Just ask Rich Gorpin, the founder and winemaker at Lavender Ridge Vineyard in Murphys, about Grenache, and he will quickly refer to it as the Pinot Noir of the foothills.
“It’s just as elegant, but more suitable for our climate here,” he said.
Pinot Noir is a red varietal that has grown in popularity since the movie “Sideways” a decade ago put it on the big wine map. But it’s a fickle grape that performs best in certain soils and cool climates. Lately it seems to be going through an identity crisis, as big producers today blend darker, fruiter grapes into their versions of the wine.
Judging by the amount of Pinot Noir grown in the Gold Country, it’s easy to see that its challenges outweigh the chances of success. Some local winemakers might say there are a few spots with microclimate conditions that may produce good Pinot fruit, but consistency is problematic.
Enter Grenache, the foothills’ answer to Pinot Noir.
“Grenache is one of the best varietals for the Sierra Nevada foothills,” said Bill Easton, winemaker and owner of Terre Rouge Winery in the Shenandoah Valley of Amador County. “It thrives at higher, cooler elevations in granitic soils. It is a warmer climate Pinot Noir-like grape that requires a lighter hand in the cellar to create finesse. It is a great blender with Mourvedre and Syrah.”
Grenache is the most important grape and the biggest player in the southern Rhone Valley in France, where it produces expressive red wines. Along with its neighbor Spain, where the grape is called Grenacha, the style tends to be more powerful. Some of the oldest vineyards in Spain are made up of low-yield Grenacha, which leads to darker wines than we might see in foothill examples.
“From the grower’s perspective, Grenache is an extremely vigorous vine,” says Nathan Vader, winemaker at Vina Moda Wines in Murphys. “Yields can be upwards of 5 tons in the foothills, which are usually no more than 3 tons for most varietals. From a winemaker’s perspective, you need to work with your growers to have rigorous pruning and fruit thinning to keep the yield closer to 3 tons per acre.”
He went to say there are other challenges associated with Grenache.
“To start with, it takes the longest to sort through, and is the hardest on our crew. It needs good wood and accepts it well. It is extremely susceptible to Brettanomyces, or ‘Brett,’ (a yeast that can spoil wines), so the barrel program needs to be clean. I am a fan of quality American oak when it comes to Sierra foothills Grenache. I try to achieve layers, and not just have a jammy wine.”
Like the way French winemakers approach Grenache, a number of Mother Lode winemakers use the wine as a blender.
“It has a strong red tone that carries into all the blends I use it in,” said Ron Pieretti, winemaker and founder of Prospect 772 Winery in Calaveras County. “Our Grenache Syrah blend is called the Brat, and it carries that name because Grenache doesn’t really like to be managed. We try to let it do what it’s going to do and manage the outcomes. The Sierra foothills are a great place to grow Grenache with its hot summers and cooler fall months, so we get a chance to really get those tannins to soften up.”
One of the earliest advocates of Grenache in California was Tablas Creek Winery in the Paso Robles area, which was responsible for bringing cuttings from the Rhone Valley to California more than 20 years ago.
“We have 1 acre of Grenache planted with the Tablas Creek clone, which produces Grenache that shows good acidity and great aromatics,” said Amador Cellars winemaker Michael Long. The Amador County producer went on to say that Grenache benefits from cooler night temperatures and aggressive fruit thinning. “And we use no new oak in our barrel aging in order preserve texture and freshness of fruit.”
“Grenache’s greatest strength as a varietal is its incredible and unique versatility,” echoed Dick Cooper at Cooper Vineyards in Amador, who makes Grenache in three different ways. He makes an award-winning dry summertime Rose, a full-flavored red Grenache, and then he uses it as an integral part of his premium GSM (Grenache-Syrah-Mourvedre) blend Anniversary red.
More recently, a number of foothill wine producers have found Grenache grapes to be an ideal vehicle for their Rose programs. Like Pinot Noir, its lighter color extraction and good balance makes it an ideal candidate for dry Rose production. Terrific examples and award winners include Roses from Cooper Vineyards, Lavender Ridge and Inner Sanctum Cellars.
Another aspect of the elegance of Grenache is how food friendly it is. Pieretti loves pairing Grenache and Grenache blends with hearty bean stews like ham hocks and beans or cassoulet.
Nate Vader and his wife Dre like to pair Grenache with most foods because it’s so versatile. They often pour it as an aperitif, with cheeses and a charcuterie board, or with lamb, turkey or pork dishes.
Back at Amador Cellars, Long considers Grenache a versatile food-pairing wine and, like the French, finds it a great companion with lamb dishes. But he was also surprised to recently find it works with salads, as long as the dressing is light on vinegar.
Nate Vader had one more thought on the Pinot Noir comparison with Grenache: “I’ve always considered Grenache to be Pinot Noir on steroids. I work with them both, and I find that to be very fitting.”
With temperatures hitting the perfect patio comfort range, consider beefing up on Grenache and skip the steroid-deprived Pinot Noir.