You Say Garnacha, I Say Grenache

Winemakers and trade members debate the variety's identity, and potential in California

by Jim Gordon
More than 35,000 acres of Garnacha grow in the Carinena region of Spain. California has 6,500 acres of the variety.

Napa, Calif.—It’s the "G" in GSM, the soul of Châteauneuf-du-Pape and the pride of Priorat. California grows it on more than 6,000 acres, and it’s well-suited to the state’s long growing season and abundant sunshine. Yet U.S. consumers rarely ask for it and the wine trade disagrees on how to sell it. Meet Grenache, AKA Garnacha.

The ambitiously titled Global Garnacha Summit this week gave wine trade members and winemakers a forum to learn about this important international grape variety. Producers from Spain’s region of Carinena sponsored the one-day conference and trade tasting with the support of The Somm Journal in hopes that Garnacha, as they spell it in Spain, is ready for its moment in the spotlight.

“In California you have a gift, a gift for Garnacha,” said speaker Pedro Ballesteros Torres, a Master of Wine, writer and educator from Spain. “You have a very long day, a long season and lots of sun. So, what do you do? You plant Pinot Noir everywhere.”

Traits tailored for California
Torres was joking, but a list of Grenache’s salient traits in terms of viticulture and winemaking given by speaker Bob Bath, an educator at The Culinary Institute of America, Greystone, does seem well-tailored for California:
- medium to large clusters
- small to medium berries
- early budding, late ripening
- high sugar, moderate acidity
- high vigor in clay soils, low vigor in sandy soils
- drought resistant
- enjoys hot/dry climates
- susceptible to downy mildew
- prefers head training to vertical shoot positioning.

Known in France and the United States as a Rhône variety, Grenache (or Grenache Noir) has been documented in Spain as Garnacha since 1479, in Sardinia, where it’s called Cannonau, since 1549 and in France since 1780, according to Bath’s research.

The variety first came to California in 1850 and today grows on 6,500 acres, largely in the southern San Joaquin Valley counties of Fresno, Madera and Tulare. Wineries crushed 38,000 tons in 2017, making it the tenth largest producing red grape variety.

The statewide weighted average price was $735, but it earned an average of $1,784 in the Sierra Foothills region, $3,077 in Sonoma County and $4,165 in Napa County, according to the California Grape Crush Report.

California’s acreage was three to four times larger a generation ago, when Grenache went into mass produced table wines and inexpensive rosés.

Today varietal Grenache wines in California tend to be light in color and tannins but rich in texture and relatively high in alcohol. Yet when grown at high elevation or in low-vigor soils the wines can be much more concentrated, as on the hillsides of the Priorat region of Spain and the stone-strewn vineyards of Chateauneuf-du-Pape in France.

Gregory Peck or Daniel Day Lewis
Bath, like Torres, used a Pinot Noir comparison to describe the personality of Grenache wines. He said that if Pinot Noir was an actor it would be Gregory Peck or Cary Grant, “But Garnacha is like Daniel Day Lewis. In every role he plays he becomes that role.”

Torres said that Grenache is particularly suited to expressing terroir. “Grenache is so generous that it will never tell you I am Grenache. It will tell you hey I come from this place.”

The event took place at the CIA at Copia in downtown Napa. Three California winemakers were on a panel of six that led a tasting of 10 Grenache wines from Spain, France, California and Australia. The senior assistant winemaker at Tablas Creek in Paso Robles, Calif., Chelsea Franchi, said that despite the shrinking acreage of Grenache, the prospects for increasing quality are good. “The poor clones are being pulled out, and people are planting it in areas where it will make really good wines.”

Tablas Creek is well known for importing and sharing French vine selections from Château de Beaucastel including many varieties traditional in the southern Rhone. She said Tablas Creek doesn’t have a strong preference among the French clones of Grenache and noted that the traditional American clone does very well on the property.

Franchi said Tablas Creek struggles with both Grenache Noir and Grenache Blanc in native fermentations, which tend to go very slowly and have caused the winery to delay bottling several times.

Angela Osborne of Grace Wine Company makes only Grenache, and buys from nine different growers around the state. Her example was a 2015 Shake Ridge Ranch bottling from Amador County.

A winemaker who was among the first “Rhône Rangers” in California, Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon, has been making Grenache since 1984 when his red blend Cigare Volante made its debut. He showed a 100% Grenache wine made from two-year-old vines at his Popelouchum property near San Juan Batista on the Central Coast. He described the wine as “Burgundian” and acknowledged that Grenache needs a long season but can make excellent wines in a cool climate, too.

Name that grape
The choice of name for the grape variety was one topic taken up during a second panel discussion and tasting consisting of sommeliers and retailers. Bath said that Spain appears to have won the debate over where the grape variety originated. Master sommelier Emmanuel Kemiji who makes Garnacha in Spain at his property Clos Pissarra, said simply, “It’s a Spanish grape, so call it Garnacha.”

Several panelists and trade members in the audience argued that Pinot Gris/Grigio and Syrah/Shiraz have shown that consumers eventually understand the dual naming conventions. But co-owner Stevie Stacionis of Bay Grape wine shop in Oakland, Calif., countered, “I think you have to choose one, and for the very chic-sounding name I think you have to go with Grenache.”

Yet Stacionis added, “If someone comes in and says they want Grenache I don’t know what they mean by that,” due to the wide range of styles coming from different countries and producers. The positive aspect of that diversity, she said, is that she can find a Grenache to suit every taste.

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