At the Grenache Symposium (An Alternative Drinking Party)
We gathered yesterday1 to talk about the “Art of Good Grenache,” and I realized early on that there were some problems in pursuing anything approaching a consensus about what constituted “good” or “great” Grenache—rather like the language that diplomats from foreign countries must find to express the fact that they’re not imminently about to go to war with one another. It was particularly challenging to find a common vocabulary to express what is considered greatness in Grenache without the language more or less degenerating into banality or triviality. Who’s not in favor of elegance, complexity, expression of terroir, etc.?
The one thing that was really clear to me was that we are all here to talk about the virtues of Grenache, but it is really a chameleon, sort of Woody Allen’s Zelig of grape varieties. It seems to suffer a bit from the perception that it is a second class citizen, a supporting actor rather than the star cépage. In an age of the cult of personality, of the superstar chef, superstar everything, how is Grenache to comport itself?
In some sense Grenache is really on the front line of the various vinous culture wars that are always breaking out—really almost a kind of Rorschach test for how one thinks about wine. It’s interesting to consider the language and aesthetics of Grenache as sociological relics of the culture from which they derived, and for me what was most interesting in our discussion group was observing how differently the various vignerons thought about it. There are just so many different ways to parse the cultural and aesthetic boundaries that Grenache straddles. There is certainly a rather different aesthetic expressed in considering New World vs. Old World; Spanish vs. French vs. California; and Australia vs. everyone else. As far as other ways of dichotomizing it, you can also consider “traditional” vs. “modern” Grenache. (“Traditional” is of course a loaded word, and it depends on what sort of historical horizon one wishes to consider, but possibly might entail the storage of Grenache in larger vessels vs. smaller barrels, or the use of indigenous yeast vs. cultured yeast, for example.)
There are also the dichotomies of “Continental” vs. Mediterranean, and of vins de terroir—wines made with the intention of pleasing the vigneron himself or herself—vs. vins d’effort—wines made to please the imagined, idealized customer or critic. (As an aside, I made the half-hearted effort to elicit some discussion in our group about the huge gravitational effect of a certain influential Marylandian critic on winemaking styles of Grenache-based wine, but that discussion was a non-starter.)
I could talk for the whole length of this presentation about any of these dichotomies, but I think I’ll instead confine myself to considering only a couple. First: Old World vs. New World. The Old World has the benefit of centuries of experience in working out what varieties grow best where on what sites, and with what particular culture—spacing, training, rootstock, etc. There is the ancillary benefit of the phenomenon of massal selection, where there can be, at least in theory, a very fine calibration of particular selection of grapes to a particular site. So to some extent the Old World cannot help but find itself as protectors, if not defenders, of the status quo, and I can’t help but think that the more prestigious the appellation, the more defensive/protective one is.
A vocabulary develops around what the appellation is able to do best, and the attributes that are positive are representative of cultural values. I am not much of a francophone, but I am a Francophile, and indeed have the benefit of driving a great, classic CitroÃ«n DS-21, and when I think about the seats of the DS, especially the back seats, I imagine that I’m given some sort of insight about how French vignerons think about their wines. The esteeming of plushness and suppleness seem to be deeply embedded in the French winemaking DNA. For the French participants here, the aesthetic discussion involves typicity, and terroir; there is clearly a deep and abiding respect for land and its mystery, which is seldom observed to such a degree elsewhere.
Certainly, in France, wine is far more integrated into the culture of gastronomy, and it would seem that the success of Grenache on the international stage will very likely be linked to its perception as a “food wine:” fruity, with softer tannins and an affinity not just for Mediterranean food, but for a range of cuisines, inclusive of Asian. But above all, at least in France, wine seems to be about sensual pleasure, about a kind of ripeness almost verging on decadence. It was incredible to hear Michel Bettane, who sat in on our session for a little while, dilate on le moment juste of Grenache’s maturity, which, by the way, is heralded by the appearance of the aroma of licorice; this represented for me a kind of extreme attention to the details of the metaphysics of pleasure.
