Great fruit aroma clearly announces CA, and the wine is magic when paired with a crispy, roasted version of the CA State Bird.
There isn’t a huge amount of Grenache planted in California: about 7,000 acres in 2008 (down from nearly 11,000 acres in 1998), and 85% of those acres reside in the Central Valley (predominantly Fresno and Madera Counties). Hence the image, which artistic CA Grenache will eventually have to overcome, of sickly sweet swill labeled Grenache Rosé which was sold in bowling-ball-shaped jugs much prized by ‘60s-era hippies for making terrariums. Still, the enduring legacy of the Rhône Rangers in California has begat some new, green buds on the gnarly, weathered Grenache grapevine.
Napa has less than 35 acres of bearing Grenache vines. Which may help explain why in 2009 those grapes sold for $3,520 per ton on average. That’s 50% more per ton than Napa Merlot in 2009. It would also predict a $35 per bottle retail price tag on those wines. In Sonoma County, which had 160 acres of Grenache in 2009, the average price per ton was $2,660, about 20% more than the average price per ton of Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon.
Grenache (technically Grenache Noir) is really quite a fascinating grape variety. Sardinia, where it is called Cannonau, and Spain argue like cats and dogs over where it originated, and thus which direction it migrated during the 400+ years (from about 1300 to around 1700) that Sardinia was part of the Aragon kingdom. Either way, the sturdy Grenache vine has competed for several hundred years to be the most widely planted premium red grape in the world. Even after a severe vine pulling political exercise in Spain, which reduced total Garnacha acreage by half in the 1980s, the grape is still #2 in Spain today, and #2 or #3 in the world as a whole. Very strong throughout the western Mediterranean, Grenache was only passed (by Syrah, i.e. Shiraz) for the #1 position in Australia about twenty years ago.
Yet I don’t think Australia had a varietally labeled Grenache until about 1995. Mainstay of the Australian industry due to its drought tolerance, and its ability to produce high sugars when given a long growing season, Grenache was highly prized in the production of Port-type wines for the London (read Commonwealth) market. “Excellent blending grape.” That’s the backhanded compliment conferred on Grenache due to its position as the foundation of Chateauneuf-du-Pape.
And certainly it is true that heavily-cropped Grenache results in light-colored wines with a raspberry-like aroma, but watery flavors. From an artistic standpoint, the twin keys are restraining yield and inducing water stress. That’s been known for a long time. In 1968 Dr. David Bruce (Stanford trained dermatologist) made a spectacular Grenache, but gave up the quest because he couldn’t command enough money per bottle to justify the expense of making an artistic wine. Today a small, but rapidly increasing number of California producers are taking another run at the prize. Their price points generally fall in the $18 to $28 range. Understandably their results vary. I blind tasted 20 examples to pick a few exemplars for recommendation.
My favorite wine was from Dashe Cellars in northern Sonoma County. Like many of my other preferred wines, it was from the 2007 vintage, picked in mid-October, aged in older (neutral) barrels, and blended with 20% of another variety (in this case Mourvèdre from 100-year-old vines). The Dashe has less than 14% alcohol, and had a percentage of the must (fermenting juice) bled off the skins early in the fermentation, both to make a rosé, and to concentrate the flavor and color in the remaining red wine. That technique is called saignée, and it makes extremely good sense for Grenache. The Dashe costs $24. I found it had lots of color. The aromas were of cranberry and plum, with some sun-warmed stones in the background. In this tasting the Dashe was tops for balance, and clean fruit in the mouth. It had a really fabulous structure: long and only mildly grippy.
Another North Coast Grenache I enjoyed was the 2007 Novy, made by Adam and Dianna Lee from Siduri wines. Priced at $27, it comes from Judge Vyd in Bennett Valley near Santa Rosa, and has 20% Syrah in it. I found a roasted density to the nose, without being burnt. There was fine integration of the wood with the citral notes from the nose, and just a hint of micro-biological funk on the palate. Also very good flavor concentration.
There were a couple winners from the Central Coast, both 2007 vintage, both 100% Grenache, and both priced at $28: Ventana Vyds from Arroyo Seco in the Salinas Valley; and Venteux from Paso Robles. The Venteux had good flavor concentration, albeit on the riper side of the spectrum. The Ventana, formerly cool-climate viticulturalist Doug Meador’s vineyard, had great color density, and brilliant freshness, with spicy, white pepper hints as a backdrop to a citrus skin nose. It was very refreshing, with a nice little tannic bite.
To my surprise, there were a handful of winners from El Dorado County in the Sierra Foothills. Surprise because: (1) there are only about 40 acres of Grenache in all seven counties of the Sierra Foothills AVA; and (2) El Dorado County is at significant elevation, which implies a shortened growing season. Grenache is famously a long-season grape, ripening even after Cabernet Sauvignon. The bargain of the bunch was a 2007 from David Girard Vyds. It was fairly light in color, but with excellent raspberry fruit. Smooth and mouth filling. Very seductive, with no tannin to remark on at all. Chill it a little, and throw it down by the goblet with spicy Mexican cuisine. For contrast, the 2008 from Holly’s Hill was the darkest of the bunch. It was rather brooding at first, but had some charming berry-character lurking behind. The flavors were ripe and big, with soft tannins. It was also a good deal at $20. Although it is sold out, I included a bottle of Cedarville’s 2007 Grenache in the blind tasting. It has 20% Syrah in it. I’ve liked this wine for several months now, and confirmed my opinion by picking it out amongst the foil wrapped bottles.
I think these fruit-forward CA Grenache wines have enormous potential when paired with capsaicin-infused Southwestern cuisine. Capsaicin is the source of the burning sensation one gets from chiles. Grenache wines don’t generally have residual sugar, which would help dampen the mouth-feel of chiles, but the wines’ fruity aroma delivers an expectation of sweetness. Often that expectation is enough. I’m very keen to experiment with Grenache as a foil for spicy food because I eat a lot of dishes in that category. You do know capsaicin will give you a runners’ high without that sticky requirement for actual exercise? Very functional on a busy day.
However, for this post I’m going to fall back on a reliable old chestnut: match the CA Grenache with roasted quail. This call might be politically suspect if most quail these days weren’t farm-raised in Canada. Shop at a Chinese market. Buy the quail frozen. Pay about a buck each for six. Defrost and clean them up with a pair of poultry shears. Split the quail so they lie flat on a baking sheet. Roast at 375ºF for about 15 minutes in the oven. Then crisp the skin by frying in a half-inch of oil on the stove top in a skillet. It’s lip-smacking finger-food, and the clean berry-like character of a refreshing Grenache gives the whole meal a Tom Jones-like ambiance.
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