“Grenache has basically been disregarded for the last century,” said Robert M. Parker, Jr. on his recent visit to Napa where he conducted a tasting of 14 examples of the varietal with several dozen wine lovers at the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena.
The second annual guided tasting hosted by Parker to benefit a scholarship fund in his name to the recently opened Rudd Center for Wine Studies at the CIA, the event was an opportunity for Parker to talk about and taste some of the finest examples he knows of a varietal that he counts among his personal favorites.
Grenache is the second most planted varietal in the world, and occupies more acreage than any other grape in Spain, to where many experts trace its origins. Until 1970 it was also the number one planted varietal in Australia, though much has been replaced by Shiraz in recent decades. It is perhaps drunk most often as a major component to the wines of the southern Rhone Valley in France, in particular as part of the 14-or-so varietal blend of Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Despite its prominence in this area, as well as in Spain just by sheer acreage, Parker maintains that it is consistently underrated and under recognized both as a wine that can have some of the complexity and expressiveness of good Burgundy, as well as being a fabulous match for food.
“I find myself buying more and more Grenache based wines as I get older,” says Parker, who says he is drinking younger and younger wines because he doesn’t have the time to wait for current vintages of Bordeaux, for instance, to age properly. Because of its sensitivity to light and air, says Parker, he thinks Grenache based wines are best in the first 10 years of their life, though he notes that some can last much longer.
Traditionally, and even currently, many Grenache based wines are vinified and aged without any use of new oak. This is partially why many Grenache based wines are so great with food, says Parker, who admits that the use of new French oak dramatically limits a wines ability to match different types of food. “These days we are eating more aromatic foods, with different and varied flavors, and you need a delicate aromatic wine to match them,” says Parker, “and Grenache with its nice fruit core and light tannins is a perfect candidate.”
Like the previous tasting, Parker selected 14 different wines representing different styles of the varietal, and the best examples of what people were doing with the grape around the world. Over the course of two hours he chatted with the crowd and tasted through the wines, answering and asking questions of the audience.
1998 Chateau Rayas “Reserve” Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Rhone Valley, France
Showing its age, this wine is a medium cinnabar color in the glass, with definite brick highlights on the rim and a rich nose of roasted figs, leather, anise and dried herbs. In the mouth it was delightfully spicy with very delicate tannins enveloping flavors of cassis, fennel, figs, and hints of the raspberries that were likely the dominant fruit when it was younger. The wine finishes nicely and elegantly. Despite showing some age, this was an excellent wine. 100% Grenache from old vines planted in sandy clay soil. Arguably the most famous domaine in the Southern Rhone. Aged in large “mushroom covered — an oenological nightmare” ancient oak foudres. 2000 cases produced. Score: 9/9.5. Cost: $325. Where to buy?
2001 M. Chapoutier “Barbe Rac” Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Rhone Valley, France
A nice medium ruby color in the glass, with scarlet highlights, this wine had an amazingly perfumed nose, with floral notes mixing with leather and red fruit. In the mouth it is very soft and velvety, with complex flavors of raspberry, cherries, leather, and some of the flinty stony quality of a nice aged Bordeaux. The wine is very well balanced with good acid and very nice structured tannins that support a very long finish. 100% Grenache from 101 year-old vines. 600 cases produced. Aged in large, neutral oak foudres. Score: 9.5. Cost: $80. Where to buy?
2003 Beckmen “Purisima Mountain” Grenache, Santa Ynez Valley, California
Deep, dark purple in color, this wine has a sweet candied nose of alpine strawberries, blueberries, and cherries. In the mouth it is slippery with glycerin and surprisingly spicy flavors of blueberry and raspberry given the nose. Very fruit driven, though thankfully it is not over extracted. The wine finishes strong, though with just a hint of alcoholic heat. 80% Grenache aged in neutral oak, 20% Syrah aged in new oak. Score: 9.5. Cost: $30. Where to buy?
2003 Clarendon Hills “Kangarilla” Grenache, Clarendon, Australia
Dark garnet in color, this wine has an unusual nose of black plums, tobacco, licorice, and dirt. In the mouth it has a fantastic brooding quality to its flavors, balancing black raspberries, black tea, and herbs on very light tannins. The wine has a lovely, long finish. 100% Grenache from old “bush vines.” Aged in old neutral French oak barrels.. Score: 9.5. Cost: $50. Where to buy?
2003 Roger Sabon “Prestige” Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Rhone Valley, France
Medium garnet in color with hints of purple, this wine is the best possible example of the garrigue aroma I’ve ever encountered. The damn thing smells just like an incredible herb garden filled with rosemary, thyme, lavender, violets, oregano, all mixed with cassis fruit. In the mouth it is incredibly full and round with primary flavors of raspberries, leather, that amazing medley of fresh mixed herbs, though now with more dominant lavender flavors. Excellent acidity, brightness, and supportive complex tannins make for a sustained, satisfying finish. Outstanding. Aged in old oak foudres. 1000 cases produced. Score: 10. Cost: $45. Where to buy?
2003 Clos des Papes Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Rhone Valley, France
Medium garnet in the glass this wine has a fruity nose of alpine strawberry, honey, and other red fruits. In the mouth it has soft tannins and feels thick and silky with glycerin. Its primary flavors are of plums, cherries, and fresh herbs, that last through to a very long finish. 40 year-old vines. Aged in old oak foudres. One of the first estates to bottle wine in the southern Rhone under an estate label. Score: 9/9.5. Cost: $80. Where to buy?
