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The Lighter Side of Grenache

by Deanna Gonnella
October 3, 2018

Chances are at some point, possibly after a few glasses of wine, you’ve played the game Marry, Shag or Kill. Someone will give you the names of three people and you are put on the spot to choose their fate...all hypothetical, of course.

Play that same game with grape varieties. Always marry gamay—it’s delicate, pretty, easy to get along with and comes from a good family (pinot noir is its cousin). Shag the cabernet from Bordeaux—mysterious, maybe a little too old for you but indulgent. And always kill grenache.

For years, I thought the “g” in grenache stood for goopy and grapey. I associated the variety with alcoholic wines that tasted like strawberry juice. There wasn’t a bottle that could change my mind and I often just avoided trying to find an exception to this rule I created, that is, until “wine number 30” came into my life.

At Wine & Spirits, we taste wines blind. We are given the vintage, appellation and variety but the producer, price and other information that may sway our decision to recommend it remains a mystery. One day, I was handed a glass of wine with the number 30 written in dry-erase marker on the bottom of the glass. The wine was pure silk, red fruited and mineral, with a brambly acidity.

I was shocked to learn that it was a garnacha from the Priorat panel. The producer, however, was less of a shock: Terroir al Limit. I had met winemaker Dominik Huber at our Top 100 event in San Francisco. He was pouring his wines next to the jamón Ibérico carving station and I was taken by his white Priorat, Pedra de Guix. Being the grenache hater that I was, I avoided his reds and moved on to the next producer.

“What sandy soil does give to the wine are high-toned aromatics, the pretty things that play in the alto and the soprano and create all of the seduction and allure.” —Richard Betts
I didn’t bother to find out that his garnacha, Les Manyes, is grown in clay and limestone soils at extreme elevation, 2,600 feet. The direct sunlight, temperature shifts and excellent drainage yield a wine that comes in around 13 percent alcohol— unusually low for Priorat and grenache.

This wine had me thinking, where there is one, maybe there are more. So I set out to find other grenaches that would break my bias. I found three—and aside from Château Rayas being the inspiration for all three, they vary greatly in terms of location, viticulture and winemaking practices.

My next “ah-ha” moment with grenache came from Château Maris. I had fallen in love with the Brama bottling, a rich and spicy grenache gris that finishes with a clean note of ginger—fresh ginger-root that’s still young and pink. When the La Livinière Las Combes Grenache came through the office, I jumped at the chance to try it. Winemaker Robert Eden explained, “We have some great old-vine grenache at Château Maris, planted as bush vines, so it was always in my mind to make this plot into something special.” His 2013 vintage is meaty with gritty tannins, lifted by black-cherry freshness. Planted at 820 feet in elevation, the grapes are slightly protected from northwest winds but high and close enough to mountain ranges to take advantage of cool nights during the ripening period.

Another came from Richard Betts and Carla Rzeszewski, two sommeliers turned winemakers, who saw an opportunity with grenache. “Château Rayas exists in a tiny buttonhole of sand within Châteauneuf-du-Pape,” says Betts. So when they found ancient vines growing in pure, fine beach-like sand in Barossa’s Vine Vale district, they took the plunge and settled in Australia.

“We love sand for what it takes as much as for what it gives,” Betts told me. “Sandy soils do not give much color to wine, which is just fine because you neither taste nor smell color. What sandy soil does give to the wine, however, are high-toned aromatics, the pretty things that play in the alto and the soprano and create all of the seduction and allure. The sand comes from the erosion of the Barossa Ranges and Eden Valley, from soils such as granite and quartzite, deposited in Vine Vale via gullies that drain out of the hills.”

The gullies bring evening winds, called the Vine Vale Nurse. “These winds create a big diurnal shift, cooling the vineyards at night and preserving acidity and freshness. In the summer, we might reach 100 degrees (F) on a few select days, but because of the wind you can also find yourself shivering in fifty-degree nights,” says Betts.

He finds the sandy soils give a light-bodied wine with silken textures; indeed, the 2016 Sucette is light, frisky and refreshing, with sour cherry and crunchy strawberry flavors.

