Can California Grenache Beat Châteauneuf-du-Pape?

Paul Blow

Last week, Randall Grahm, founder and visionary behind the California wine brand Bonny Doon, posed a question that he said is “the existential paradox of growing grapes in the New World.” The thoughtful Grahm, who is taken seriously despite his propensity to spout puns and wear puffy silk shirts, was seated at the center of a table lined with 22 journalists and sommeliers at the Michelin-starred Manresa in Los Gatos, California, all there for a 25-year vertical wine tasting of Le Cigare Volant, Grahm’s Californian homage to Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The question was, “What do we [the New World] have to bring to the party? What can we do that’s different, unique, special?”

Relatively few new-world wines have entered into the European-dominated pantheon of “classics” (perhaps only Napa Cabernet and New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc). Grahm answered his own question: Grenache, which he thinks is “one of the few grapes that we can do in California better than almost anywhere else in the world.”

Grenache is the base of Le Cigare Volant, which also includes smaller portions of Mourvedre, Syrah, Carignane, and Cinsault. (Grahm has written more than you’d ever want to know about the 25 years of Cigare.)

And indeed, Le Cigare Volant was wonderful, especially the well-preserved wines from 1984, ’85, and ’87, which had not only persisted but evolved beautifully in the bottle, their cherry fruit cores remaining strong while collecting mature notes of tobacco, earth, and spice. Considered by many to be the warm-weather Pinot Noir, Grenache is similarly light in color, generous in alcohol, and capable of great nuance. Grenache grown in California’s cooler regions makes wines, Grahm said, “with better acidity, better color, more freshness, and a unique character that you don’t get in Châteauneuf.”

Do I agree with him? Yes and no. I do think Grenache is a great fit for California’s climate and that world-class wines can be made from it here (I think the same of Syrah). Better than Châteauneuf? Well, California has a dearth of limestone, which may be what allows many Châteauneufs to reach such high levels of ripeness while still maintaining liveliness and acidity. Then again, the greatest Grenache in the world, Chateau Rayas, is grown in Châteauneuf on sandy soil. So there’s hope.

Can California ever produce Grenache at that level? Perhaps. More of it needs to be planted in better sites (something that isn’t happening, since there’s no real market for California Grenache). And it needs to be made in traditional ways, in large old oak tanks rather than new barrels, which overemphasize its fruit and make it as cloying as cherry cough drops. Grahm learned that lesson the hard way. The exemplary early years of Cigare were made in the ancient manner, and, a tinkerer at heart, Grahm couldn’t resist trying the woody new-world styles for a number of years. He’s back on track now, and Le Cigare Volant is better than ever, poised to have an even better 25 years than the first.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.