Back in the 1980s, when I was learning about wine, I used to cherish Châteauneuf-du-Pape. It seemed like an important and wonderful appellation. Certainly the bottles impressed me, with their dignified crests embossed right on the glass and their imposing labels, often in Gothic fonts.
More to the point, these grenache-based wines from the Southern Rhône Valley were aspirational wines that I could afford. I had a particular affinity for Bosquet des Papes — considered an old-school producer even then — which offered the lift that comes with lively acidity.
I loved the gravelly red fruit and the herbal flavors that I found in these wines. But sometime in the 1990s, I lost the taste for Châteauneuf. Or rather, as the wines evolved stylistically to become fruitier and sweeter, sometimes bordering on syrupy, they lost me.
It was not just Châteauneuf. For a long time, its excesses seemed echoed in many wines made of grenache, or garnacha, as it is called in Spain, where the grape originated. Whether from other Southern Rhône appellations; Priorat, perhaps the leading garnacha-based wine in Spain; or myriad other expressions of the grape, they all seemed to be traveling the same multilane freeway of force and flamboyance.
I offer this background only to give context to what is now an entirely new age of grenache. All over the grenache- and garnacha-producing world, power has made way for wines of elegance and transparency. Fans of the big wines still have plenty of options, but it’s heartening to see a much richer spectrum of stylistic expressions of the grape.
What does history tell us? Efforts to narrow the stylistic or quality potential of many grapes are doomed to failure. Somewhere, an idealistic winemaker will pop up with wines that prove the narrative wrong.
We have seen this again and again, whether it’s to demonstrate that aligoté is not always thin and acidic, that zinfandel need not be heavy and alcoholic or that silvaner can be inspiring rather than insipid.
Here at Wine School, we never want to blame the grape. We try to keep in mind that the wine in the bottle is most often dictated not only by the grapes but also by the site in which they were grown, the character of the vintage, the farming, the winemaking and the choices made by the people in charge of production.
It’s not easy to keep all that in mind. If your ideas about wine were shaped, say, from 1995 to 2010, you may have thought that grenache’s character was meant to be fruity and alcoholic. Even with my own memories of counterexamples and earlier iterations of grenache, I concluded in those years that I was not a grenache fan.
I am sad to say that I have had to learn this lesson many times and no doubt will again. That’s why I try to catch myself when I think in fallacious generalizations, the same sort that I hear all the time:
“I don’t like red wine.”
“I can’t drink riesling, it’s too sweet.”
“Italian wines are not for me.”
At Wine School, because we understand how easy it is to fall into these traps, we periodically try to test our beliefs. If you think you don’t like a certain type of wine, try it again in a few months or in a year, or try a different producer. Over time, the narrow perception of what a wine can be evolves. So do our own tastes.
Grenache is an excellent example. Over the last month we’ve been examining three different expressions of the grape. I suggested three bottles: A Tribute to Grace Santa Barbara County Grenache 2018, Comando G Vinos de Madrid Sierra de Gredos La Bruja de Rozas 2018 and Domaine Gour de Chaulé Gigondas Cuvée Traditions 2016.
The idea was to see how three wines made from the same grape from different parts of the world might differ. Let me be clear: This was not meant as a conclusive demonstration of three different terroirs.
The word terroir is thrown around a lot. I do my fair share of it, and I believe in its importance absolutely. But it is foolish to think that tasting three wines will reveal much of anything about terroir. Too many variables prevent us from coming to meaningful conclusions. Speaking knowledgeably about how any wine expresses its place of origin requires years of close-up experience.
But we can still learn by comparing these three bottles. The Tribute to Grace was fresh, energetic and lively with aromas and flavors of red berries, flowers and herbs. I loved the elegance of this wine. Over the course of several days it turned a little earthier but always retained a crystalline purity.
The Comando G seemed a little more intense and forceful than the California wine. It was likewise fresh and light on its feet and earthy from the start, with a sort of chalky mineral quality.
Both of these producers exemplify the new wave of grenache. They make wines that demonstrate freshness rather than power and they view grenache as a grape eminently capable of expressing minute differences of terroir, very much like pinot noir.
I know Comando G has been inspired by Château Rayas, a cult Châteauneuf producer whose wines have always been shimmering and pure regardless of the fads of the moment. I suspect Angela Osborne, the proprietor of A Tribute to Grace, has been inspired by them as well.
While these two wines are entry-level introductions to the wineries’ styles, made by blending grapes from multiple vineyards, both producers also make exceptional single-vineyard wines that are fascinating to compare.
The Gigondas was entirely different from the other two. If anything, it was a throwback to the sort of wines from the Southern Rhône I recall from the ’80s. The techniques used are time-honored: fermenting whole bunches of grapes, stems intact, rather than destemming, and long aging in large oak vats.
The result is a wine that is by no means sleek. Rather, it’s rustic in the best way, structured with grippy tannins, and spicy, herbal and floral along with flavors of red berries. Like all Gigondas, it’s not made entirely of grenache. It’s a blend: 80 percent grenache with the remainder equal parts syrah and mourvèdre.
These wines are not shy. Tribute to Grace is 14.2 percent alcohol, and the other two are 14.5 percent. But that’s less than the 15- to 16-percent monsters. (By the way, Comando G also uses whole bunches of grapes; A Tribute to Grace is about 80 percent destemmed.)
What I love about these three wines together is that they all show the personality of the grenache grape while also telling us something about their places of origin and the producers’ styles. I suppose I could have included a wine demonstrating the extravagant powerhouse approach for the sake of contrast. But the fact is, I would have spent much more time griping about that style. This way is more fun.
Quite a few readers found similarities to pinot noir in the Tribute to Grace and Comando G wines. Not in terms of flavors, but I think in their graceful freshness and seeming transparency. One reader, Gunnar Stahl of Iceland, enjoyed A Tribute to Grace 2012 with salmon, a classic pinot noir pairing.
Others, like George Erdle of Charlotte, N.C., found these wines to be difficult to match with foods.
Several interesting questions came up in the comments. Chris of Brighton, Mich., took to task wine writers who “ignore the importance of yeast in determining the flavors of wine.”
Chris is partly right. Winemakers can use types of yeasts to enhance various aromas, flavors and other qualities of wines. You see this with processed wines in particular and sometimes with producers that purport to aim higher. But you would not see that level of manipulation in wines, like these bottles, that are intended to express their places of origin.
Angel Delgado of Barcelona said he was “unpleasantly surprised” that I had chosen a wine from the Sierra de Gredos as “representative of such wines in Spain.”
Just to be clear, none of these wines are meant to represent anything other than themselves. I could easily have chosen a garnacha from Navarre, as Mr. Delgado would have preferred, or maybe even a grenache from Sardinia, where, as Mikael of Amsterdam pointed out, it’s known as cannonau.
Finally, Keith W. Hall of Steelton, Pa., drank the Gour de Chaulé and asked, “How can a wine lacking complexity, with no distinguishing or compelling characteristics, taste so good?”
It’s simple. Wine is not just a collection of characteristics. That’s why efforts to define a wine by breaking it down into component parts are so unsatisfying. It’s the whole of its parts, best experienced in unity. In this case, the wine was delicious. That’s a pretty good outcome.
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