Grenache has been around for centuries, and, of course, there’s a long debate about its origins. Many sources point to the Aragon region in northern Spain; others claim it originated on the Mediterranean island of Sardinia, where it is known as “Cannonau.” Most, though, believe Garnacha to be indigenous to Aragon and its surroundings and explain this by two facts: first, this is the only area of Spain where we can find the broad range of varieties of Garnacha as a whole – grey, white, red and peluda (meaning “hairy”) – and second, recent scientific studies indicate a significant clonal diversity in Spain lacking among Sardinian Cannonau. 

Regardless of its origins, this is a variety that has traveled far and wide. By the 1800s, it was grown in the French regions of southern Languedoc-Roussillon and the Rhône Valley. In the 1900s, it was widely planted in Spain’s Rioja region, replacing vines devastated by the phylloxera epidemic. In nineteenth century California, Grenache was prized as a high-yielding vine and used as a blend for jug wines. While today’s Grenache is by no means obscure in California, it has mostly been an afterthought -- something for winemakers to indulge themselves while they churn out Cabernet and Syrah. Comparing the grape’s prospects to that of Syrah, the better-known red-skinned grape of Southern Rhône, the San Francisco Chronicle once noted that “Grenache has the goods to succeed where Syrah couldn’t … its profile is as welcoming as Syrah’s is mysterious – packed with generous strawberry flavors and spice, its edges soft (but not mushy), its demeanor as sunny and welcoming as its native terrain.” Inspiring words indeed!

California Grenache Timeline

Grenache was most likely introduced to California by Charles Lefranc, a prominent Santa Clara wine grower

Grenache spread through California. Its erect carriage, lending itself to “gobelet” or “head training,” immense vigor, and drought resistance made it a popular planting choice. In the Central Valley it became the second most planted red grape after Carignan and a key component in many branded field blends.

Acreage grew steadily after Prohibition, especially in the Central Valley, with an emphasis on dessert and rosé table wines.

Grenache reached its peak in California at just over 8,094 ha/20,000 acres. Then it fell dramatically out of favor as other grapes were propagated and public tastes in premium varietal wines changed.

Rhône Rangers and other winemakers turned to Rhône varieties, but Grenache never took off. Instead, Syrah became the red Rhône grape of choice. One noteworthy exception, however, was Randall Grahm’s highly successful Bonny Doon Clos de Gilroy, an inexpensive fresh, lively California Grenache, delicious served slightly chilled like a Beaujolais. It originated in a vineyard close to Gilroy, CA, an area famed for its  garlic crop. Alas, Clos de Gilroy disappeared in a company reorganization in the 1990s.

While Grenache acreage has declined, the varietal has undergone something of a resurgence in popularity, with 809 ha/2,000 new acres planted in the last 20 years in high quality coastal appellations, the greatest concentration in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties. Single variety examples have been growing in popularity and its role in Rhône blends has been celebrated.

Grenache plantings stood at 1,791.95 hectares/4,428 acres  (1,709.39 hectares/4,224 acres bearing and 82.56 hectares/204 acres non-bearing) through year-end 2021, representing 0.95% of total vineyard plantings of all California wine grapes.

Grenache, (often referred to as Grenache Noir, to differentiate it from its white counterpart Grenache Blanc) is the most widely planted grape in the southern Rhône Valley and at one point was the second most widely planted grape worldwide (it's now seventh). It is most often blended with Syrah and Mourvèdre in France and Australia (Can you say GSM? Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre), and frequently with Tempranillo in Rioja, but reaches its pinnacle in the wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, where it comprises 70%+ of the appellation’s acreage. In fact, the world’s arguably most expensive and rare example, Château Rayas, is an old-vines 100% varietal. The best vintages sell regularly for a few thousand US dollars a bottle!