Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Truly great old-vine Grenache for Pinot Noir lovers

Like growing grapes on the beach: Yangarra's High Sands vineyard. Courtesy Drinkster
Grenache is a wine I rarely order. To me, when it's good, it's meh. I like Grenache rosé, but too often I find varietal Grenache red wine to be high-alcohol fruit punch: nothing wrong with it, but I can drink better.

When Grenache is great, though, it's phenomenal. It's like a great Pinot Noir in that it's medium-bodied, not overpowering, but with pretty fruit and good complexity. Ordinary Grenache is a change-of-pace wine for fans of Zinfandel and Shiraz. Great Grenache is very rare, but it's special.

"John Alban told me, 'Everybody wants to make Pinot Noir. It's an overindulged princess'," said Richard Betts MS, who sold some other wine projects to buy an old Grenache vineyard.

In contrast, great Grenache is a commoner who grows up to be queen. I'll never forget the first time I had Château Rayas. I didn't know Grenache could be that good. But Rayas averages $680 a bottle on Wine-Searcher, and that price is actually going up with each new release.

The price for Rayas gives a little context for the five outstanding Grenaches I'm about to recommend.

These are high-end wines from old vines on special soils. In one case, the vines are believed to be the oldest Grenache vines in the world. They're in Australia, where the grape was first planted in 1838 on soils so sandy that phylloxera, the plague of old vines everywhere, could never get a foothold.

Wine Australia held a tasting in San Francisco last month of 12 special Grenaches from McLaren Vale, where some grow on soil so sandy that it supports almost nothing else but rye grass, and Barossa Valley, where 19th century growers planted Grenache on soils to poor to support Shiraz.

With apologies to Barossa Valley, one thing that was clear is that McLaren Vale is really special for Grenache, whereas in warmer Barossa it's just interesting because the vines are old. Barossa does have more of them: 150 hectares of vines at least 70 years old, compared to 70 such hectares in McLaren Vale.

None of these old vines in either region are commercially sensible. Growers who wanted to make money pulled out the Grenache and replanted with Cabernet or Chardonnay years ago. Yangarra gets 1/2 ton of grapes per acre from its "High Sands" Grenache vines.

"The vineyards that are left are because of the stubbornness of the growers, which is why the wine has a soul," said Yangarra winemaker Pete Fraser.

Fraser said Grenache needs to be treated delicately, like Pinot Noir, but usually it's not.

"(South African winemaker) Eben Sadie said, 'We make Grenache more like you steep a tea than like you extract a coffee'," Frasers said. "It's not one of those varieties that's going to get sabotaged by big wine companies. They don't know what to do with it."

The following five wines are really special: some of the best Grenache you'll ever have outside of Château Rayas. They're not cheap, but you can buy one bottle of all five for less than half the price of one bottle of Rayas' current release.

S.C. Pannell "Smart Vineyard" McLaren Vale Grenache 2017
Stephen Pannell was chief winemaker at Hardy's, a big operation, before striking out on his own in 2014. The grapes are from a vineyard that 85-year-old Bernard Smart has farmed all his life, but some of the vines are older than he is. The wine is delightful and reminded me of Rayas, with its lighter body, red berries and spiciness. Distinctively Grenache but catnip for Pinot Noir fans. (Buy it here.)

Yangarra "High Sands" McLaren Vale Grenache 2015
Jackson Family Wines bought Yangarra in 2001, when the Parker-driven fuss about Australian wines was at its peak here (pre-Yellow Tail). They didn't sell it when the market turned down and the vines have just been getting more gnarly the whole time. This biodynamically farmed vineyard is next door to the Smart Vineyard; it's a small, special area. Very nice balance on this wine, which offers red berry fruit and becomes more perfumey with air. Wish I could have spent an evening with it. (Buy it here.)

Ochota Barrels "Sense of Compression" McLaren Vale Grenache 2017
Taras Ochota was already an interesting winemaker with a taste for independent music; one of his Grenaches is named after Fugazi. Then he met Maynard Keenan, the lead singer for Tool and a very hands-on winemaker in Arizona, and this joint project was born. It looks like a natural wine -- it's cloudy, funky and not fruit-driven -- but in fact it's very unnatural. It's 99 percent Grenache with 1 percent Gewurztraminer marc that was frozen after being pressed and then dropped into the fermenting Grenache. It's an oddity; a somm wine, with initial spiciness, some red berries and gamy notes. I liked it, and you should be able to tell from the description whether you would as well. (Can't help wondering what these grapes would have tasted like without the intervention, though.) (Buy it here.)

Hickinbotham "Elder Hill" McLaren Vale Grenache 2016
Another Jackson Family Wines-owned property which they're probably just waiting for the world to appreciate. This wine is actually overseen by winemaker Christopher Carpenter, whose main job is making some of Jackson Family's highest-end California Cabernets (Cardinale, Lokoya.) To be honest, that doesn't sound like the right resume for making a great old-vine Grenache, and the winery web page boasts Wine Advocate scores for all the wines on it -- and this wine isn't on it. I'm not sure what's up with that; I hope they're not planting on grafting these vines (also right near the Yangarra and Smart vineyards) over to Cabernet so they can more effectively extract dense 97-point flavors. Grab the wine while you still can. It's light-bodied, with red currants and berries and some surprising tannin on the finish that means you might want to hold onto it for a bit. (Buy it here.)

Cirillo "1850" Barossa Valley Grenache 2012

These are believed to be the oldest Grenache vines in the world. Some were actually planted in 1848. The vines stand as high as 6 feet and their roots reach deep under the sandy soil to limestone and clay far beneath. The grapes are picked fairly ripe and it shows in the intense initial rush of flavors. Yet the wine is still medium-bodied and, while it has more than enough berry fruit, it's the spicy and savory flavors that make it interesting. (Buy it here.)

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Zzzz said...

I don't know where you're finding your poor Grenaches but it's one of my favorite grapes and it's made in a pile of regions around the world, even in the SF Bay Area as I remember the Grenache from Broc Cellars being quite solid.

And it's not just old vines that make the best Grenache wines. Even younger it does well as, like any grape, it's a matter of understand the specifics of that grape.


Peter Morrell said...

Agreed! I adore well made Grenache and am having a blast drinking exquisite, everyday/affordable Grenache from Spain, Languedoc-Roussillon and the Cotes du Rhone. They are definitely out there to be found. Cheers! Peter