A blog devoted to exploring wines made from unusual grape varieties and/or grown in unfamiliar regions all over the world. All wines are purchased by me from shops in the Boston metro area or directly from wineries that I have visited. If a reviewed bottle is a free sample, that fact is acknowledged prior to the bottle's review. I do not receive any compensation from any of the wineries, wine shops or companies that I mention on the blog.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Grenache Gris - Cotes Catalanes, France & Mendocino, California, USA

I don't know why, but it turns out that some grapes are more genetically unstable than others.  Pinot is perhaps the most famous example as most wine drinkers have enjoyed Pinots Noir, Blanc and Gris at some point in their wine drinking careers and are aware that each of them is just a berry color mutation from the same plant (interestingly, any one of the berry colors is capable of mutating into any of the others, meaning that the Gris vine can mutate into Noir or Blanc while the Blanc vine can mutate into Gris or Noir, etc.).  Pinot isn't the only grape that can perform this little color-changing trick, but it is probably the only one where all three of its color variations have gone on to become world class grapes in their own right.  Grape "families" like Terret and Traminer (aka Savagnin) are also examples of vines that are prone to mutation, but they certainly are less well known than the Pinot group.

The Grenache vine is also genetically unstable and prone to various mutations, though the members of its mutated family tree aren't quite as well known as Pinot's.  We've taken a look at the white-berried member of the family, Grenache Blanc, here before.  Grenache Blanc is fairly widely planted, but it is generally used as a blending grape and is rarely seen in varietal form.  Grenache Gris is the pink-berried form of Grenache, and it is much more difficult to come by.  Pierre Galet, in his A Practical Ampelography, tells us that in 1968, Grenache Noir was planted on about 130,000 acres in France, Grenache Blanc was planted on about 23,000 acres while Grenache Gris was planted on only about 9,000 acres.  I'm not sure what more recent planting statistics would look like, but I'd be surprised if Grenache Gris had gained any significant ground in the past fifty years.  It is also grown to a limited extent in Spain, where it is known as Garnacha Roja or Garnacha Dorada.

As with the Pinot grapes, whether or not one considers the different colored forms of the grapes as separate varieties is somewhat contentious.  Pretty much all wine drinkers regard them as separate varieties since the wines made from each are so clearly different from one another.  The regulatory bodies of different European countries also regard each differently colored berry form as a distinct variety and limit which of them can be grown in certain areas.  Most botanists and plant geneticists, though, regard them as a single variety since they are virtually genetically identical and cannot be differentiated by most modern DNA techniques.  The scientific term is a "sport," which is used to describe a part of a plant that looks different from the rest of the plant.  When the initial mutation happens on a given vine, the bunch that has pink grapes instead of red or white grapes is a sport, and the growers then make a cutting from that portion of the vine and plant that cutting in the hopes that the new vine will produce all or mostly pink grapes.

The issue is really what kind of standard we want to use to determine what is or is not a grape variety.  From a botanist's or a plant geneticist's point of view, the color of the grapes is pretty much irrelevant.  Think about a flowering plant that may have red and white flowers on it.  The actual color of the flowers doesn't matter and isn't a determining factor in the identity of the plant.  Some plants just produce flowers that are different colors and some plants produce grapes that are different colors.  The difference is that grapes are then used to make wine and the color of the grapes matters for the production of wine in a way that the color of a flower really doesn't.  From a purely biological perspective, then, the color of the grapes is irrelevant to determining the identity of a given vine, but from a utilitarian perspective, it matters a lot.  Grenache Noir and Grenache Gris are the same plant to a scientist, but they're very different to a winemaker and to a consumer and this is definitely sufficient grounds to consider them as different varieties.

The question becomes a bit more difficult when you look at the "hairy" members of each family.  Pinot Meunier is actually a chimeric mutation of Pinot Noir where there is a kind of downy hair on the leaves of the plant.  Grenache has its own hairy mutation known as Garnacha Peluda or Lledoner Pelut, which also has little white hairs on the undersides of its leaves.  For these plants, the mutation that leads to the difference in the way the vines look is located not only the berries but on the leaves.  It is difficult to make a case for considering Garnacha Peluda as a separate grape variety since wines made from it and from Grenache Noir would, presumably, be essentially the same.  Garnacha Peluda is currently listed as a separate variety in the VIVC, but it would probably make more sense to regard it as a clone of Grenache Noir rather than a separate variety.

Like its counterpart Pinot Gris, most of the wine made from Grenache Gris grapes is white.  I was able to find a bottle of the 2009 Domaine des 3 Vallees Grenache Gris, which is made in this style, for about $11.  This wine is from the Cotes Catalanes region, which is a tiny little area in southwestern France with Spain to its west and the Mediterranean to its south (map).  In the glass the wine was a medium golden lemon color.  The nose was moderately aromatic with some white pear fruit and a vegetal herbaceousness that reminded me of braised celery.  On the palate the wine was on the fuller side of medium with fairly low acidity.  There were broad, creamy pear and ripe apple fruits with some grassy herbaceousness and something like stewed vegetables.  The wine was very pithy and bitter and became more and more difficult to drink.  Even at $11, this is a hard wine to recommend as at its best it tasted of bland, washed out white fruits, but the lingering and persistent bitterness was what ultimately turned me off of this wine.

The second wine that I tried was actually a rosé wine from the Donkey and Goat winery of Mendocino, California, which I picked up from my friends at the Spirited Gourmet for about $20.    This wine is made from vines that are over 95 years old.  The grapes are stomped to crush them and the juice was left in contact with the skins for 33 hours before being pressed off.  For comparison's sake, the Petit Verdot rosé I tried in this post was on the skins for only 8 hours.  In the glass the wine was a pale pink color with orange tints.  The nose was fairly intense with fresh cut strawberry, rainier cherry and crushed raspberry fruits.  On the palate the wine was medium bodied with medium acidity.  There were flavors of creamy strawberry, watermelon, light red cherry and pear fruits.  The style of the wine was somewhere between a white wine and a rosé.  It was light, delicate and very delicious.  The wine is a little expensive for a rosé, but it's definitely worth it.  It would be good with a variety of foods but I actually enjoyed this wine most when I was drinking it on its own.

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