Inky in the glass, intensely aromatic on the nose and tannic and structured on the palate. These are not the usual hallmarks of Grenache. The grape, originally from Spain and widely planted in France’s Rhône Valley, is known more for medium-to-lighter-bodied expressions of red fruit and baking spice, best consumed quickly. But recently, what you can expect from a bottle is changing.
These unexpected qualities are exhibited by a growing number of Grenache bottlings from cool-climate vineyards on California’s Central Coast. There, chilly temperatures, foggy mornings and windy afternoons starve the grape vines of the sunshine they crave, forcing grapes to ripen extremely late in the harvest season. That extended growing period, and the specialized farming strategies required to get the grapes that far, create a version of Grenache that these vintners believe is unlike anywhere in the world.
The meticulous management techniques include shading the grapes from the sun to block bleaching, which is a common problem for Grenache. Additionally, winemakers must frequently drop otherwise healthy clusters to ensure that the remaining fruit reaches the sugar levels required for red wine.
Unlike Syrah, which becomes quite peppery and floral in these cooler climates, the Grenache gains body and structure. “We usually end the tasting flight with the Grenache,” says Brianne Engles, winemaker at Chamisal Vineyard in Edna Valley in San Luis Obispo County, of how Chamisal’s darkest bottling is presented to consumers.
The Growth of Cool-Climate Grenache
Winemakers credit John Alban for pioneering this style on the Central Coast, as he planted Grenache in his Edna Valley vineyard during the early 1990s. Manfred Krankl of Sine Qua Non winery did the same in Santa Barbara County about a decade later, when planting his Eleven Confessions Vineyard in the Sta. Rita Hills.
The latter is where a young Pierre LaBarge IV was introduced to the style, picking the frost-addled 2008 crop on Thanksgiving Day. “The profile was stunning,” he says. “You had high sugar and concentration, but such great acidity as well. They were just beautiful.”
When he established his own Sta. Rita Hills vineyard in 2010, LaBarge included Grenache. “I was just fascinated by it,” he says, despite often having to drop 50% of the crop to achieve ripeness.
“Pinot Noir is the easiest grape we grow here, and Grenache is the hardest one,” LaBarge adds, though he appreciates the challenge. “It’s more like an art form. It’s almost enjoyable.”
Even after 35 years researching vines at UC-Davis—including many years in charge of the experimental vineyard at Oakville Station—Michael Anderson was surprised to find Grenache in the Sta. Rita Hills when he started managing Peake Ranch Winery a few years ago. The vineyard is located on the slightly warmer eastern side of the appellation and doesn’t typically need to drop fruit. But Anderson did develop a wide, awning-like trellis system to protect the Grenache from the summer heat.
“I’ve always thought that the best variety for a site is the one that uses up the whole season,” says Anderson, which is exactly what Grenache does. Most of the grapes are grown for the Peake Ranch brand by winemaker Wynne Solomon. Solomon was happily surprised to find “this hidden gem of a Grenache block” when she first started working there.
“It has all of those things you might want in an age-worthy, concentrated wine,” she says, noting tropical notes as well in her bottlings. “I have not found an Old World parallel.”
Peake Ranch’s Grenache is also coveted by other vintners who buy the fruit. “I’m planting more Grenache as fast as I can,” Anderson says.
Up north, the Spanish Springs Vineyard sits just five miles from the shores of Pismo Beach in the SLO Coast appellation. Vineyard Manager, Jim McGarry, sells the fruit from his 4.5 acres of Grenache to more than a half-dozen brands, including Claiborne & Churchill, Levo, Aaron and Rhônedonnée, and wants to plant more. He finds that the climate helps the typically overabundant variety self-regulate, so he doesn’t do much thinning of the crop.
“Grenache can get big, but in this site, it just doesn’t,” says McGarry, who is also planting some at a new vineyard nearby called Cross Creek. “Spanish Springs is showing us that we can make some awesome Grenache from here.”
