Last time I checked, grenache was the second-most widely planted grape in the world after airen, a white varietal that is largely used to make brandy in Spain. Grenache, which also hails from Spain (where it is called garnacha), can thank the Rhone for its current popularity, as Chateauneuf-du-Pape and Cotes du Rhone have nearly become household words.
Now grown in many countries, grenache is starting to take on several identities. In California, grenache's fruit character gets a chance to take center stage. Yet even within the boundaries of the Golden State, there is variation.
Until the 1980s, when grenache started to be used in conjunction with syrah, it was not much more than part of the recipe for jug wines. That started to change in the 1990s, as the Rhone varietal trend gained ground.
T-Vine in Calistoga has long been famous for its full-bodied, oak-influenced version. At $42, it rivals some Chateauneuf-du-Pape offerings in price. Compared to Alban Vineyard's grenache from the Edna Valley, now selling for more than $100 in some shops, it seems like a bargain. At one time, when it was a fraction of the price and did not taste as extracted, Alban's grenache was the pinnacle by which others were measured. It still has quite a fan base.
Yet as lighter and less expensive renditions have started popping up, grenache is garnering attention beyond professionals and wine geeks among people who just want a good, relatively affordable bottle of wine.
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the stylistic broadening of California wines. Grenache is perhaps the best example of this. Martian Ranch & Vineyard Grenache Noir from Santa Barbara County serves as a complete contrast to T-Vine's. Semi-carbonic fermented and aged in neutral oak, it is brighter and has higher levels of toned fruit and spice. Also, at $24 it is closer to some of our financial orbits. There are others in this price range that are also worthy, but for $20 or under there are still some real finds.
Steele Wines Writer's Block Grenache, 2010 (Lake County): Veteran winemaker Jed Steele cut his teeth at Stony Hill, became famous at Kendall Jackson and found his voice when he started his own label 22 years ago. He makes a myriad of low-production wines, most which are quite affordable. Medium-bodied with mixed berries and a little cardamom, it may not cure writer's block but I'd be happy to find out. Suggested retail: $16
Birichino Grenache Vieilles Vignes, Besson Vineyard, 2011 (Central Coast): Made from 100-year-old vines, this is a grenache with plenty of fruit, yet it is in no way heavy or brooding. Finely balanced with bright red berries, a hint of orange and hints of white pepper and thyme, it is one of the best you'll find, regardless of price. Suggested retail: $18
Bonny Doon Clos de Gilroy, 2012 (California): The apple does not fall far from the tree, as Birichino is the brainchild of two former Bonny Doon employees who seemed to have modeled their wine after the Clos de Gilroy. With Marcel Proust peering out from the label, this has become an iconic California wine and never strayed much from its fresh, vibrant style. Bursting with raspberry and pepper, it is a classic. Suggested retail: $20
Some of these wines can be found at Artisan Wine Depot, Castro Village Wine Merchant, K&L Wine Merchant and The Wine Club.
Pamela S. Busch is a wine writer and educator who has owned several wine bars in San Francisco, including Hayes and Vine and CAV Wine Bar & Kitchen.