Opinionista Michael Fridjhon 18 September 2013

Grenache: Cult cultivar in the making

Though not as well known as most grape varietals, Grenache is poised to make a strong showing in the global wine market. A subtle wine, often called the “Pinot Noir of the south” the grape has suffered from under-promotion. Why not celebrate Grenache Day (20 September) by getting to know her a little better.

It’s a curious thing: people get emotional about grape varieties. They don’t seem to have strong feelings about different types of peaches or apples. You don’t go to dinner parties and find the guests discussing the relative merits of Packham versus Forelle pears. If you surf the more arcane sites on the net, you may find heated debates between the proponents of one or another kind of plum, but you would be unlikely to get drawn in to the discussion.

When it comes to wine grapes on the other hand, strong feelings are pretty much de rigeur. It’s not only serious wine aficionados who speak about grape varieties in a familiar kind of way. The moment you’ve passed distinguishing wine solely by its colour, the chances are you’ve begun to develop a preference for particular cultivars, and you narrow your shopping choice accordingly.

Anything But Chardonnay, the now much overworked late 1990s slogan (which turned a generation of wine drinkers away from one of the world’s finest varieties simply because the more commercial American and Australian producers overworked their grapes and burdened them with too much oak) tells a tale of cultivar discrimination. Likewise, the damage done to Merlot by the American film “Sideways” (or the extraordinary promotion of Pinot Noir in the same movie, where the protagonists inexplicably ends up drinking what is indisputably the world’s greatest Cabernet Franc-dominated wine) makes it clear that in the world of wine, variety is something akin to a brand.

Of course, people have opinions about varieties without ever really tasting benchmark examples. The fate of Chardonnay in many New World markets was decided by the worst, not the best, examples. We’re seeing the same now with Shiraz. Once a relatively rare variety it has recently been dramatically over-planted in the US, France and even South Africa. The image of the brand (in this case the cultivar) is decided by the least successful plantings (because it is the wines made from these grapes that finally flood the market).

There was a time when the names of the varieties were unknown except in the most erudite circles. In France for example, it was only in Alsace (a region whose modern history places it as much in Germany as it does in France) that cultivar names appeared on the labels of the best wines. Elsewhere, the type of grape was of such secondary importance (compared with the origin) that it was never mentioned.

Accordingly, it should come as no surprise to discover that Grenache, once the most widely planted red variety of the Old World (a claim to fame it has only yielded in the past couple of decades) is a grape name hardly known to any except the most studious of wine buffs. Since origin has long been the defining feature of wine in Europe, no one really noted the level of dependence of the Mediterranean regions on this extraordinary cultivar. Across much of Spain, the south of France and North Africa (but also, for example, Australia), Grenache once reigned supreme.

Its declining popularity has had less to do with the grape itself than how it has been farmed: where it is over-cropped and under-respected, it yields nondescript wines of no great merit or charm. When the time came to feed the seemingly insatiable wine appetite of supermarket customers in the UK, growers in what had traditionally been Grenache-producing regions grubbed up the ancient vineyards and replaced them with more saleable cultivar brands of Cabernet and Merlot. This was what was on the chain-store buyers’ shopping lists, because these were the names their customers understood, and wanted to buy.

Grenache, through an association formed in 2010, has been staging a bit of a comeback. The oldest and best vineyards are being preserved, and proprietors lucky enough to have well-sited old vines are being encouraged to vinify the grapes separately and to market the wines as premium, rather than discount cuvees. Wine lovers are discovering Grenache is the key variety in wines like Chateauneuf-du-Pape, and the sole cultivar in such legendary wines as Chateau Rayas. It is present in the best appellations of the southern Rhone and in many of the increasingly fashionable Spanish vineyards.

Grenache Day (20 September) is celebrated (perhaps a slight exaggeration – “noted” might be more accurate) wherever wine hacks find themselves under the influence of Saint Jude. As a result, for a week or two every year, readers of wine articles suddenly find themselves invited to engage with this intriguingly elusive grape. They wonder how, if it has been so widely planted, they know nothing about it and would not be able to identify in a line up of five of the major red varieties. They may see it described as “the Pinot Noir of the south” a term which, despite being largely true, seems considerably less useful than the usual berry metaphors. In fact, properly made from the best, low-yielding vines, it has a haunting fragrance quite unlike the usual primary red fruit notes associated with Merlot, Cabernet or Pinot Noir. It can be surprisingly delicate, and yet age-worthy and robust. No wonder no one knows quite what to make of it.

In South Africa there are fewer than 20 wines made with either red or white Grenache, but over 100 where Grenache forms part of the blend. This won’t exactly help to create a following, but at least it’s unlikely to vanish without a trace. Simon Woods once wrote of Pinot Noir that a good one is like an orgasm: if you’re not sure you’ve had one, you probably haven’t, and if you have, you want it again and again and again. The same is certainly true of Grenache, only more so: it’s more promiscuous, but doesn’t always perform as well as it could. DM


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