety, chasing lower yields and higher quality via judicious site selection and intelligent winemaking.” He points to Verum, Ulterior Parcela No. 6 Garnacha, as a brilliant example of how floral and aromatically expressive old vine Grenache can be.
Situated in the arid plains of La Mancha in southern Spain, the vines are planted at 2,300 feet above sea level, which helps to moderate the barmy summer heat, and stop acidity levels plummeting. The wines are aged in small clay jars, called tinajas, for just under 12 months, keeping the gloriously expressive red fruit at the heart of Verum.
Of course, this burgeoning enthusiasm for viticultural rediscovery is not limited to Spain. The grape is playing a stronger role in the red blends of the Languedoc-Roussillon, while mono-varietal examples are no longer a rare commodity. The Grenache craze is catching on.
“I think the most important thing that has changed has been the terroir where Grenache is now cultivated in the region — better understanding of the grape has helped to revive winemaker interest,” argues Tim Ford, MD at Domaine Gayda in the Languedoc. He says that 20 years ago, “Our Grenache was planted around the domaine in the high altitude Malepère vineyards. The wines had green tannins and were poor quality. But today, the winemaker has a product he can work with, as we’ve learnt from our mistakes.” Ford admits that Grenache can be difficult to grow. He explains that high yields, if not pruned rigorously, big bunches, and very thin skins mean that botrytis can get out of control fast if the bunches are not ventilated. “In the cellar, high alcohol can cause stuck fermentations so this also needs watching carefully,” he says.
Encouragingly, success stories now outweigh the failures. Wendy Wilson, manager of small biodynamic estate Le Soula in the mountains of Roussillon says that Grenache is well placed to thrive in a Mediterranean climate increasingly defined by torrid summers.
“Our Grenache is very important to us; we have just planted more,” says Wilson. “In comparative studies, Grenache consistently comes top in drought resistance. We’ve also noticed that the quality of grapes from Grenache vines improves very noticeably with age.”
Now consumers are discovering Grenache
Such enthusiasm is infectious; thanks to people like Palacios, Wilson, and Grahm, U.S. sommeliers are getting on board and helping to spread the gospel.
“I am very excited about the renewed interest in Grenache; it has the ability to produce beautifully complex, terroir-driven wines. I think that because of certain producers bringing the grape to fame, it has seen a global resurgence and is now being taken a bit more seriously worldwide,” says Catherine Fanelli, wine director of the new restaurants at 85 10th Avenue, New York.
Fanelli adds that her favorite Grenache from the U.S. is A Tribute to Grace, made in Santa Barbara. “The winery is run by Angela Osborne and she focuses on very site-specific bottles of Grenache. The wines are just sublime — a perfect balance between the elegant fruit you would expect from the grape and strength and structure,” she says.
However, sommelier Matt Cirne prefers lighter, fresher styles, such as Grenache from the Southwest of France. “Natural producers such as Dom, Yo-Yo, Pedres Blanques, and Foulards Rouges.” He also raves about the “revitalized vineyards of the Sierra de Gredos north of Madrid,” or the Catalan producers that have re-imagined Priorat as a wine that is “not about new oak and extraction.”
This revival is one of the modern miracles of contemporary viticulture. It is proof that preconceptions and prejudice can be overcome. It represents the wine industry at its open-minded best.
3 Grenache to try:
Dashe Cellars Les Enfants Terrible Clarksburg Grenache 2017 (~$21)
One of California’s leading urban wineries, Dashe Cellars was founded by Michael and Anne Dashe in 1996. From their bijou base in Alameda, the duo craft a very good value Grenache wine — perhaps the bargain of the year. Made according to low-interventionist principles such as low sulfur and a lack of new oak, the exuberance of the red fruit comes shining through. Rich, concentrated, and silky, this is a perfect winter warmer.
Alto Moncayo Campo de Borja Garnacha 2018 (~$35)
The Spanish really do have a way with this mercurial grape variety. Cultivated in the dramatic scenery of the Campo de Borja province in northeastern Spain, Alto Moncayo uses only the finest Grenache grapes to make a rich and velvety style of wine, with heady aromas of balsamic, black cherry, vanilla, and plum. Delicious and relatively affordable at under $40.
Angove Warboys Vineyard McLaren Vale Grenache 2016 (~$75)
Angove is a leading Australian producer of Grenache. Judiciously exploiting their parcels of old vines, this single-vineyard expression is fragrant and structured, with a complex bouquet of strawberry, white pepper, licorice, and pomegranate. Bright and focused, it merges ripe fruit with an attractive acid line and impeccable freshness to great effect. A wine to convince the Grenache unbelievers.