"Working the Land" (Viticulture)

Viticulture: Grenache At-A-Glance
Vigor (low/high)
Relatively easy to grow. Moderately to highly vigorous and managed by rootstock selection, crop thinning, spacing and clone matching as well as, where legal, managed irrigation.
Performs qualitatively at its best in gravelly,stony soils and well in sandy soils (naturally moderates vigor), also limestone. Quite drought-resistant.
Yield (potential)
If left unchecked, high. For quality, depending on vigor and winemaker intent, green harvesting for concentration of flavor and color depth can be practiced, as high yields equal dilute flavor and low berry pigmentation. Grenache is susceptible to potentially very high sugar levels (good for dessert/fortified styles)
Growth cycle
Relatively early budding, but late ripening; hence need for warmer climates
Susceptible to downy mildew, botrytis, Phomopsis (dead arm), grapevine bacterial necrosis, and can be susceptible to millerandage

Growing and Making Grenache (In California)

As Jon Bonné aptly noted, “California never had a mental map for Grenache - the hoary Winkler scale that guided Cabernet to Napa and (perhaps wrongly) Syrah to even warmer spots barely acknowledged other Rhône-native grapes.” He could not have been more right. All initial efforts were earmarked to the hot and dry Central Valley—good for volume and grape sugars but not so great for wine quality. Over time, it has been increasingly embraced that one needs to take one’s foot off the accelerator—just a little. In other words, the finest expressions don't so much come from hot locations, while one does need warmth with this grape, as from slightly cooler microclimates in generally warmer places. 

Spoiler alert: when most of us use the term Grenache or Garnacha, we usually have Grenache Noir/Garnacha Tinta in mind -- the black version of the grape. But as mentioned earlier, there are also white, pink and grey mutations of the variety and even a mutation with distinctive furry undersides to the leaves. That is because Garnacha is an ancient variety and has undergone many mutations, some of which are stable. The main mutations have resulted in: Garnacha Blanca (white), Garnacha Roja ("red" in Spanish, though the grape is pinky-grey),  and Garnacha Peluda (the downy-leafed example). 

These translate to Grenache Blanc, Grenache Gris and Lledoner Pelut in French. However, scientists tell us that all, including classic Garnacha Tinta, have the same DNA profile. There you go. But for our discussion and from the point of view of hectares planted, Garnacha Tinta/Grenache Noir is by far the most important, making up 94% of global plantings.

Working The Land:

Does soil influence the flavor of the final wine?

Traditionalists answer unequivocally “Yes!” Soil is a key element of terroir, the natural environment in which the vines grow, along with climate (temperature, rainfall), topography (altitude, drainage, slope, aspect) and sunlight.

A more unorthodox view holds that the influence of soil on what you taste in the glass is a myth. Maynard Amerine and Ann Noble, two famous names at UC Davis, California’s premier wine school and wine research facility, did a study on the topic. Though the study is based on Chardonnay grapes, they concluded that the following holds true for all wine grapes: “no outstanding sensory differences were observed in wines produced from different soil type locations.” The key word is “sensory” (sight, smell, taste). They are not saying that the soil doesn’t affect vine behavior (yield, growth cycle, etc.). 

The subject is most certainly up for further debate. That said, here is a brief review of how Grenache, according to the classic view, expresses itself in the glass based on the type of soil in which it is grown.

Warm quickly and retain heat well. The presence of a high level of acidity works to minimize acid levels in the grapes while the soils’ low fertility means that the roots will grow deep and strong. Granite-grown wines embody higher tension, brightness and precision thanks to elevated pH promoting high acidity. With Grenache, this is noteworthy in Spain’s Castilla y Leon. 

CA locations: Sierra Foothills

While we do not find much in California, Spain and much of Iberia, notably Portugal’s Douro valley, are replete with schistose soils. Schist soils comprise hard, dense rocks layered with minerals. These soils are generally flaky, retain heat well, and create some of the world’s biggest, boldest reds. Portugal’s Douro Valley and Spain’s Priorat are two major regions renowned for their schist soils. 

