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Perspective: Gimme Garnacha Wines

A longtime wine industry journalist rediscovers an early love

by Jane Firstenfeld
Bokisch Vineyards in Victor, Calif., produces Garnacha.
San Rafael, Calif.—Long ago, not so far away, I loved a grape. It was French, I thought, a classic vinifera. It was Grenache. It was easy to pronounce, and back in the 1970s it was a popular variety. I recall it as an easily quaffable red wine, and also as a dry rosé, before that tipple’s long eclipse by white Zin in the U.S. marketplace. But, like most of the wine-drinking public, I forgot about Grenache.

2010 was as difficult for me as it was for many others, but in retrospect, my rediscovery of Grenache shines as a bright point. It started with the annual TAPAS tasting in June. In just a couple of years, the San Francisco tasting of the Tempranillo Advocates, Producers and Amigos Society has become a favorite: not overwhelming, hosted by winemakers at a convenient location, replete with wonderful food pairings. Despite its Tempranillo-centric name, TAPAS is dedicated to all the Iberian winegrape varieties, including Garnacha, or as it’s better known, Grenache.

What a great, versatile grape this is: It has two names, it comes in three sub-varieties—red, white and gris—and it produces delicious wines in red, white and pink. At TAPAS, I happily tasted as many as possible.

Back at the office, I did some research: According to the USDA 2009 Grape Harvest Report, planted acres of red Grenache have been inching up during the past decade, totaling 6,533 in 2009; 75,354 tons were crushed. Cabernet Sauvignon, by contrast, was planted on 75,791 acres last year (442,769 tons crushed); Pinot Noir on 36,388 acres (156,703 tons crushed). A paltry 615 tons of Grenache Blanc were crushed in all of California during 2009.

Clinching the deal
A couple months later, I attended a tasting at Donelan, a 5,000-case urban winery in Sonoma County. I was leery: Winemaker Tyler Thomas is a specialist in Rhône varietals. Those who know me best know that some years ago I declared myself a “No Rhône Zone.” Decades of tasting had turned me off to the most renowned Rhône varieties, Syrah (too meaty) and Viognier (too perfumey). I wanted, though, to hear what Thomas had to say. He promised to compare a Donelan blend side-by-side with an equivalent Châteauneuf du Pape.

Now, the last (and maybe the first) time I’d sampled Châteauneuf du Pape was during my 12-year adventure as journalist, restaurateur and publicist in La Paz, state capital of Baja California Sur, Mexico. I’d hired on a consultant to a well-known beach resort and rummaged through its virtually unexamined wine cellar. A former head chef there was French and had assembled an impressive collection, but the hotel did not even have a wine list. The Châteauneuf was delicious, although probably not the optimal choice for a Mexican seaside resort. Once available to the clientele, however, it and the whole wine inventory sold out within a month. Restocking was problematic.

I had not realized that the primary grape in that delicious, iconic Rhône blend is Grenache. I loved both the French import and then, Donelan’s blend. I made a mental exception to my Rhône prohibition.

In early November, I was privileged to attend the final 2010 session of Biodynamic Bootcamp sponsored by Mendocino Wine Co. in Ukiah, Calif. Between the luxury accommodations at the historic Vichy Springs Spa, exquisite catered dinners at Healdsburg’s historic Parducci Winery, an exhilarating day getting down and dirty with Biodynamic practices at Dark Horse Vineyards and lots of face-time with my god-of-green Paul Dolan, it was an indelible experience.

On the final morning, four boot camp survivors met with Dolan. Our mission: to create our custom blend of his Deep Red wine. Since I, like a sizeable percentage of wine drinkers, suffer unfortunate allergic reactions to big red wines, at first I tried to recuse myself from the process. I really didn’t want my nose to redden and run, but I stayed the course.

The blending began with barrel samples of Syrah, Petite Sirah, Zinfandel and Grenache. Sommelier Courtney Cochran took charge. I sampled dutifully; as she described the “grippy tannins” of the PS, the tannins (or allergens) grabbed my esophagus, and I was choked by an embarrassing, uncontrollable coughing fit. A glass of water and a cautious sip of Zinfandel later, we landed at last on the Grenache: So juicy, so fruity, so easily drinkable. Not the most complex of the samples, certainly, but the most instantly sippable.

My fellow boot camp conscripts proceeded to concoct their preferred version of Dark Red. They didn’t use much of the Grenache. I would have liked to take the leftover barrel sample home with me, but I’m hoping that Dolan will amply include it in his final blend.

I’m happy to have found Grenache again—and to pronounce it in my second language, “Garnacha.” I’ve asked my neighborhood wine merchant to alert me when he has some in stock. And, my winemaking readers, I ask you, too. Por favor, whatever you call it, bring Garnacha back to the table.

Jane Firstenfeld is contributing editor of Wines & Vines, and first worked for the magazine in the 1970s.
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