The grenache grape is almost stealthy in its ubiquity. It is grown and made into wine pretty much all over the world, often known by its French name, grenache, but sometimes by the Spanish garnacha.
Yet as widespread as grenache is, it’s among the least heralded international grapes. Its greatest expressions have come in places where it is part of a blend, as in Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Priorat. While coexisting with other grapes never held back cabernet sauvignon or Bordeaux from becoming an international star, grenache has not ascended similarly.
It is not for want of trying. The early pioneers of Rhône-style wines in California championed grenache 30 years ago, and while delicious grenache wines from producers like Bonny Doon Vineyard, Qupé and Edmunds St. John have earned modest popularity, they, like the grape, have always lurked somewhat in the background.
Nonetheless, grenache can make superb wines in diverse places. It can achieve magnificence in the stony and sandy soils of Châteauneuf, in France, and in the slate of Priorat, in Spain. The wines made in the limestone of Gigondas in the southern Rhône may be less imposing, but they can be just as winning. And grenache is a main constituent of humble but satisfying wines made all over the south of France and Mediterranean Spain.
The immigrant farmers who planted many of California’s heirloom vineyards, prized today for their old vines, often included grenache in their mix, interspersed with zinfandel, petite sirah, carignan and the numerous other grapes that allowed these farmers to hedge their bets, depending on the weather each year.
“I have markers for greatness,” Eduardo said, speaking of grenache. “Purity of fruit, salty minerality and above all texture: Feel and purity, that’s what it’s all about.”
Although I felt that many of the wines seemed sweet, Chad was surprised by how few of these he found.
“I was pleased by the levels of acidity and the balance,” he said. “I’m forced to re-evaluate their ability to convey minerality.”
It’s often said in wine publications that alcohol is just a number and that it should not be considered in judging a wine if the wine is otherwise balanced. But alcohol certainly was a factor in our blind tasting.
Five of the 20 bottles registered above 15 percent, and we rejected four of these, including highly praised wines from Herman Story, Torrin and Terry Hoage Vineyard. Only the 2013 Villa Creek Garnacha from Paso Robles made our Top 10 at No. 9, and that was despite some heat from its 15.2 alcohol.
Were we overly sensitive to alcohol? I don’t think so. High alcohol can often make a wine feel thick, and it can convey the impression of sweetness even if a wine is dry. Nonetheless, grenache tends to make big wines, and some of our favorites were anything but small.
Our No. 2 bottle, the 2013 A Tribute to Grace from Shake Ridge Ranch in Amador County, was 14.7 alcohol. While rich and fruity, it was also fine, with a silky texture and elegant floral and raspberry flavors.
No. 3 was Bonny Doon’s 2014 Clos de Gilroy, a perhaps outdated moniker as the grapes no longer come from the vicinity of Gilroy, Calif., but from Monterey County, to the south. I have always liked this wine. The ’14 was dark-fruited and still a bit tannic, with a delicious earthy minerality at 14.5 percent alcohol. It was also our best value, at $20.
Our top bottle, the 2014 Neyers Vineyards from Rossi Ranch in Sonoma Valley, was also a great value, at $33. This wine, just 13.6 alcohol, was fresh, floral and beautifully balanced with a spine of minerality and luscious flavors of red fruit.
Tasting California Grenache
â â â NEYERS SONOMA VALLEY GRENACHE ROSSI RANCH 2014$33
Fresh, floral, balanced and delicious, with flavors of red fruit and a strong vein of earthy minerality.
â â â A TRIBUTE TO GRACE SIERRA FOOTHILLS GRENACHE SHAKE RIDGE RANCH 2013 $79
Elegant and silky, with rich, high-toned flavors of raspberries and cherries.
Best Value: â â ½ BONNY DOON CLOS DE GILROY MONTEREY COUNTY GRENACHE 2014 $20
Dark and well balanced, with firm tannins and savory flavors of red fruits and earth.
â â ½ DASHE LES ENFANTS TERRIBLES DRY CREEK VALLEY GRENACHE 2015 $25
Somewhat simple but fresh, floral and crunchy, with flavors of plums and spices.
â â ½ FOG MONSTER AMADOR COUNTY GRENACHE 2012 $49
Fresh, lively and complex, with well-balanced flavors of red fruit, earth and a touch of citrus.
â â ½ PAX PASO ROBLES JAMES BERRY VINEYARD RED WINE 2012 $40
Juicy, earthy and balanced, with aromas and flavors of flowers and juicy red fruits.
Many years ago at a dinner party near Toulouse in southwest France, I enjoyed a dish that has become a persistent memory. It was a simple casserole of chicken cooked with bunches of chasselas grapes, a white varietal generally unavailable in the United States and best known in Switzerland, where it’s called fendant. In the Toulouse region, bunches of chasselas are more likely to show up in a bowl of fruit than in a glass of wine. I turned to that dish to serve with the often earthy, grapey California grenache wines. I based my recipe on poulet au vinaigre, chicken in vinegar sauce, and added red seedless grapes instead of chasselas. I also swapped out the bit of tomato in the classic dish for a final gloss of syrupy balsamic vinegar, the better to complement the grenache. One word of advice: When buying the grapes, make sure that they are sweet and that the stems are green, an indication of freshness.