It’s the third annual International Grenache Day this Friday, Sept. 21.

What’s that, you say? You’ve never heard of Grenache Day! Or perhaps even more common: What is Grenache?

Some say it is the third most-planted varietal in the world behind Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon (as if it’s a long-rumored myth no one can believe). After all, it dominates the famous reds of France’s Chateauneuf-du-Pape. But after falling out of favor in the United States as a blending varietal in decades-worth of jug wines from the Central Valley, it is now down to less than 7,000 acres in California.

It’s true that Grenache doesn’t get nearly the respect (and acreage) as better-known red varietals, but it’s gaining in notoriety. It was served at the White House for the first State Dinner of the Obama Administration. San Francisco wine critic Jon Bonné listed Grenache (white and red) as third in a list of five things to focus on in the wine industry for 2012. Noting that there were only 33 acres of Pinot Grigio in California in 1994 before it burst to prominence, Bonné speculates the same may be possible for Grenache Blanc although there are less than 300 acres planted to it in California now.

With events such as Grenache Day aimed at putting the spotlight on this long-neglected varietal, producers are hoping the wine-loving public will give this lesser-known grape a spot at the table. Bonné noted in a March 2011 San Francisco Chronicle story: “Evidence is strong 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.”

Grenache History

If you had the impression this varietal arrived on our shores just in time to be bottled in the old jug wines of yore from Rossi, Gallo or Inglenook in the mid-20th century, think again. Grenache was first documented in 1857 in the plantings of Charles Lefranc (whose family founded the New Almaden Winery), a vestige of which, Almaden, exists to this day.

But as we mentioned earlier, much of the California Grenache was ripped out in the 1990s to plant the more popular varietals of the day, such as the now-waning Syrah. But in the old world, Grenache (or Cannonau, as it’s known in Sardinia) has been around for centuries. In Spain, where it is known as Garnacha, there are large tracts of 100+ year old vines.

Grenache the Stalwart

Here in California Grenache is now grown widely across the state from the highly-popular locales of Paso Robles and Santa Barbara, along the coast up to Santa Cruz and Monterey. Moving north and inland, it can be found in Santa Clara county, Lodi and up into the Sierra Foothills.

In the North Bay, Grenache Blanc and Noir can be found in small tracts in both Napa and Sonoma AVAs (American Viticultural Area). But again, we’re talking about very small acreage in our backyard. In 2009, less than 35 acres of bearing Grenache vines were planted in Napa, which may explain why those grapes sold for $3,520 per ton on average. That was more than what Merlot was going for in Napa that year per ton.

Mathis VineyardIn Sonoma County, which had considerably more land planted to Grenache in 2009, there were 160 acres planted of the grape we’ll be celebrating Friday. The average price in 2009 per ton was $2,660, which was approximately 20% more than the average price per ton of Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon!

Notably, several wineries pouring at Friday’s festivities produce their Grenache from grapes grown in Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley. But you’ll also find excellent examples from Sonoma Valley, and other AVAs nearby.

As evidenced by this list of locales, Grenache is one of the hardiest varietals around showing none of Pinot Noir’s finicky growing conditions. This varietal loves the heat, does well in a variety of soils but particularly dry, volcanic, rocky terrain. It’s known for its unusually woody canopy and thick vine girth making it almost impossible to pick with mechanical harvesters. Grape clusters are often thin-skinned, producing light tannins, colors and acidity but making for higher ABV in the 15% range. On the other hand, depending upon the winemaking techniques employed, Grenache and blends can be rich in phenolic compounds, producing complex wines graced by an array of spices, earth flavors and delicious berries, from strawberries to raspberries, cherries, cranberries and plums.

In many ways Grenache can seem like the lighter side of Cabernet Sauvignon: less weight, less serious and less overpowering. Grenache Blanc, on the opposite spectrum, can make a superb alternative to Chardonnay, Viognier and even Chenin Blanc.

If your interest is piqued, come celebrate California’s next big thing on Friday: Grenache!  In the North Bay, the Rhone Rangers celebrate Grenache Day with a free tasting event at The Wineyard (in Santa Rosa Vintners Square) from 4:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m.

Pouring their Grenache Blancs, Noirs and Rosés will be Davis Family Vineyards, Donelan Wines, Mathis Wine, Mounts Family Vineyards, Quivara Vineyards and Winery, Ridge Vineyards, Sheldon, Stark Wine and Two Shepherds.