Invisible to in vogue: Once decried as too alcoholic, not ageworthy and only useful in a blend, Grenache is now gaining a significant following – including its own day of celebration. Sarah Jane Evans MW profiles an ugly duckling transformed...
Where were you on Thursday, 24 September 2010? The correct answer is: standing amid old vines, or in a wine bar, wearing a loud shirt, raising a glass of Grenache. This was the inaugural International Grenache Day. All right-thinking folk were out and about expressing their ‘inner Grenache’. There were celebrations and tastings from Nigeria to Brazil and from the Rhône to the Barossa Valley.
The loud shirt idea was the inspiration of Chester Osborn of McLaren Vale’s d’Arenberg, a man with a wardrobe of eye-catching shirts. The day itself was born from a symposium held about the grape last summer in the Rhône, and it sponsored a website full of greetings and activities worldwide. It also captured the moment when Grenache became fashionable.
It’s a surprise that Grenache should inspire such enthusiasm. After all, it has mainly been seen as the grumpy teenager of the wine world – the grape that, left to itself, became overgrown; easily became for too alcoholic; was not built to last; and could make rustic wines.
Single-varietal icons are scant, led by Château Rayas in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Mas Amiel in Roussillon and Sine Qua Non in California. For the most part, it was safer to tuck Grenache away in a GSM blend (Grenache, Shiraz, Mourvedre – the New World take on the Rhône) or in Châteauneuf, with a cocktail of other varieties.
It just didn’t get a chance to show its good side. How could the world see that underneath, it was lovable, juicy, often gentle on the tannins, thriving in Mediterranean warmth, perfectly capable of standing on its own two feet?
That there has been a remarkable transformation can be put down to the right people and the right vines in the right places.
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The Grenache Gang
Grenache has gathered on its side an impressive group of partisan winemakers to make its case. All share an interest in wines with individuality, and many of them work biodynamically.
Take Eben Sadie, who works with old-vine Grenache in the Swartland, South Africa, and also in Priorat, Spain, and is determined to express the character of the vineyard: ‘This is a watershed moment, when Grenache has come into its own right. It’s a grape that can transmit its place of origin, its climate – the whole concept of terroir.’
Sadie stresses that the appeal of Grenache is the way it can be so different in different places. It may have spent its previous existence as a blending ingredient, but at last ‘more and more single-vineyard bottlings are coming on stream’.
The grape can even inspire its fans to literary elegance. Randall Grahm of California’s Bonny Doon talks of its ‘dynamic play between voluptuousness and minerality’.
Collect what one might loosely call this ‘Grenache Gang’ of partisans together, and Sadie, for all his passion, appears relatively restrained. As a group, they are as diverse as their terroir: noisy and colourful (that’s the Australians), generous and friendly (the US), intellectual (Randall Grahm), elegantly charming (the English winemakers now decanted to France), intense and single-minded (the Spaniards and those working in Spain).
The Spaniards have plenty to be single-minded about, for their revival of old Garnacha is one of the key reasons for the variety’s sudden rise to fame. Their focus has been on tracking down and restoring the old bush vines, some of them planted in the sandiest of soils on their own rootstocks, untouched by phylloxera.
At a time when some producers claim that 25 years means ‘old’, these vines really are old, spread out across Campo de Borja, Catalayud and Cariñena, as well as in Navarra (where rosados from Garnacha have long prevailed) and Rioja (especially the warmer soils of Rioja Baja), and in Emporda, Montsant and Priorat.
Priorat put Spain’s old Garnachas on the mapwhen Alvaro Palacios made the headlines with L’Ermita from old Priorat Garnacha. Part of the reason for this fame is the price that Palacios can command for the wine made in isolated, economically depressed, mist-shrouded slate land behind Barcelona. In general, Priorat’s prized wines are blends: Garnacha may express the electric purity of the llicorella slate soils, but it suffers in hot, dry years. That’s where the blending of grapes such as Carignan comes in.
In Catalyud, Scotsman Norrel Robertson MW is another partisan unwilling to toe the line when it comes to formulaic winemaking. Known as El Escocès Volante (the flying Scotsman), he has spent years seeking out the best expression of high-altitude old vineyards and making wines of great character.
He is as enthusiastic about Garnacha as he is about Pinot Noir: ‘When the vineyard is cropped correctly – normally less than 1.5kg per vine – and the climate and growing seasons are good, the results are usually very complex and seductive’. You can see this in his El Puño, where the Garnacha is grown, as it is in Priorat, on slate.
Garnacha needs a long growing season. Now listen out for Robertson’s big tip: ‘in my experience of working in Spain, we’re capable of producing outstanding 100% Garnachas in three or four years of every decade. 2010 is shaping up to be the best Garnacha harvest we’ve seen in Aragon for a very long time and many growers cannot remember Garnacha hanging in there so well in their lives.’
In a region where Garnacha has long been the supermarkets’ favourite for juicy, strawberry-fruited, low-tannin, low-priced reds, 2010 could be a year when Garnacha gets taken seriously.
The question of alcohol
One notable feature of Grenache is its readiness to produce sugars that will convert to hearty alcohols. When the wines are regularly pushing 15% then it becomes an issue for many consumers, even if the winemakers are content to talk of balance.
California’s Zelma Long – a much travelled winemaker and now consultant – relishes the word ‘sucrosity’ to describe Grenache’s round, succulent, alcohol-weighted character. Selected yeasts will assist in producing lower alcohols at fermentation, and there is work to be done in the vineyard.
But Grenache groupies also offer a low-tech solution for those who are concerned – pour a smaller measure, and always have a glass of water to hand!
This may sound wimpy to Australians, for whom the sweetly alcoholic Grenache was, for most of the past century, the basis for fortified wines. The grape’s time in the viticultural wilderness means planting material lacks diversity, and research has still to be done on this.
Nevertheless, some exceptional old vineyards exist, and the key to their success is very low yields. Australia has made its name with blends where Grenache figures but does not star. With the exception of d’Arenberg, Torbreck, Henschke and a few more, that is probably how it will stay.
Nevertheless this trio, and a number of other partisans for the cause, felt sufficiently loyal to travel to the Grenache Symposium in Provence, and carry on activities thereafter.
Says Grenache producer and symposium host Nicole Sierra-Rolet of Domaine de la Verrière: ‘The grass-roots dimension of International Grenache Day was an essential part of its success. People came together because they believe in Grenache as an unsung hero, not just for a commercial benefit.’
Behind the label
The only hiccup in building Grenache’s hero status is the labelling. Either a label declares ‘Grenache’ and contains up to 15% or 25% of other varieties or, as so often in France, the label makes no comment at all about the grape. How can we identify which Rhône wines are 100% Grenache if we’re not told?
There are those who will continue to insist that Grenache will only work as a blend, with Syrah adding structure and a blast of blackcurrants. The other favourite, Mourvèdre/Monastrell, adds beef to a blend.
But it is also worth remembering that in terms of world domination, Grenache shows a diversity that even Pinot can’t match. In addition to red table wines, Grenache also makes succulent vins doux naturels; it is made into (admittedly not especially impressive) sparkling wine; and Grenache Blanc and Gris both feature in southern France and northern Spain, offering fatness, texture and interest to white blends.