Taras Ochota also happened upon grenache in Australia. “I started making the Fugazi Vineyard in 2008, after driving past it for years on my way to my favorite surf spot. Imagine it’s midsummer, dry, a record heat wave, and these old dry-grown vines were bright green, healthy and photosynthesizing beautifully even though other vineyards nearby were yellowing and dropping leaves,” Ochota told me. “I would pull over and taste these small, intense, acid-driven berries that seemed to resemble gamay in a more red-bullet intense mode… about a month before grenache was usually picked by other wine- makers in the area.”

Year after year, Taras and his wife, Amber, turn out a bright, floral and complex single-vineyard grenache from those old vines in Blewitt Springs. It’s the cooler part of McLaren Vale, creating a link between the higher Clarendon hills and the ocean, about three miles away.

Carla Rza Betts, An Approach to Relaxation Carla Rza Betts, An Approach to Relaxation
Ochota credits the finely grained tannins to the ironstone soil. “These twisted bush vines have been dry-grown for 71 years, so their taproot is super deep,” says Ochota. But the vineyard is not without its challenges, with a tendency toward uneven ripeness. Ochota welcomes the challenge and enjoys the layers it adds. “From snappy acid-packed forest-berry characters to the softer, fuller blue-fruit spectrum— some bunches are white, which is also cool. Less color is something I’m preferring in reds.”

“The amazing thing about grenache in this area is the incredible retention of acidity and low pH—perfect for the use of whole bunches and stalk inclusion,” he explains. “I do it all but have become extra fond of crushing and destemming then adding the stalks back. You get this amazing umami bouillon character.” I tasted Ochota’s 2017 and was both delighted and surprised by the wine’s herbaceous edge that framed its wild red-berry flavors.

Miles from goopy, my new discoveries were connected by a common thread of freshness. Whether it be from the soils, climate or winemaking techniques, each producer was able to turn out light, brisk wines with nothing overripe or heavy about them. My future relations with grenache may not be marriage, but now I am more inclined to take a sip before I decide to kill it.

Tasting Notes by W&S critics Joshua Greene, Patricio Tapia & Tara Q. Thomas

Terroir al Limit 2014 Priorat Les Manyes
Dominik Huber farms this wine in an unusual place by Priorat standards: It comes from a vineyard at 2,600 feet in altitude—one of the highest in the region—on red clay soil rather than the more celebrated slate. The result is a wine as taut as a high-tension cable, with an acidity so firm and strong that it seems to electrify the wine. Made entirely of garnacha, held in a single 1,200-liter barrel for two years before bottling, it’s rich in red fruit, spice and mineral notes, but above all it is rich in structure. A wine to drink in a decade. —P.T. (97 points, $290; Eric Solomon Selections/European Cellars, Charlotte, NC)

An Approach to Relaxation 2015 Barossa Valley Sucette Grenache
As sommeliers, Richard Betts and Carla Rzeszewski learned to identify sexy wine, and now they are making it, from ancient, own-rooted grenache vines growing in the sands of Vine Vale. They ferment it with some whole clusters, then age it in older French oak, producing a light, frisky red with flavors that seem to build vertically rather than laying out flat. The taut cherry and strawberry flavors are not particularly complex, but they are fresh and refreshing, friendly and giving. —J.G. (93 points, $55; Grand Cru Selections, NY)

Château Maris 2011 La Livinière Las Combes
From 60-year-old vines planted in a vineyard paved with large chunks of white limestone, this is grenache with verve and drive. It sings with bright red cherry flavors, tangy and fresh, while the tannins chunnel through the wine, meaty and lightly gritty, holding the flavors strong. —T.Q.T. (90 points, $24; Verity Wine Partners, NY)

Ochota Barrels 2014 McLaren Vale The Fugazi Vineyard Grenache
For this wine, Taras and Amber Ochota hand-harvest the fruit from 66-year-old vines in Blewitt Springs, allowing it a seven-day cold soak before it starts fermenting without added yeasts. They then leave the juice on the skins for 82 days before aging it in old oak barrels. In the end, they’ve captured a joyous grenache, a bright, floral red with fresh scents of roses and rosemary. The structure is more powerful than the scent might lead you to believe, sneaking up as the strawberry fruit races by, leaving a roar of tannins in its wake. Delicious now, especially if you splash it around in a decanter, this wine’s structure and energy suggest it will only gain with time in bottle. —J.G. (95 points, $80; Vine Street Imports, Mount Laurel, NJ)

This feature appears in the print edition of Fall 2018.
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