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Trouble With Grenache

Plush fruity grenache, one of the most planted red varietals in the world, caused twin taste-and-politics controversies in November.

A Robert Parker grenache/garnacha tasting during the Wine Future-Rioja 2009 conference in Rioja, Spain, angered local winemakers, and some boycotted the event. Others, including me, were underwhelmed by the much-touted wines.

Then a California grenache and green curry prawns pairing at President Barack Obama’s first state dinner on Nov. 24 drew boos from the wine blogosphere.

So what’s the trouble with this grape that Oz Clarke called “the wild, wild woman of wine, sex on wheels and devil take the hindmost, the don’t-say-I-didn’t-warn-you” varietal?

Both the pleasures and problems with grenache were on display at the Parker tasting Nov. 12. This was the hot ticket item at the two-day conference in Logrono, Spain, where about 1,000 top trade and press people from 50 countries had gathered to consider the future of wine, as well as kick around climate change, the financial crisis, branding, neo-prohibitionism in Europe and social media. About 530 of them put out the extra 217 euros to attend the tasting.

Wine Future-Rioja 2009

The grenache/garnacha tasting from Robert Parker,
top photo, draws a decidedly mixed response in Spain.

This was Parker’s first visit to Spain since 1972 and attendees packed into a white space with long tables crowded with rows of 10,600 glasses glinting under photographers’ spotlights. Parker had chosen 18 of his high-scoring grenache and grenache-based favorites to showcase: Seven labels from Chateauneuf-du-Pape (all the 2007 vintage), five from various parts of Spain, two from California and four from Australia.

Twenty-one volunteer sommeliers had flown in from 12 countries to pour the 600 bottles of mostly tiny production wines. The previous day Parker and his wife had met with the king. Still, the Rioja wine industry was miffed because their big grape is tempranillo, which meant no local reds in the lineup (two were added to the end of the tasting at the last moment). Garnacha’s home is Spain, but the grape is in decline in Rioja.

Parker justified his theme by pointing out that garnacha not only makes excellent wine in Spain, its home, but also elsewhere around the world, making comparisons possible. And besides, these are the kind of wines he loves. He gave a spirited defense of their virtues, including their versatility with food. “Soy sauce,” he said, “is what makes them work with sushi.”

So why were many of them so unpleasant to taste?

Yes, the best were big and soft-textured, with aromas and tastes of leather, earth, strawberry, black cherry, spices, coffee and roasted meat — powerful mouthfuls, strong rather than subtle. My favorites were mostly the French Chateauneuf-du-Papes, especially the 2007 Domaine de Marcoux Vieilles Vignes, 2007 Domaine Charvin and 2007 Chapoutier Barbe Rac.

But many of the others were decidedly un-food-friendly, thick and sweet, with the flame-thrower finish that comes from high alcohol — 2006 Greenock Creek Cornerstone Barossa Valley from Australia weighed in at 18.5 percent!

All too often, with hot weather and the kiss of sun conspiring with the widespread viticultural mania for extended hangtime, the grapes ripen into alcoholic monsters. Balanced and bright bottlings at the tasting, like lively, juicy 2006 Kilikanoon Duke from Australia’s Clare Valley, soft, herby, pure 2006 Espectacle from Spain’s Montsant and the dense, thick, minerally 2008 Clos Erasmus from Priorat, Spain, appealed most to me.

California too has a fashion for the grape, with many of the 100-plus bottlings now produced more interesting — and cheaper — than the two at the tasting. While the 2006 Alban Vineyards Pandora tasted like cherry cough syrup, the 2006 Sine Qua Non Atlantis was tannic, green, acidic and sweet, all at the same time. They confirmed my prejudice against musclebound grenache.

Second Thoughts on Grenache at the Obama White House

But I’m not so sure that pouring the balanced 2007 Beckmen Vineyards grenache from Santa Ynez Valley at the White House state dinner was such a bad choice, even at 15.2-percent alcohol.

Served alongside the prawns were smoked collard greens and carmelized salsify, whose sweet and smoky flavors need a low-tannin wine with plenty of sweet fruit. And the wine’s savory, licorice and plum flavors would have been just what was needed with the alternate course choice: roasted potato dumplings with tomato chutney, chick peas and okra.

More than that, the powerful grenache fulfilled the requirement Daniel Shanks, the White House wine guy, told me last year that any wine at a state dinner must have: “Presence” so it can be noticed in “the intense atmosphere.” A wine has to make an impact quickly, he explained.

In Washington, a “sex on wheels” wine should just about do it.


Zester Daily contributor Elin McCoy is a wine and spirits columnist and author of “The Emperor of Wine: The Rise of Robert M. Parker, Jr. and the Reign of American Taste.”

Photo of Robert Parker Jr. is courtesy of the Rioja Wine Council

Photo from tasting during the Wine Future-Rioja 2009 conference by Elin McCoy