2003 Domaine Pierre Usseglio “Cuvee de Mon Aieul,” Rhone Valley, France
A dark garnet in the glass, this wine has a juicy nose of plum, and ripe, grapey aromas. In the mouth it is surprisingly acidic, with spicy flavors of dark plum and some floral notes. The tannins are very light and recede quickly on the moderate finish. 95% destemmed Grenache, 5% Syrah from 75-90 year-old vines. Aged 12 months in tank (60%) and old oak barrels (40%). Score: 9/9.5. Cost: $90. Where to buy?
2003 Domaine de la Janasse Chateauneuf-du-Pape Vielles Vignes, Rhone Valley, France
Very dark garnet in color, this wine has a nose of dark black fruit: plums, mulberries, and blackberries mixed with some high notes of lavender and other floral elements. On the tongue it has an excellent mouthfeel with bright plum flavors, and sweet, smooth tannins that taper off beautifully in the long finish. 80% Grenache from 60-100 year-old vines aged in old oak foudres. 20% Syrah and Mourvedre aged in new oak. Score: 9.5. Cost: $100 . Where to buy?
2003 Domaine Grand Veneur “Les Origines” Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Rhone Valley, France
A nearly opaque dark garnet color in the glass, this wine has a very herbal nose that smells sumptuous and rich with plum and raspberry fruit. In the mouth it is very well balanced with flavors of raspberry, cassis, and plum supported by sweet tannins. Unfortunately, the wine finished a bit hot for my tastes, though with a nice dryness. 65% Grenache, 25% Syrah and Mourvedre. Score: 9/9.5. Cost: $40. Where to buy?
2004 Greenock Creek “Cornerstone” Grenache, Barossa Valley, Australia
This young wine is nearly opaque and garnet in color. Its nose has just a slight horsiness to it, with a playful mix of raspberry and eucalyptus aromas. In the mouth it has a nice mouthfeel with pleasant fruit flavors of raspberry, plum, and hints of strawberry. Moderate finish. 40-50 year-old vines grown in red clay. 250 cases produced.Score: 9/9.5. Cost: $60. The 2004 is not yet available but the 2003 Can be purchased online.
2002 Bodegas Alto Moncayo “Aquilon” Grenache, Campo de Borja, Spain
A thick deep dark garnet color in the glass, this wine has a powerful nose of sweet oak and vanilla wrapped around a core of red fruit aromas. In the mouth it is dominated by sweet oak, Bordeaux-like flavors of flint and graphite, and slightly smoky flavors of plum. It has thick tannins and a slightly hot finish. from 50-60 year-old hillside vines planted in schist. Aged 16 months in 100% new oak (50% American) Score: 9. Cost: $115. Where to buy?
2002 Torbreck “Les Amis” Grenache, Barossa Valley, Australia
An opaque dark purple in the glass, this wine has a thick, perfumed nose of cassis and floral notes. In the mouth it is dark with cassis flavors mixed with minty notes and a darkness of earth and stony notes and subtle complex flavors that give it a nice depth and resonance. Light tannins provide structure and a nice finish. This is at once a brash but also elusive wine that I think will be very interesting in a few years. Made from vines planted in 1901. 100% Grenache, aged 18 months in 100% new French oak. Score: 9.5/10. Cost: $185. Where to buy?
2003 Alban “Estate Vineyards” Grenache, Edna Valley, California
The darkest of the group, this deep garnet colored wine has one of the most incredibly perfumed noses I have ever experienced on a wine. It leaps out of the glass with cassis, floral, and plum aromas that instantly trigger salivation. In the mouth it has a nice acidity that supports a rich sumptuous medley of dark concentrated berry flavors that are mixed with plums and floral notes underscored by a hint of mustiness that is very pleasing. The wine just goes on and on and on in the finish. Wow. Astoundingly low yields of .18 tons per acre. Vines were grafted with cuttings from Chateau Rayas, 75% Grenache, 25% Syrah. Aged in 75% new oak for 18 months. 25 cases produced. Score: 10. Cost: $45. Unfortunately this wine is impossible to buy online.
2000 Sine Qua Non “Incognito” Grenache, (Ventura) California
A medium garnet color with hints of coffee color at the rim, this wine has a very distinctive nose, that incorporates herbs, cherries, and plums, with a slight Madeira note in there somewhere. In the mouth it has a nice silky body and surprising cola and plum flavors that might cause someone to mistake it for an aged Cabernet. These flavors are joined by raspberry flavors and a caramel note which made me wonder if the wine was either just slightly cooked, or showing a bit of age. The finish was long, though with a hint of alcoholic heat. This is a slightly odd, but nonetheless compelling wine. 95% Grenache, 5% Syrah. Aged for 20 months in 65-70% new oak barrels. Score: 9.5. Cost: $60. Unfortunately this wine is impossible to buy online.
I certainly wasn’t as impressed with this group of wines as I was with the Syrahs selected for last year’s tasting. Granted, all of these wines were excellent, but there were only a couple that blew me away. It was a treat to taste the Alban Grenache, of which only 300 bottles are made each year as well as the Sine Qua Non, since both are basically impossible to get. I would, however, have liked to see more Spanish wines on the list.
The wines, with the exception of the Rayas, the Sine Qua Non, and the Chapoutier, were all very young, and many were from 2003, a year of devastating heat in France. Parker correctly points out that Grenache is unusually heat resistant as a varietal, and that those producers who knew what they were doing made some extraordinary wines in 2003, however it might have been nice to compare some of the 2003’s with older vintages.
In all, it was an excellent tasting, if only for the opportunity to hear Parker talk about wine, which is an extremely different experience from reading his writing. When he talks, he’s got stories to tell, of Jacques Reynaud hiding from him in the bushes of a drainage ditch, or of John and Lorraine Alban eking out tiny clusters of grapes from a few vines to make their “horribly unprofitable” Grenache because they love it. It’s these stories, as much as the wines, that make for a great time.