Experts rally to Grenache cause

11 June, 2010

Delegates at the first-ever conference dedicated to Grenache were handed a bag celebrating “G-Day” upon arrival, a tongue-in-cheek allusion to the Normandy landings in June 66 years earlier. To some, the pun might seem a little crass, but it was strangely appropriate in some respects.

The Grenache Symposium was conceived and executed upon a grand scale, attracting 270 delegates from 23 countries to the southern Rhône Valley. There were no parachutes, landing craft or hand-to-hand skirmishes, but there was plenty of fighting talk, some of it aimed at the French appellation authority (INAO) and a good deal spoken in defence of an undervalued grape variety.

Another D-Day parallel was that the symposium was the brainchild of two Brits and an American. Walter McKinlay of Domaine de Mourchon in Séguret and the journalist Steven Spurrier had the idea of creating such an event two years ago. They enlisted the help of American Nicole Rolet of Chêne Bleu, who provided the venue (La Verrière), the organisation and prodigious quantities of can-do US enthusiasm to make it all happen.

There can be few people in France who could assemble such an impressive line-up of viticultural and winemaking talent. These included Randall Grahm and Zelma Long from the US, Eben Sadie from South Africa, Chester Osborn, Dave Powell, Stephen and Prue Henschke from Australia, Claude Bourguignon from Burgundy, Alvaro Palacios and Telmo Rodriguez from Spain, and Rhône Valley luminaries Vincent Avril and Daniel Brunier.

The conference was unusual in that, rather than just posing questions, it sought to come up with a plan of action. On the first day, delegates participated in a series of think tanks designed to look at different facets of Grenache, from the vineyard to the table. On the second, different groups presented their findings.

Many of the panels identified similar strengths and weaknesses. On the plus side, Grenache is a good blender, makes a diverse range of styles (from white to rosé, red to fortified), has lots of old vines – especially in France, Spain and Australia –

and can be grown without irrigation. It’s also the quintessential Mediterranean grape, making wines that are generally reliable and often great value for money.

On the negative side, Grenache is little known as a standalone grape, despite being the fourth most-planted red variety in the world with 200,000ha under vine. It is perceived by some as being prone to high alcohol and has few acknowledged stars.

Pushed to come up with famous wines made solely from Grenache, most of us struggled to get beyond Château Rayas in Châteauneuf-du-Pape and L’Ermita in Priorat.

The symposium raised many questions. How can Grenache become better known? Should it use pink wines as a calling card, or are these regarded as being too frivolous? Is there a way to use the fame and strong image of Châteauneuf- du-Pape to promote Grenache? Do consumers understand that Grenache is the G in GSM blends? And what about creating an international Grenache alliance? Would the French and the Spanish be happy to work alongside New World producers to promote a common grape??The conference came up with a number of proposals. There will be a monograph published about the origins of Grenache within the next year (northern Spain is the most likely candidate) with longer-term work on its DNA.

There will be information packs for sommeliers, including ideal serving temperatures. The symposium website will be used as a focus for Grenache lovers (grenachesymposium.com). There will be a series of tastings of Grenache and Grenache-based wines around the world, highlighting its ageability, quality and value for money. And, most fun of all, there will be a World Grenache Day on September 24, when people will be encouraged to wear loud, Chester Osborn-style shirts and drink, guess what? Potential marketing slogans for Grenache included: “You’ll look posh if you drink Grenache”; “It’s the grape you know, you just don’t know it”; “Grenache: the spice of life”; “Grenache: the perfect partner; “Grenache: the other noble grape”; “Grenache: workhorse and wonder horse” and “Grenache: the Mediterranean’s grape.”?For these to work, Grenache has to appear on front or, at the very least, back labels so consumers can identify it. This isn’t a problem in the New World and even Spain (although Priorat and Rioja rarely mention the proportion of Garnacha in blends), but it is illegal or just frowned upon in many French appellations.

Michel Bettane, France’s leading wine critic, called on the appellation authorities to make it obligatory to include Grenache on labels in southern Rhône. As things stand, the word Grenache cannot feature on front labels in Gigondas and Châteauneuf-du-Pape – the two most famous sources of the grape in France.

Urgent action is needed, he concluded, to restore Grenache to its rightful position. We heard that 40,000ha of Grenache have been grubbed up worldwide in the past decade, with more destined for the same fate in France and Spain.

“We must protect this great grape,” said Bettane to general applause. For lovers of Grenache, G-Day was only the start.




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