In the Santa Maria Valley, vineyard manager Chris Hammell started growing experimental blocks of Grenache at Bien Nacido Vineyard in 2001. The early harvests went to Sine Qua Non, whose owner Manfred Krankl reportedly likes to quip, “Grenache delivers what Pinot Noir promises.”
Then, Hammell launched his own Grenache-focused label called True Believer and started selling it to numerous other brands, including Jaffurs Wine Cellars, Paul Lato Wines and Sans Liege Wines.
“Not many people outside of California are experimenting with Grenache in cooler climates,” says Hammell, who appreciates that the variety, especially when head-trained, is more drought tolerant and can still produce large crops at a high-quality level. “If climate change is true, then I don’t know why people don’t put more eggs in that basket.”
Expanding Cool-Climate Grenache
More cool-climate Grenache is on the way. These grapes routinely sell out faster than Pinot Noir, so growers are actively adding acreage each year. But why isn’t more of the region making Grenache like this?
“It is a different beast,” says Engles. “It is a struggle to get it ripe almost every year. We’re often picking this around Halloween, and there have been years when we had to wait ‘til November to bring it in.”
With Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and other grapes coming in more toward September, Engles says, “it’s almost like having two harvests.”
The hold-up also appears to be due to the lack of consumer awareness. Bien Nacido Estate’s winemaker Anthony Avila agrees. “It’s not something I take to public-facing consumer events, but it is something I share with a lot of the wine buyers and critics, where it seems to be really well received,” said Avila, who explained that it’s also a hit with the wine club. “It’s a fan favorite.”
For now, as more vineyards make room for cool-climate Grenache, keep an eye on those producing the stuff and get a taste for yourself.
Cool-Climate Grenache Bottles to Try
Peake Ranch 2020 Peake Ranch Vineyard Grenache
95 Point Wine Enthusiast
Clean and ripe aromas of cherry, rose petal and loamy earth make for an attention-grabbing nose on this bottling, another show of the Rhône promise of the Sta. Rita Hills. There’s a rich, creamy texture to the palate, yet loads of acid and hard spices that push dark strawberry, cardamom and cinnamon flavors deep into the finish. –Matt Kettmann
Babcock 2020 Born Ready Grenache
94 Points Wine Enthusiast
This is a fascinating and bold blend of Grenache from Peake Ranch in the Sta. Rita Hills and Spanish Springs in the SLO Coast. Dark, plummy aromas meet with concentrated flowers, crushed stone and graphite on the nose. The palate is ripe and rounded with flavors of strawberry, raspberry and more stone, cut by a persistent yet well-integrated acidity. –MK
Bien Nacido Estate 2020 Grenache
94 Points Wine Enthusiast
Vibrant black raspberry jelly, crusted stone and pine forest duff aromas make for a complex nose on this bottling. There is intense tannic framing to the palate, where light toast flavors surround the intense black raspberry and cherry flavors. A great cool-climate Grenache example, built for aging. Drink now–2034. –MK
Optio 2020 Grenache
94 Points Wine Enthusiast
This is a solid example of how cool-climate Grenache shows tremendous intensity rather than going light from ocean influence. Aromas of concentrated plum, graphite, cocoa and latte show on the nose, while the palate, which is wrapped in thicker tannins, unleashes undulating waves of baked fruit, cocoa dust and loamy soil. The pie crust spice adds an approachable finish. –MK
Clementine Carter 2020 West End Grenache
94 Points Wine Enthusiast
Dark cherry and berry aromas meet with crushed slate, bay leaf and an underlying chaparral note on the nose of this bottling. The palate snaps with tart berry and plum before opening into delicious strawberry compote, cinnamon and sumac flavors, with fresh acidity and tight tannins holding the fruit together. –MK
La Lomita 2019 Spanish Springs Vineyard Garnacha
92 Points Wine Enthusiast
Dark-red-cherry, light thyme, loamy soil and wood-spice aromas make for a potent nose on this bottling of the Alban clone. The palate is intensely focused with a deeply titanic character that surrounds the dark-fruit, sagebrush and rainbow-peppercorns flavors. This is still young but expect a vibrant life to come. –MK