Is Grenache the New Pinot Noir?
Hindsight of course is 20/20, and looking back at the surge of popularity that Pinot Noir experienced over the past decade one can see some of the factors that helped to contribute to the grapes rise in fortune. Of course we all attribute a considerable impact to the movie Sideways, which glamorized Pinot Noir like no other grape before. Add to this the growing popular awareness of the so-called French paradox and the wine industry's passionate affair with Pinot Noir and you have all the pieces in place, save one: the consumer.
Now here's the funny thing. If you ask consumers what it is they like about Pinot they'll tell you a few things. The wines are fruity, they are also soft and easy to drink, or at least tend to be in the most popular incarnations. The funny thing here is that this style, profitable as it may be, is not what has driven the passion of vintners for decades. No, there are very few winemakers out there dreaming of producing a fruity, easy to drink Pinot from fruit farmed on the flatlands in some back water appellation. The industry wants to make art, the consuming public by and large wants to drink something that's fun. Why raise this issue? Well, I think it may very well by the lynchpin that pulls the whole Pinot Noir train apart.
With the disconnect between producers and consumers inherent in Pinot Noir one has to think how long the Pinot wave can continue to grow. In fact I would say we've probably peaked, both at the bottom and top of the market. Too much cheap, crappy Pinot Noir is now being produced in marginal growing regions, and too much expensive, crappy Pinot Noir is being produced in what we have been lead to believe are the greatest appellations for the variety, like for example in that meaningless Sonoma Coast appellation that sprawls across more than half a million acres. Put succinctly, I believe we have already planted far more acres of Pinot than there are great acres of plantable land. It's not an uncommon situation. Just look at Cabernet, which is planted just about anywhere it'll grow and produces decent wines in many places, but great wines in but a few. We all know, because we've been repeatedly told by those in the know, that Pinot is an even bitchier grape, fickle and less adept at adapting to terroir that falls outside of it comfort zone.
So there we have it. We're making more of the light, fruity, low tannin easy drinking style of Pinot Noir that consumers want and winemakers are uninterested in because the market demands it. The market demands it to a certain extent because the industry has glamorized Pinot Noir, one of the world's truly noble varieties that is worshiped within the industry. Of course the two styles have very little in common, the commercial style of wine and the Grand Cru efforts, so why don't we fight for a change. I'll start. I've been rather vocal over the years about my general dislike, though dislike is perhaps to strong a term, for Grenache. It's a grape that does very little for me, but it is also a grape that can produce large volumes of fruity, low tannin, easy to drink wine. I drink a fair amount of this style of wine, though derived from Barbera, Dolcetto, and Sangiovese as opposed to Grenache. This is right for me and my palate but today I've come to take a stand for Grenache!
You see it has taken me some time, only about 30 years, to wrap my head around the concept of wine appreciation. Very few people give a damn about things like terroir, typicity, and the like; most people just want their wine to taste good. Pinot Noir is virtually built upon typicity and terroir, which, as I've suggested. may have helped add a certain appealing mystique to it. It also helps explain away why people may not like a specific Pinot, not that that is right or wrong, though it is more wrong than right. Let's face it, the people want what the people want, and we in the industry expend an awful lot of effort convincing them that a specific wine/region/brand is what they want. Well guess what. What they want is Grenache, fruity, almost candied, easy drinking, exuberant Grenache and the truth of the matter is that probably more than half of the Pinot vineyards in California are better suited for producing exactly that Grenache than Pinot!
So what we have is the perfect confluence of a market place clamoring for a style of wines that seems tailor made for Grenache. We also have thousands of acres of vineyards in California, not to mention around the globe, that are ideally suited for Grenache, a notoriously vigorous vine that is know to be a prodigious producer. All that's missing is the critical/industrial acclaim! That is building no doubt but there is a high degree of wine snobbism at play here, and of which I myself have been guilty. It's time to move beyond that, and with the industry's help we are. My recent visit to Santa Barbara's wine country was in no small part driven by an interest in Grenache from a region that has a well deserved reputation with the variety, and Rhone varieties in general. What I tasted just helped further convince me that Grenache's moment will come. It's time to let the wine drinking public out there know that a great Grenache is better than a crappy Pinot, and often the same price!
So with one eye on the not too distant Grenache Day 2013, Friday, September 20th I'm going to get the ball moving with this handful of reviews. I hope it encourages you to give Grenache a first, second, or third try. Grenache really has everything it needs to be the next Rockstar wine, what will it take to push it over that edge? I've included some Grenache based blends here as well and while that might make for a more interesting wine from the winemaker, or wine geek perspective I do not believe that these blends really will help broaden Grenache's consumer base. Syrah and Mourvedre just are too assertive and frankly interfere with the expression of Grenache's purity of fruit in my opinion. I see the future of Grenache, the success of Grenache based on that purity and accessibility. I see the future of Grenache as a varietally labeled wine.
Gregory Dal Piaz, Snooth