The conventional way of thinking about the Rhône Valley and its red wines is that Syrah is king. That surely is evident from the fact that the best wines from the northern Rhône are wines like Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie – powerful statements of how good Syrah can be.
At their best, these are monumental wines and, in the hands of inspired growers and wine makers, create long-lived wines that rival the best aged reds in the world. I have even heard Bordeaux lovers, with ample cellars, grudgingly mumble niceties for older Rhône – though they wouldn’t even recognize the existence of Burgundy.
Rhône lovers usually suggest that Syrah must be the greatest grape of them all in the Rhône, notably since French law which permits some 21 other grape varieties to exist, and be used in blends. So important is Syrah, they say, that the southern Rhône wines also typically have Syrah in them.
As a wine lover who prefers the Rhône’s “other” great red grape, I take offense to such solipsistic thinking. Sure, Syrah is a nice grape and all that, but real wine lovers understand Grenache to be the secret to great Rhône blends.
I always fall back to my standard question of Rhône lovers: What makes you people so high and mighty about Syrah when you know darn well that when it’s young, Syrahs are hard as nails and pretty undrinkable. Or they are so loaded with funky aromas that they are off-putting? And why do you love such wines even though when they are young, they are one-dimensional and hard to wade through their tannins? And that to enjoy them you have to wait a decade or more?
Then I bring up the grandeur of the southern Rhône red blends, like Chateauneuf-du-Pape. These wines do not require as much aging (some call for almost no aging at all). Most taste pretty darn good soon after release, and generally they are less expensive.
The northern Rhône lovers shoot back that Grenache, the dominant grape in the southern region, isn’t anywhere near as noble as is Syrah.
My clever rejoinder: “Oh, yeah? Sez who?”
In fact, Grenache is, in some ways, just as noble a grape as any in the world. A magnificent blender, it also delivers superb flavors on its own, and has in its genetic makeup the ability to make startlingly fine rose wines, a medium weight red, a dark and powerful wine (from certain regions), and has been successfully used in port-style dessert wines.
About 15 years ago, when the red Rhône revolution was just heating up in California, I attended a Rhône Rangers walk-around tasting and decided a good story to pursue was to find out which of the blends had Grenache in them.A handful of wineries said they used as much Grenache as they could get, and those who didn’t use the grape all asked me if I knew where they could get some!
There has historically been a shortage of Grenache, and what keeps many growers from planting it are a series of drawbacks that make it sound risky. And the tale gets complicated with technical issues.
For one thing, many growers say they don’t like the risk of planting a grape for which demand isn’t obvious and guaranteed. Nor do they want to plant a grape whose potential revenue may be low (on a per-ton basis).
The fact that it is an amazingly prolific grower is a false sign of easy profits. That’s because Grenache may well give huge crops, but at those levels, color is nearly non-existent, with the result that red wine isn’t a likely outcome. So to get good color and flavor, the grower has to be ruthless in hedging and green thinning. Smaller crops are better than huge ones.
Moreover, the grape doesn’t yield its classic flavors until it has been on the vine a lot longer than other grapes, which makes it a relatively late-harvester, and that could conflict with the harvest of other late-arriving grapes like Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon. Wineries hate a lot of different grapes all coming into the winery at the same time.
All of which leads us to the inevitable conclusion that a good quality Grenache (let alone a great one) likely will have upwards of 15% alcohol.
To avoid this, many wine makers resort to alcohol-reduction techniques such as reserve osmosis or evaporative perstraction (told you this would be complicated).
And finally a Grenache with its lovely floral flavors and aromas also might be too light for wineries to charge a lot for, so a few such wines are darkened with the addition of Syrah or Petite Sirah, which actually could have the effect of changing the aroma in a negative way.
All these complicated machinations for a grape variety that most consumers do not care about? Is it worth it for the wineries?
Let’s go back to what I heard at the Rhône Rangers’ tasting 15 years ago, when every wine maker who was asked about Grenache and who replied that he or she didn’t use it also asked where they could get some. Wine makers know the benefits of Grenache, how it almost always helps Syrah. They also know how Grenache has aromas and flavors that no other grape can deliver.
Sure, Syrah is an important grape. Most people know that. But wine makers who are in the know would probably tell you, if they were truthful, that for excitement and personality, Grenache is the answer.
--Dan Berger is a nationally renowned wine writer who lives in Santa Rosa, Calif. He publishes a weekly commentary Dan Berger’s Vintage Experiences (VintageExperiences.com).