Grenache Noir is a grape from the Rhone Valley.

Grenache Noir is a grape from the Rhone Valley.

Grenache Noir is a grape from the Rhone Valley.

Known as Grenache Noir in order to differentiate it from its white cousin, Grenache Blanc, the Grenache grape is the most extensively planted grape variety in the southern Rhône Valley, and the second most widely planted varietal in the world overall.

Typically blended (with Syrah and Mourvèdre in France and Australia, and with Tempranillo in Rioja), it is at its best in the wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, where it accounts for 70 percent of the appellation’s total acreage and produces the best wines.

Grenache is used in varying proportions by Château de Beaucastel in its Beaucastel red, while other producers (most notably Château Rayas) make Châteauneuf du Pape wines that are almost entirely composed of Grenache.

The beginning of time

As far as we can tell, Grenache originated in Spain, most likely in the northern region of Aragon, and ampelographers think that Grenache is responsible for Aragon’s world-renowned vin rouge du pays.

In combination with the reach of the kingdom of Aragon, which at times reached Roussillon and Sardinia, it expanded across the vineyards of Spain and the Mediterranean, originating in Aragon and spreading around the world.

By the early 18th century, the variety had spread throughout the Languedoc and Provence regions of southern France.

European Grenache plantings were indirectly enhanced by the phylloxera pandemic that swept over Europe during the late nineteenth century.

When vineyards were rebuilt in Rioja, for example, they were not planted with the original varietals but with the hardy, easy-to-graft Grenache variety. In southern France, a similar tendency was seen, with the proportion of Grenache plants increasing dramatically after the phylloxera infection, displacing the formerly common Mourvèdre variety.

Originally from France, Grenache was introduced to California in the 1860s and quickly became popular because of its upright carriage, vigorous growth, and drought resilience. It eventually surpassed Carignan in terms of vineyard planting and became a component of the branded field mixes used by wine companies.

Unfortunately, this practice encouraged producers to take cuttings from the most productive vines, resulting in increased grape output at the expense of overall vine quality.

In recent years, Grenache plantings in California have decreased as the variety has been displaced by the more popular Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

Currently, there are 9,600 acres of Grenache planted in California, a decrease from the previous year.

Overall Grenache plantings have decreased (mostly due to low-quality plantings in the Central Valley), but the variety has had somewhat of a rebound in popularity at the same time.

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Numerous additional plantings in California have been prompted by the availability of high-quality clones, such as those from Tablas Creek, with the majority of them centered in the counties of Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo.

Tablas Creek Grenache Vineyard

The quality of California Grenache grapes was not totally satisfied when we started Tablas Creek Vineyard in 1990, so we decided to grow our own.

Because of this, we imported our Grenache Noir cuttings (together with its close relative, Grenache Blanc) from France, where Jacques Perrin at Château de Beaucastel had worked painstakingly to regenerate high-quality Grenache vines, resulting in the production of our wine.

The Perrins, on the other hand, believe that vine age is critical in producing top-quality Grenache grapes.

As a result, it should not have come as a surprise to us that it took us longer to become satisfied with our Grenache than with any of our other varietals, given our previous experience.

Our original assumptions were that we would be able to create wines that were at least one-third Grenache, so we planted the vineyard in that manner. In contrast, the early harvests of Grenache lacked the depth that we desired, and the tannins on the front palate were harsh, standing in stark contrast to the smoothness of the Mourvedre and Syrah grape varieties.

It has only been since the 2005 vintage that we have been completely satisfied with the variety’s performance, and it has only been since 2006 that we have believed Grenache was well-balanced enough to be produced as a varietal wine in our cellar.

In our Esprit de Beaucastel, we have raised the amount of Grenache in every year since 2002, starting with barely 10 percent in 2002 and progressing to 16 percent, 17 percent, 26 percent, 28 percent, and ultimately 29 percent in 2007.

In the Vineyard and in the Cellar: Grenache.

“Gobelet” or “head pruning” is a method of cultivating Grenache that is extensively used in France and Spain. Grenache is a strong variety that produces erect shoots that lend themselves to “goblet” or “head pruning.”

On Scruffy Hill at Tablas Creek, our newly planted Grenache vines are being head trimmed; elsewhere in the vineyard, the variety is being grown in a double cordon style, with six fruiting canes, each with two buds.

With its vitality, the variety has the ability to yield a large amount of fruit. However, despite our efforts to trim the shoots, we are often forced to prune fruit throughout the growing season in order to maintain the bunch count to ten or twelve clusters per vine during the growing season. We gather around three tons of fruit per acre of vines as a result of this method of harvesting.

Grenache ripens in the middle of the ripening cycle, after Syrah but before Counoise and Mourvedre, and is the third grape variety to ripen in the vineyard.

When harvested, it is remarkable for having a high acidity level, despite the fact that the sugar levels are rather high (see below). The harvest of Grenache typically begins around the end of September and concludes around the middle of October.

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Typically, in the cellar, we ferment Grenache in stainless steel fermenters that are well sealed to prevent oxidation, which is a characteristic of Grenache.

We avoid using tiny 60-gallon barrels for Grenache for the same reason and instead prefer to age Grenache-based wines in 1200-gallon oak foudres, which have larger oak staves that allow less oxygen to reach the wine throughout the aging process.

Taste and smell (aromas and flavors)

When grown in high percentages, Grenache creates wines with high concentrations of fruit, tannins, and acidity. Its tastes are most often currant, cherry, and raisin, while its scents are mostly black pepper, menthol, and licorice-like in nature.

Although many California Grenache clones produce straightforward, fruity wines that are typically pale in color, our French clones produce brilliant ruby red wines that are high in alcohol (typically 15 percent or higher) and intensely fruity and fatty, whereas our California clones produce simple, fruity wines that are typically pale in color.

Grenache is often our second most used grape (after Mourvèdre and slightly ahead of Syrah) in our distinctive Esprit de Beaucastel blend, and it opens up the more tight and reductive varietals in the blend.

The variety may flourish in a leading position in a fruity, upfront wine, such as our Côtes de Tablas, which is based on Grenache.

Additionally, we have been producing a varietal Grenache every year since 2006. When making this wine, we normally include 10% Syrah to balance out the richness of the Grenache grapes.