Grenache is the Central Coast’s Red to Watch
Once mere fodder for California’s cheap jug wines, this Rhône grape might be the state’s next big thing.
Grenache is something of a paradox. It’s one of the most widely planted red grapes in the world, yet few people seem to know or care about it. Or, perhaps more accurately, few people know that they do care about Grenache, because in the two regions that lay particular claim to the variety—Priorat in Spain (where it’s called Garnacha and where it’s thought to have originated) and the southern Rhône Valley in France—it often disappears into delicious (and prominent) red blends, unmarked even when it sometimes forms the backbone of a great wine.
On its own, though, Grenache can be gorgeous, offering juicy red fruit layered with spice, florals, and crushed herbs, delivered with fascinating textures. Its intense “yum factor” can actually be a little surprising because the wine can be somewhat light-colored in the glass. Look no further, though, than Châteauneuf-du-Pape’s legendary Château Rayas—100 percent Grenache—for evidence of the variety’s enormous potential.
In California, producers have long failed to realize that potential. Generally cropped for high tonnage in the Central Valley, Grenache gets poured into cheap jug blends. And when winemakers turned to Rhône varieties in the late 1970s and into the ’80s, Syrah became the grape of choice. (How well that went in the marketplace is another story.)
Now, though, a stealthy sea change is underway for Grenache—particularly evident on California’s Central Coast. Winemakers are reining in the high crop the vines like to throw and coaxing out that core of red fruit and spice across a range of styles—from lean, light, and bright to richer and riper.
Credit Tablas Creek Vineyard in Paso Robles for fine-tuning this movement. The Haas family, the proprietors, are partners with the Perrin family of Châteauneuf-du-Pape’s Château de Beaucastel. Recognizing the potential for Rhône wines in the limestone-rich soils in the hills west of Paso (where they established their winery), they began importing and propagating the Châteauneuf clones, making them available to growers all over the state.
Jason Haas, who manages the operation now, explains what he loves about how the grape—pivotal in Châteauneuf—expresses itself on the Central Coast: “California’s climate—more sun, warmer days, cooler nights—emphasizes Grenache’s vibrancy. We get great fruit—although that’s true in the Rhône, too—but pick with higher acids here, which give a lively profile. I think Grenache has enormous potential in California.”
On the following slides, you can find five bottles that have nailed that potential.