This article first appeared in the Wine Talk column in the Weekend Supplement of the Jerusalem Post.
When the Baron Edmond de Rothschild’s French agronomists planted grapes here in the early 1880’s, they recommended varieties from the South of France which they assumed would grow well here because of similarities of climate. Carignan, Grenache and Mourvèdre were all planted in those pioneering days.
In 1887 Baron Edmond de Rothschild went against the advice of his agronomists and insisted on planting Bordeaux varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Malbec. He even sent cuttings from Château Lafite in Bordeaux. This was the start of the debate whether to use Bordeaux or Mediterranean varieties. It is still going on today.
Initially, the Mediterranean varieties won out and went on to become the dominant varieties for the next 90 years. This was epitomized by Carignan which became the mainstay of Israeli wine. However the most planted grape between the 1940’s and 1960’s was Grenache. For that period there was even more Grenache planted than the ever present Carignan.
However the only wine the Grenache really became known for was its legendary Rosé. When Carmel launched Israel’s first varietal wines, (a varietal is a wine named after the dominant grape variety), there was a Sauvignon Blanc (dry white), a Semillon (semi dry white), a Cabernet Sauvignon (red) and… a Grenache Rosé.
The Carmel Grenache Rosé though, was reasonably dark colored (like a bottle of red wine diluted with a glass of water) and it was semi dry bordering on medium, in terms of sweetness. Yet it was fantastically popular, bringing many new drinkers to wine. Sandwiched in between Carmel Hock and Selected Emerald Riesling, it was Israel’s largest selling wine and was at its peak in the seventies and eighties.
Then, came the new world wine revolution initiated by the Golan Heights Winery. They chose Bordeaux varieties rather than Mediterranean. Hence Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc received more focus.
Gradually Grenache disappeared from the Israeli wine scene, and the rosé style of wine it was associated with, became thoroughly out of fashion. That is until today. Rosé is back and so is Grenache.
The finest Israeli wines today still use Bordeaux varieties in blends with Cabernet Sauvignon as the dominant variety. However, there is now a discernible trend back to Mediterranean varieties. The pioneers of this change have been Carmel and Recanati of the larger wineries and Chateau Golan, Lewinsohn, Sea Horse, Shvo Vineyards and Vitkin of the smaller wineries. Each decided to focus on varieties that were maybe less fashionable 10 years ago, but today they are leading a new path in Israel.
Winemakers noticed in the bad vintages, when the dreaded hamsin (hot winds) reigns supreme, that certain varieties coped better with the high temperatures than others. They realized what those original agronomists understood. Israel is an Eastern Mediterranean country and that maybe Mediterranean varieties would be suitable here.
Only in the late 1990’s was Shiraz (aka Syrah) planted for the first time. It was noted that the variety grew successfully everywhere in Israel. Wines like Carmel Kayoumi Shiraz, Clos de Gat Sycra Syrah and Yarden Yonatan Syrah have already received international recognition. Some believe the variety will challenge Cabernet Sauvignon in future.
Now others are coming back. These include Grenache and Mourvèdre, and there are new varieties here, like Marselan, a cross between Grenache and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Grenache is one of the most planted varieties on the planet. It is known as Garnacha Tinta in Spain, Cannonau in Sardinia and Grenache Noir in France. In Israel first time round, it was known as Alicante Grenache, which confused everyone because there was another grape variety called Alicante Bouschet. Almost everywhere else, it is known simply as Grenache.
It appears in Spain and all over southern France. It is a variety at its best as the most prominent grape variety in the famous Châteauneuf du Pape blend in the Southern Rhone, and in Priorat in the Catalonia region of Spain. It is also often part of the Rioja blend, where it plays a less distinguished role. The variety has also come to notice in California and Australia, particularly in the Barossa Valley. They sometimes make impressive varietal Grenaches there.
It is at its best in a hot climate, when planted in bush vines close to the soil. It blossoms when the vines are older. Grenache’s main weaknesses are a lack of color and acidity and a potential for too high alcohol. This is why it is usually used as a blender. In a blend, its deficiencies can be covered up and its qualities come to the fore. So more often than not, it will be blended with Tempranillo in Spain, and Syrah in France.
The wine is likely to be paler than most red wines, sometimes gaining a rusty red hue. There will be an attractive aroma, of raspberries and strawberries and a certain ripe sweetness. It has been referred to as the hot climate Pinot Noir. You can understand why it is always popular for the production of rosé. The Tavel Rosé in the Rhone and other Rosés in the south of France are as likely as not to be made from Grenache.
It is also successful as the variety for some of the delicious fortified wines of Roussillon. The danger has always been in the trend to use Grenache has a workhorse grape, where it is uninspiring. However with careful selection, a little age, old vines and low yield Grenache produces something less fruit forward, but meatier and spicier and altogether more complex.
To sample Grenache in Israel today, look for a wine called Geshem produced by Chateau Golan. The ‘G’ represents the Grenache. The Shvo Vineyards Red has Grenache in the blend and Sea Horse Winery has Grenache as a component in a few of their wines.
There is also a new rosé produced by Yatir Winery made primarily from Grenache. It is considerably paler, more elegant, drier and more complex than its forebear. However all these are from young vines and the road is long.
As far as good Grenache from older vines is concerned, may I direct you to the Capcanes winery, which is known as Celler de Capcanes. It is situated in Monsant, which surrounds Priorat. It is only 20 miles from the Mediterranean Sea and not so far from Barcelona. Their Peraj Petita Rosa is a fine example of a Grenache Rosé.
The Peraj Petita (60% Grenache) and Peraj Ha’abib (35% Grenache) are great value wines for their quality and they show Grenache’s contribution in a blend. They are produced from vineyards which are babies at more than 50 years old.
Finally there is the Flor del Flor de Primavera. This is a 100% Grenache from vineyards ranging from 85 to 105 years old! Drinking these wines is a pleasure and an education.
These Capcanes wines mentioned are great examples of Grenache and they are kosher too. They may be found in the major kosher wine markets around the world, and in Israel too. Worth seeking out.
So Grenache is back. Many wineries are planting it. That is an investment for the future. We will see the benefits as the vineyards age and the vine trunks become thicker and more gnarled. Wine is the perfect antidote for the ‘I want it now’ generation. Let’s wait for another 25 years to see how it turns out!
Adam Montefiore works for Carmel Winery.
He regularly writes about wines in both Israeli and international publications.