There's no movie— yet—with a guy rhapsodising over a glass of grenache the way Miles (Paul Giamatti) crooned his love of pinot noir in wine buddy film Sideways.
But grenache is having its moment now, thanks to a bunch of talented young winemakers with a new vision of how enticing these red wines can be.
"They’re generous, happy wines, just delicious. They say, 'drink me,'” says Carla Rzeszewski, former wine director at April Bloomfield’s Spotted Pig group.
The best have some of pinot’s seductive pleasure at a cheaper price. Juicy and soft, bursting with heady aromas, lively fruit, and a little minerality, they can suck you in with their supersexy silk and velvet textures.
Which is why Rzeszewski and her boyfriend. Richard Betts, a master sommelier, decided on grenache as the first wine they’re producing together. Their 2014 Sucette will be released this month.
I didn’t used to be much of a grenache fan (with a handful of exceptions) because until recently, the grape was mostly hidden in blends or made into overripe alcoholic bruisers loaded with oak. But in the past few years, the new generation of subtler, lighter, pinot-style examples, such as Sucette, changed my mind.
Here’s the backstory. The red version of grenache (there’s a white, too) is one of the world’s most widely planted red grapes. It flourishes in regions from Australia, to California, to South Africa, and it’s an eco-superstar that can withstand droughts.
In Spain, where it’s called garnacha, it’s a huge deal, as it is in France, where it’s the main varietal in great southern Rhône valley blends. Oddly, only a few wines in the Rhône, such as the legendary Château Rayas, are pure grenache. (Unfortunately, Rayas, a favorite of mine, costs about $300 a bottle.)
Elsewhere, few took the grape as seriously as that other Rhône varietal, syrah.
Why? Well, like pinot noir, grenache is highly sensitive to where it’s grown and how it’s made. As Rzeszewski points out, soil “matters a ton” to whether it turns out simple or sublime. Ditto climate and altitude.
Vines planted on sand, as they are at Rayas, give fresher, lighter wines with more aromas; those on red clay have longer flavors and more structure. If the vines are very old, you get reds with more intense flavor.
In Spain, the new look at grenache started in the 1990s in mountainous Priorat—but the lighter, more aromatic style was pioneered there only a decade ago.
Today’s insider Spanish hot spot is Gredos, an area in the cool, rugged Sierra de Gredos mountain range about 40 miles from Madrid, where tiny plots of old bush vines planted on granite and sand flourish at elevations up to 3,000 feet. Two years ago, Daniel Ramos of Finca Zerberos helped pull together Garnachas de Gredos, an association of 18 vintners who focus on the grape. Among them are 30-somethings Daniel Landi and Fernando Garcia, founders of Comando G winery, named for a Japanese superhero cartoon.
Many new grenache makers borrow winemaking techniques used for pinot noir, such as throwing whole clusters of grapes, even stems, into the fermentation tank to add complexity and spiciness to the wine.
Stellar grenache is also on the rise big time in Washington State and California, with dozens of bottlings now labeled with the grape's name. Adventurous winemakers started planting it in cool coastal and mountain areas and discovered hidden historic sandy-soil vineyards in Sonoma, Santa Barbara, the Sierra Foothills, and the Central Coast.
Rzeszewski and Betts looked in Spain and California but fell for a tiny parcel of ancient grenache vines growing in sandy soil that they discovered on a trip to Australia’s Barossa Valley. That was it.
The Sucette label underscores its mellow deliciousness by sporting a picture of soft-focus, slightly open red lips. (Too bad the name, which means lollipop, echoes Rouge Sucette, a yucky French red flavored with cola that hit the shelves two years ago.)
“We’re looking to make things that help people relax and make every day kick ass,” Rzeszewski laughs. “That’s grenache.”
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