“Whither”. An Old English word meaning “to what place, result or condition?” Which brings me to Grenache. The grape stars in France’s Rhône Valley, especially in Châteufneuf-du-Pape and the Côtes du Rhône, where it’s blended with different varieties to make rustic, spicy but hearty wines perfect for downing with Soupe au Pistou, a garlicky vegetable soup, or a fresh seafood pizza. In California, there’s about 7,000 acres of Grenache planted — about the same as Barbera — and by far the majority is in the Central Valley. But in a few places along the Coast, a handful of vintners are trying to create wines of lushness and importance (and price worthiness), sometimes blended, sometimes 100% Grenache.
I recently tasted through about 50 Central and South Coast Grenaches and blends at a tasting in the Santa Ynez Valley that had been arranged for me by some of the local vintners. It came a day after another tasting, of (mainly 2006) Pinot Noirs from the Santa Rita Hills that had left me stunned with their quality, so my palate was in an eagerly anticipative mode. Alas (to use another Old English word that’s related to the word “lassitude”), the Grenache tasting was considerably less rewarding.
The problems were high alcohol and excessive softness. In the Rhône, these same qualities affect Grenache, and are part of its charm, but here in California, the grapes (not just of Grenache, but Syrah and Mourvedre, the usual blenders) can easily get overripe, resulting in pruny, raisiny flavors (although residual sugar was noticeably absent, which was probably why so many of the wines were well into the 15 percent range of alcohol). But the opposite problem of unripeness can also plague the wines, probably due to uneven development of clusters.
Among those Grenaches that did succeed, it didn’t seem to make any difference if they were blended or unblended. Two 2006 beauties from Jaffurs ( Whole Cluster, $42, and regular, $34) both were 100% Grenache, while Foxen’s dramatic 2006 Cuvée Jeanne Marie, $35, was blended with Syrah and Mourvedre. (My other favorites were Io’s 2006 Grenache, $35, a Demetria 2005 Cuvée Constantine blend, $35, Margerum’s 2006 Grenache, $38, and Rusack’s 2006 Ballard Canyon Grenache, $40.)
What the best wines had in common, in contrast to the others, were dryness, balance and lushness. They were wines that were brilliant in fruit (as you’d expect from sunny California), with no trace of green unripeness or raisins, and lush, sweet tannins. Where they had high alcohol, they somehow managed to handle it with the poise of a knife-juggler. Interestingly, all the best were produced in extremely low quantities, ranging from 90 cases to about 600. This suggests to me that the best wines are lavished with the most high-end viticultural practices.
I doubt if Grenache is going to be the Next Big Thing. Syrah was supposed to be; nowadays, many vintners and winery owners tell me it’s hard to sell Syrah to Americans. But I do think that the general category of Rhône-style reds (blended or not) has a bright future. When they’re well-made, they fill a niche that’s needed, for a dry, medium-bodied wine that’s not as heavy and tannic as Cabernet or Merlot can be, but fatter than Pinot Noir. Also, while these wines are not inexpensive, they’re relative values, compared to the prices that top Cabernets and Pinots are getting these days.
The Grenachistes have their work cut out for them, but they should be encouraged to continue their efforts.
Have you tasted any Grenaches or Rhône-style blends you really liked?