Berger on wine: In praise of underrated grenache
The host of a wine/food radio show was concluding an hour-long interview. With five minutes left he asked me: “If you were stranded on a desert island and had only one varietal wine to drink, what grape would it be made from?”
Years earlier I had actually thought of this obscure scenario, so I instantly replied, “grenache,” to which the host said, “What?! You can’t leave us with that! We don’t have time. You’ll have to come back for another show.”
What may have surprised the radio guy was that he probably expected me to say pinot noir, riesling, chardonnay or even sauvignon blanc.
Grenache is one of the world’s most underrated wine grapes, even though it’s an important varietal and widely planted in the Rhone Valley of France, Spain (as Garnacha) and Australia. France leads the world with more than 235,000 acres. Spain is No. 2 at 200,000 acres. California has fewer than 5,000 acres. (Grenache blanc is a different grape variety, related to the noir version, and can make a charming dry wine as well as add measurably to white Rhône blends.)
Even though the red version is prized by winemakers when it’s grown in moderate climates, more than half of the state total is located in the hot counties of Fresno and Madera. There it is grown for tonnage (10-12 tons per acre or more), not quality, and thus is an inexpensive source of cherry-like fruit.
Grenache quality can be improved in cooler areas and when grown at 4 to 6 tons per acre. But in California’s fine-wine districts, there are only scattered, small plantings of it. So although many love the grape, high-caliber fruit is hard to come by.
There are several reasons for the scant acreage here. A key one is that grape growers are notoriously reluctant to change varieties, and grenache has some negative baggage.
I love it as much as I do because when a sane amount is grown per acre, it can be like silly putty — stretched into every imaginable shape and style:
Rosés: Grenache is at the heart of most great pink wines from France and Spain. California wineries with access to quality grenache fruit usually consider it a delight.
Reds: As a stand-alone varietal, grenache can make everything from a light, Beaujolais-style of wine all the way to dark, aromatic, spicy reds that age nicely for 6 to 10 years. Its tannins are lower than many other red wine grapes.
Red blends: It’s used to flesh out clumsy, warm-climate syrah. Grenache can, Pygmalionlike, turn a brute into a red wine with some grace. In 1988, I asked a Dry Creek Valley winemaker who had one acre of Grenache what he blended it into. He replied, “Everything. It helps everything I make.”
Port: Its flavors are so fruity that I have had some excellent fortified wines based on it.
Though growers appreciate grenache in warmer climates for its ability to improve inexpensive blends, the grape fell out of favor in the 1970s because growers were frustrated by how unevenly it ripened. Also, occasionally the grape had so little color it wouldn’t make anything darker than pink.
Moreover, for decades, grenache from hot climes was the base for sweet jug “vin rosé.” Consumers disparaged that aroma, some saying it smelled like candied wine or cotton candy.