Sunday, January 11, 2009

Did Jesus drink Grenache?

The French of Southern France know absolutely what it means to say that wine and spirit are connected as one. They take it so seriously that in medieval times the monks built in the vineyards a replica of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the site in Jerusalem where it is said that Jesus was buried. 

The Chapelle St-Sepulcre is near the village of Valettes, at the foot of Mont Ventoux (of Tour de France fame), in the Provence region. Here are some photos I took of the chapel and the vineyards nearby.

Most of the grapes grown in the Ventoux area are grenache (pronounced "gren-ash"), and it is a grape popular throughout the Mediterranean wine growing regions of France and Spain (spelled garnacha in Spain). 

The vines bear big round fruit, and the better winegrowers often cut off and discard on the ground the early growth, waiting for the fruity and more sugar-laden grapes that come later. Unfortunately, a lot of the grenache that comes to the United States is not good, and grenache has gotten something of a reputation as a cheap wine. That is truly unfortunate. 

While touring the region, we enjoyed some huge grenache wines that were inky dark in the glass, with aromas of sweet tobacco and a touch of tannin, or fruit acid, that would allow it to age and stand up respectfully next to wines from Burgundy and Bordeaux.  

The best roses in the world are made with grenache, and to my mind there is nothing finer on a hot summer day than a glass of Rose from Southern France with a little cheese from the Cow Girl Creamery of Pt. Reyes and tapenade (chopped olive) from B.R. Cohn Winery in Sonoma County.

Grenache is versatile, and is used to mix with other wine
grapes in the Rhone region. Most Chateauneuf-du-Pape is made with grenache, and again, unfortunately, most of that wine that comes to the U.S. is not very good.

While Californians sometimes look down their noses at mixing, that is the time honored artform of French winemakers, and is being done with increasing skill by Californians. 

Indeed, Robert Mondavi who brought us the single varietal wine revolution (single variety of grape) in the 1960s overturned it with his Opus winery in the 1990s by mixing single varietals to create better wines. Californians are beginning to plant grenache, and a few are learning to make the roses. That is all to the good! 

There is a group of wine makers in the Napa-Sonoma region who've been experimenting for several years with Rhone-style wines, and they've been nicknamed "the Rhone Rangers." More on them another day.

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