CA locations: No significant schist in California’s wine regions

Limestone is one of the most exalted soil types in viticulture and long regarded as among the best raw material for nurturing vines. Limestone soils, specifically decomposed limestone soils (solid limestone being too hard for roots to penetrate) are rich in calcium carbonate. This calcium carbonate content is extremely beneficial for vines. First, it offers insane water retention capabilities while simultaneously permitting excellent drainage. Secondly, calcium-rich limestone tends to have a higher pH than other soils,translating to easier nutrient absorption and higher acidity levels in fruit. Third, limestone’s high calcium content helps berries fight off diseases. When calcium content in soils is low, grapes begin to prioritize their inner wellbeing rather than skin health, which in turn makes clusters more susceptible to disease and rot. As with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, limestone can also benefit Grenache, Languedoc’s Saint Chinian being a good example.

CA Locations: Paso Robles, Mount Harlan

Sandy soils are very porous. As a result, water can infiltrate and drain through these soils easily. Well-drained soils generally benefit grape vines and tend to provide certain characteristics, like bright fruit and a light, almost transparent quality to flavors. Historically, some people believed sand was best suited to white wine grapes, but that was more reflective of previous predilections for rich, dark red wines than sand’s actual capabilities. The great Grenache vineyards of Blewitt Springs in McLaren Vale, for example, are mostly planted in sandy soils – and we all know how impactful and impressive McLaren Vale Grenache can be.

CA locations: Santa Barbara (Ballard Canyon), parts of Monterey County

These include rocks, stones, galets roulées, pebbles, cobblestones, pudding stones or larger gravel. Collectively, they form massive fields of stones deposited by ancient rivers that sit on the surface or a few inches below. More heat-resistant Rhône-centric varieties such as Grenache adapt well to rocky vineyards, profiting from summertime radiant heat as their roots penetrate deep in search of nutrients. Châteauneuf-du-Pape is undeniably the world’s most renowned area when it comes to gravel soils.

CA locations: While no larger gravels exist as profoundly as in Châteauneuf-du-Pape or Oregon’s Milton-Freewater with its galets roulées, there are alluvial fans in California wine country with ample stones and similar viticultural conditions.

Most producers agree on the necessary levels of ripeness demanded from Grenache when searching for phenolically ripe grapes. Wines made from ripe Grenache are among some of the most sublime in the world. But when Grenache lacks ripeness, the red wines are not that interesting and the fruit better suited to rosé. Although a few very good pure-play 100% Grenaches are made in the Golden State, Grenache is more often used  as a role player in many Rhône-style reds or proprietary label red blends.

Clonal section with Grenache is largely mandated by the style of wine grapes a specific vineyard area/region will produce. It is said there are over 360 clones of Grenache, which are delineated by such features as color (or lack thereof), tannin, sugar potential, etc.  But you would never know that by looking at the official UC Davis FPS offerings, which list just three: 01, 03, and 214, the first two being Spanish, the latter Portuguese. That said, some California wineries who have been underwhelmed by the lack of options, including pioneering Tablas Creek, have gone to great lengths to import, quarantine, and propagate their own selections from France’s southern Rhône and other spots. Further, the diversity of planting stock in California has increased dramatically as Grenache Noir ENTAV-INRA® 70, 136, 362, 513, and 515 selections have started to become commercially available.

Grenache vines have strong wood and an upright growth. This makes the variety well-suited for bush vines (“gobelet”) in hot, dry, windy vineyards, e.g., the Southern Rhône with its Mistral wind. Grenache is naturally drought-resistant, a condition that can be enhanced by planting it on drought-resistant rootstock, while its proclivity for hot, dry conditions makes it an attractive option for the realities of global warming. Lastly, tannin levels in the skins and in the final wine depend on the ratio of water stress – higher stress equating to more tannins.

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Sustainability and California

As an agricultural industry, the California wine community has a long history of adapting to change and demonstrating its commitment to sound environmental practices and social responsibility. Building on these efforts are the educational and certification programs of the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance (CSWA). Established by Wine Institute and the California Association of Winegrape Growers, CSWA is the most comprehensive and widely adopted wine sustainability program in the world, and– together with other important sustainability programs in regions throughout the state– has made California wine a leader in addressing climate change.