Grenache, (also known as Grenache Noir, to distinguish it from its white counterpart Grenache Blanc) is the most widely planted grape in the southern Rhône Valley, and the second most widely planted grape world-wide. It is most often blended (with Syrah and Mourvèdre in France and Australia, and with Tempranillo in Rioja), but reaches its peak in the wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, where it comprises 70% of the appellation’s acreage.
Grenache appears to have originated in Spain, most likely in the northern province of Aragon, and ampelographers believe that Grenache was the foundation of Aragon’s excellent vin rouge du pays. From Aragon, it spread throughout the vineyards of Spain and the Mediterranean in conjunction with the reach of the kingdom of Aragon, which at times included Roussillon and Sardinia. By the early 18th century, the varietal had expanded into Languedoc and Provence.
The phylloxera epidemic of the late 19th century indirectly increased European plantings of Grenache. In Rioja, for example, vineyards were replanted not with the native varietals, but with the hardy, easy to graft Grenache. A similar trend occurred in southern France, as the percentage of Grenache plantings after the phylloxera infestation increased significantly, replacing the previously abundant Mourvèdre.
Grenache was brought to California in the 1860s, where its erect carriage, vigor and resistance to drought made it a popular planting choice. It came to occupy second place in vineyard planting after Carignan and was an element in wine producers’ branded field blends. Unfortunately, this usage encouraged growers to select cuttings from the most productive vines, increasing grape production but reducing the overall quality of the vine stock. In recent years, Grenache plantings in California have declined as the demand for bulk wine in the Central Valley has shifted toward Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir; currently there are 4,500 acres planted in California.
However, while overall Grenache acreage has declined (largely low quality plantings in the Central Valley), the varietal has at the same time undergone something of a resurgence in popularity, with more than 1000 new acres planted in the last 15 years in high quality coastal appellations, the greatest number concentrated in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties.
Grenache at Tablas Creek
When we began Tablas Creek Vineyard in 1990, we were not completely satisfied with the quality of California Grenache vines. As a result, we imported our Grenache Noir cuttings (along with its close cousin, Grenache Blanc) from France, where Jacques Perrin at Château de Beaucastel had worked tirelessly to regenerate high quality Grenache vines. Still, the Perrins feel that vine age is essential in making top quality Grenache.
So, it should perhaps have been unsurprising to us that it took us longer to become happy with our Grenache than than with any of our other varietals. Our initial expectations were that we would produce wines that were one-third or more Grenache, and we planted the vineyard accordingly. However, the early harvests of Grenache showed little of the depth that we wanted, and had aggressive front-palate tannins that were in striking contrast to the smoothness of Mourvedre and Syrah. It was only beginning in the 2005 vintage that we have been really happy with the variety's performance, and only since 2006 that we've felt Grenache balanced enough to produce it as a varietal wine.
The percentage of Grenache in our Esprit de Tablas has ranged between 21% (in 2012) and 35% (in 2014), and typically forms the second- or third-largest percentage, after Mourvedre and sometimes Syrah.
Grenache in the Vineyard and Cellar
Grenache is a vigorous variety with upright shoots that lends itself to “gobelet” or “head training”; it is widely cultivated in this manner in France and in Spain. At Tablas Creek, our newer Grenache plantings are mostly head trained; elsewhere on the vineyard, the varietal is cultivated in double cordon fashion with six fruiting canes, each with two buds. The varietal’s vigor gives it the potential to be a heavy producer. Despite our shoot thinning, we are usually obliged to fruit-prune during the growing seasons to keep the bunch count to ten or twelve clusters per vine. This practice means that we harvest approximately three tons of fruit per acre of vines.
Grenache ripens in the middle of the ripening cycle, after Syrah but before Counoise and Mourvedre. At harvest, it is notable for its high acidity even at relatively high sugar levels. In a typical year, we would begin to harvest Grenache at the end of September and finish in mid-October.
In the cellar, we typically ferment Grenache in closed stainless steel fermenters, to counteract Grenache's tendency toward oxidation. We avoid small 60-gallon barrels for Grenache for the same reason, and prefer to age Grenache-based wines in 1200-gallon oak foudres, whose thicker oak staves permit less oxygen to penetrate the wine.
Flavors and Aromas
Grenache produces wines with high concentrations of fruit, tannin, and acids. Its flavors are most typically currant, cherry, and raisin, and its aromas are of black pepper, menthol, and licorice. Although many California Grenache clones produce simple, fruity wines which tend to be pale in color, our French clones produce brilliant ruby red wines which are heady in alcohol (usually 15% or higher), and intensely fruity and fat.
For our signature Esprit de Tablas, Grenache is typically our #2 varietal (behind Mourvèdre and slightly ahead of Syrah) and opens up those more closed, reductive varieties. The varietal can thrive in a lead role in a fruity, forward wine as in our Grenache-based Côtes de Tablas. We have also produced a varietal Grenache many years since 2006.
This article originally appeared in one of our newsletters. Each newsletter, we spotlight the history and characteristics of one of our Rhone varietals. You can sign up for our mailing list.
You can go back to the summaries of the different Rhône grape varietals.