If you were at Hospice du Rhône earlier this month, you could hardly miss it. I don’t mean the huge number of people at the Grand Tasting, or the, um, unusual seminar line-up. I mean the number of bottles of varietal Grenache: 37, according to my notes, and that doesn’t count the Grenache Blancs and the Grenache rosés, never mind the dozens of wines that included some percentage of Grenache.
Assuming that there are other Grenache producers out there who did not attend Hospice du Rhône, there could be 40 to 50 bottlings out there. That’s a huge increase in a handful of years.
The last time I wrote about varietal Grenache in California for “By The Glass,” back in 2001, I found 17 of them – and I hunted hard. More than a third of them were nothing to write home about. This year, the three dozen on offer at Hospice du Rhône were all successful wines, ranging from new programs such as Tallulah’s southern Oregon version to rock-steady regulars such as Alban, Beckmen, Cedarville, and Eaglepoint.
I had dinner with Gary Eberle the night after the event was over, and mentioned all the Grenaches I had seen. We were drinking a 1998 Châteauneuf-du-Pape I had brought, one that was mostly Grenache, so it seemed a good time to raise the subject. Eberle reminded me that one of the top wines from my earlier Grenache story was his. He’s not making varietal Grenache lately, but he had several ideas about the profusion of other people bottling Grenache on its own.
“They know how to grow it now,” was his first surmise. That means vintners have gotten the message that Grenache, which was bred to produce huge crops in hot, windy places, needs a brake (not a break) in the vineyard. Otherwise a Grenache vine loads up the fruit and gives up complexity.
“They don’t need it in their Syrah now,” was his second observation. That means vintners have also gotten a lot better at making Syrah, so they don’t need to blend in Grenache to make a good wine. Now that Syrah is California’s new darling alongside Pinot Noir, producers want to have “Syrah” on the label. That means they have to use at least 75% Syrah, and they can use up to 100%. So more Grenache is now available for the same treatment: a bottle of its own.
“They are looking for something new,” was Eberle’s third theory. Eberle has been doing something new with Rhône varieties in California for 30 years, so he’s more or less an expert on this topic. If he’s right, we’ll be seeing a lot more varietal Mourvedre soon because that will be the next new thing.
“But the main thing is, it makes a heck of a nice wine,” he said. Had to agree with him there. When I was leaving, he walked me to the door. Some other guests had brought some wine from a newish Paso Robles winery called Cass, and they had left three bottles on the table in the entry way. Eberle and I looked through them, as people in the wine business always do with they see bottles under a new brand.
There was a Viognier, and a Mourvedre, and – bada bing! – a Grenache.
– Thom Elkjer
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