In the New World, meanwhile, we are essentially making it up as we go along, neither informed by nor burdened with history. One very important distinction in talking about Grenache in the New World vs. the Old is that in the New World, winemakers can, for good or bad, guide the stylistic direction of their wine by making an election to plant vines in one climat or another, to be grown with or without irrigation, harvested at whatever yield they deem appropriate; this is enormous freedom, but also a source of great angst, or at least it should be.
And we didn’t get into a discussion of this at all, but certainly many New World wines are produced within a very different financial structure from those of the Old, often in new investment that needs to be paid back rather sooner than later. These constraints undoubtedly have an effect on New World winemaking, perhaps driving the New World to produce wines that have broader commercial appeal. Even the most serious New World winemaker is almost by definition working within the realm of vins d’effort, using every ounce of ingenuity to come up with a wine that will have some degree of attractiveness in the marketplace. Australia is blessed with the patrimony of some very old grenache vineyards—a great gift—but I would suggest that no gift comes without a hidden price; those in our group who were working with old vines in Australia and Spain were quite heartbroken to observe the disappearance of precious old-vine plantations in favor of “modern” international varieties planted for greater productivity and efficiency.
We talked a bit about technically what might be done to improve grenache grapes wherever they are grown, and one notion that kept recurring was the need to negotiate a fine balance between inducing a discreet amount of hydrologic stress to hasten phenolic maturity without pushing the vines to the limit of acute deprivation, which of course results in dehydration and loss of finesse. Old vine grenache will typically have a deeper rooting system that helps mitigate water stress, and can also mine minerals from a greater rooting area, yielding a wine with much greater complexity and ageing potential. Any practice favoring mineralization in the soil, such as avoiding excessive nitrogen fertilization, or the use of biodynamic preparations or other organic practices, all work to help the vines keep their cool, as it were.
Grenache is a grape that has the potential to greatly overproduce as well as to achieve a very high alcoholic degree, which may result in disequilibrium. This brings us to one of the fundamental issues of Grenache, one that I wasn’t sure we were able to really meet head-on in our group. In a certain sense, Grenache really walks a fine line with between elegance and rusticity. There are certainly some who would hold that higher alcohol wines are by definition somewhat rustic. Notionally, it could be argued that grenache grapes grown in cooler areas or north-facing slopes might yield wines of more finesse, minimally better acidity, and possibly greater phenological maturity with respect to alcoholic potential. I will gently suggest to my French colleagues that they may have become slightly habituated to the Mediterranean grenache that they know and love. Grenache from a more continental climate at high altitude, such as we tasted from Calatayud, as well as Grenache from grapes grown in places with an ultra-long growing season, such as in parts of California, for example, represent a different style that I believe can compete successfully with more “classical” expressions of the grape.
I come from California, where we are perhaps a little “sensitive” or overly sensitive, but I would like to suggest to my colleagues that the issue of high alcohol in Grenache is not something that one may easily will away by simply stating that the “wine is balanced” and that one doesn’t necessarily feel the higher alcohol. There is a certain social peril of presenting wines with higher alcohol, and we need to continue to stress the importance of enjoying grenache-based wines with food, and also perhaps become more proactive with blending options with other grapes in the interest of bringing alcohol levels down to more acceptable levels. Note: this is simply my opinion, and you were foolish enough to entrust me to speak on your collective behalf.
Let me conclude with some of the take-away action items that we discussed. Again, grenache-based wines should be promoted for their gastronomic brilliance, and some education as far as the proper service of Grenache—serving it at a cooler temperature to temper some of the alcoholic impression, for example—may also be useful. Developing a descriptive language to capture Grenache’s special qualities: its extraordinary silky texture, its powerful aromatics—which can be ethereal, floral or just plain spicy, with licorice, menthol, strawberry and cherry—would also be helpful. But at the end of the day, showing is far more useful than telling. I think the most powerful idea we derived yesterday was the notion of presenting Grenache in the global forum, as a sort of touring road-show, with examples of very great Grenache from diverse regions made in diverse styles, wines that might rival any other category. Obviously there would need to be a bit of logistical organization to make this work, and some sort of organizing body. But certainly, the time is right for the worldwide discovery of Grenache.