Washington Grenache is making a comeback

By on September 18, 2015
Washington Grenache is grown on the Wahluke Slope.

Grenache destined for Milbrandt Vineyards ripens on Washington’s Wahluke Slope. Washington Grenache is on the rise in popularity. (Photo by Andy Perdue/Great Northwest Wine)

Once again, Washington Grenache is all the rage.

Back in the 1960s, one of the first wines produced by American Wine Growers’ new label, Ste. Michelle Vineyards, was a Grenache Rosé.

“There were many critics back then who said Ste. Michelle Vineyards made the best rosé in America,” said Bob Betz, founder and winemaker for Betz Family Winery in Woodinville. “A long time ago, Washington opened its arms to Grenache.”

Betz, who worked for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates from 1976 to 2003, said those early Washington Grenache rosés helped spur on the state’s move to using more European wine grapes in the 1960s and ’70s. But that Ste. Michelle Grenache rosé faded away with the rise of California blush wines such as white Zinfandel.

Today, Grenache is back, and Washington winemakers love it.

“Grenache delivers such pleasure,” Betz told Great Northwest Wine. “It has traction now, not only at the consumer level but also with sommeliers and other decision makers. I think it’s all very positive.”

Today is International Grenache Day, and the Washington wine industry is more than happy to participate.

Great wines from Grenache

Washington Grenache makes it into Betz Family Winery's Bésoleil red blend.

Bob Betz crafts a red blend called Bésoleil that focuses on Washington Grenache. Betz, a Master of Wine, remembers when Grenache was a big hit for Washington in the 1970s. (Photo by Andy Perdue/Great Northwest Wine)

Betz crafts a wine calle Bésoleil. When he first released it in 2003, it was almost all Grenache, using grapes from Upland Vineyard on Snipes Mountain in the Yakima Valley. Today Bésoleil still is dominated by Grenache, but it’s a blend modeled after Châteauneuf du Pape, a red wine from France’s Southern Rhône Valley. It includes such grapes as Counoise, Cinsault and Mourvèdre.

He also continues to get Grenache from Upland, and he recently brought in those grapes and now has them resting in barrel.

“It’s pristine Grenache,” Betz said. “It is surprisingly dark and has intense flavors for Grenache.”

Betz also brings in Grenache from Olsen Vineyards north of Prosser, where it provides great intensity.

The Yakima Valley would seem to be a favorite location for growing Washington Grenache. Victor Palencia, owner of Palencia Winery in Walla Walla and director of winemaking for Columbia River’s Edge Winery in Mattawa, produces a Grenache and a blend.

“My first interaction with Grenache was 10 years ago,” Palencia said. “It was one of those varieties that Dave (Minick of Willow Crest Winery) was growing. I just fell it love with it.”

Palencia gets his Grenache from Canyon Ranch Vineyard, a planting north of Prosser that is owned by Precept Wine and formerly known as Snipes Canyon Ranch.

“I’m fortunate to get that fruit,” he said.

Earlier this month, wine writer Sean Sullivan of Washington Wine Report in Seattle revealed his top 100 list for Seattle Metropolitan magazine, and the No. 1 wine was a Grenache from Cayuse Vineyards owner Christophe Baron.

“It can clearly do very well here,” Sullivan said. “It can be absolutely spectacular.”

Heat-loving Grenache

Washington Grenache grows on Red Mountain.

Grenache grapes ripen at Red Heaven Vineyard on Red Mountain. Washington Grenache is the most expensive grape in the state. (Photo by Andy Perdue/Great Northwest Wine)

Sullivan remembers sitting in on a Grenache panel a few years ago at Taste Washington and recalls being skeptical that the Mediterranean variety had a future in Washington. Syrah already was a difficult wine to sell, and Grenache can be sensitive to too much oak and susceptible to being tarnished by too much oxygen.

“It’s a finicky grape,” he said. “It’s Washington’s Pinot Noir.”

Betz said one of the difficulties with Grenache is it is winter tender, meaning it does not handle Washington’s occasional cold winters well.

“That’s one of the big drawbacks,” he said. “It’s not winter hardy. Given any sort of encouragement at the end of the growing season, Grenache doesn’t harden off,” meaning it doesn’t easily go dormant for the cold winter months. Thus, a sudden freeze in late fall or early winter can cause serious damage.

Betz recalls the winter of 1978-79, when a deep freeze devastated Cold Creek Vineyard north of the Yakima Valley.

“The Grenache at Cold Creek just got hammered,” he said. “The vines died – not just the buds.”

As such, Betz warned that site selection is crucial for Washington Grenache’s success. He prefers vineyards that are on warmer south-facing slopes and at higher elevations so cold winter air can’t pool around the vines.

“There’s great air drainage at Snipes Mountain, which is really good for Grenache,” he said.

Palencia said it’s easy for Grenache to carry too many grapes, and the clusters can be high maintenance because the grapes grow so close together.

“If you’re not careful, you can get rot and other vineyard disasters,” he said. “It’s not an easy grape to work with.”

GSMs and the rise of Washington Grenache

Bob Betz loves Washington Grenache.

Bob Betz pours a red wine at Betz Family Winery in Woodinville, Wash. He began working with Washington Grenache in 2003 for his Bésoliel red blend. (Photo by Andy Perdue/Great Northwest Wine)

With the interest in Rhône varieties on the rise in Washington since the mid-1990s, Grenache has once again moved up to top of mind for many winemakers.

One of the most popular red blends in Washington is referred to as a GSM, which is an abbreviation for Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre. This is the blend that made the Southern Rhône famous. The order of importance can change in a GSM (with Syrah or Mourvèdre sometimes taking the lead), and other Rhône varieties such as Counoise and Cinsault might also make it into the mix.

With this increased interest in Grenache, more and more vines are being planted, though the pool is still small.

In 2012, Washington winemakers crushed 1,000 tons of Grenache, making it the first time the variety was reported separately by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In 2013 and 2014, the tonnage fell slightly to 900 tons, enough to produce more than 50,000 cases of wine – if all of it was made into a straight varietal Grenache.

It also has become the state’s most expensive variety. In 2013, it topped the charts at an average price of $1,889 per ton. That dropped in 2014 to $1,674. Betz said that has everything to do with supply and demand.

“Scarcity drives price,” Betz said. “We just can’t get our hands on enough of it.”

Sullivan said he actually broke out a separate section on his top 100 list for Grenache – a first in the six years he’s been putting the list together for Seattle Met.

“It’s nice to see some Grenache bubbling up to the top there,” he said.

And how about Grenache rosé? It, too, has made a comeback.

L’Ecole No. 41 in the Walla Walla Valley town of Lowden and Columbia Winery in Woodinville both make superb examples of Grenache rosé. L’Ecole produced 400 cases of its 2014 Alder Ridge Vineyard Grenache Rosé ($22), while Sean Hails made twice that much of the Columbia Winery 2014 Grenache Rosé ($26), also from the Horse Heaven Hills.

About Andy Perdue

Andy Perdue is founding partner of Great Northwest Wine LLC and a longtime wine columnist. He is a third-generation journalist who has worked at newspapers since the mid-1980s and has been writing about wine since 1998. He co-founded Wine Press Northwest magazine with Eric Degerman and served as its editor-in-chief for 15 years. He is the author of "The Northwest Wine Guide: A Buyer's Handbook" (Sasquatch, 2003) and has contributed to four other books.

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