Holly's Hill Vineyards in Pleasant Valley, just outside Placerville, is a family-run vineyard and winery that, despite its small size, produces a wide and diverse range of fine wines.
When we stopped by the tasting room earlier this summer, the lineup included a refreshingly spicy viognier, a surprisingly complex syrah, a beefy mourvedre and the juicy Patriarche, the family's proprietary flagship wine, an enduring blend of grape varieties traditionally associated with France's Rhône Valley.
My favorite, however, was the Holly's Hill Vineyards 2010 El Dorado Grenache Noir, which while lightly colored nevertheless packed an array of fresh fruit flavors cranberry up front, followed by strawberries and plums, all set off by generous dashes of black pepper. It's a dry wine, yet sweetly fruity, with a supple texture and a thread of minerality that give it the sort of layering that beckons at least a few more tastes.
Later, in talking with winemaker Carrie Bendick, the daughter of owners Tom and Holly Cooper, I was surprised to learn that the grenache noir is the winery's single most popular wine.
That tells me that today's wine consumer, more adventurous than generally perceived, is discovering and appreciating such low- profile yet highly expressive varietals as grenache noir, even if they have two strikes against them. In the case of grenache noir, that would be both lack of standing as a noble variety and lack of deep coloring in many of the wines it yields.
Of course, it helps that the wine is well made. And grenache noir isn't an easy wine to grow and make.
Holly's Hill has about 3 acres of grenache noir. In 2000, the family planted two clones of the variety about midway down the steep slope that spills south from the deck of the winery's tasting room.
Some of the fruit from that band of grenache noir goes into Patriarche, some of it goes into the winery's lean and spunky grenache rosé, and the rest of it goes into the grenache noir.
Grenache noir is a vigorous grower, producing large clusters of grapes characterized by epauletlike wings on their shoulders. These wings, said Bendick, are susceptible to "sun bleaching." That is, by being open to direct sunlight the grapes on the shoulders tend to lose color. The wings also interfere with sunlight getting to the grapes at the core of the cluster, restraining their development of color.
As a consequence, as the bunches near maturity, Bendick, her husband, Josh, and some friends sweep through the stand of grenache noir to trim off the wings. Those are what they use to make their grenache rosé.
"We only notice sun bleaching in the grenache," said Carrie Bendick.
If they weren't to remove the wings, the resulting grenache noir would be less intense in color. On the other hand, when the weather turns cool and damp, grenache is more susceptible to mildew and mold than other varieties.
"With grenache, it's a love-hate relationship," said Bendick. "It needs a lot of attention in the vineyard, but once it's fermenting it's nice to work with."
Grenache noir, also known simply as grenache, long has been grown in California, primarily in the Central Valley, where its identity never got much exposure because it generally was blended anonymously into generic jug wines.
In the southern reaches of France's Rhône Valley, on the other hand, grenache is revered. There, it provides the base for three styles of highly regarded wines the nobly complex and deeply red Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the dry and lightly colored rosé Tavel, and the tawny dessert wine Banyuls.
Today, only about 7,000 acres of grenache are cultivated in California. That total has changed little in recent years. Several vintners scattered about the state, however, see potential in the variety and have been putting in small plots of the grape. That includes a few growers and winemakers in the Sierra foothills, where grenache is being tentatively promoted as an alternative to pinot noir, which with very few exceptions hasn't shown well in the Mother Lode.
In contrast, grenache takes to the region's long, dry summers and frequently scorching temperatures, yielding a wine that at the table plays much the same role as pinot noir. That is, it tends to be light in color, slender yet sturdy in build, distinctly fruity in flavor, and marked by the sort of refreshing acidity that makes it an amiable companion with all sorts of foods. Along those lines, then, the Holly's Hill grenache noir is the template, being a wine so fresh and versatile that it can be enjoyed as much with the light foods of the last days of summer as the more robust fare associated with the first days of autumn.
Grenache is a natural fit at Holly's Hill Vineyards, which makes only wines from such traditional Rhône Valley grape varieties as viognier, carignane, mourvedre, cinsault and syrah.
Given the rising stature of grenache and the popularity specifically of the Holly's Hill interpretation, might they be thinking of expanding their planting?
That may be tempting, but Bendick knows how challenging the grape is to grow.
"I think we have all we can handle right now," she said.
Holly's Hill Vineyards
2010 El Dorado Grenache Noir
By the numbers: 14.7 percent alcohol, 546 cases, $20
Context: When Holly's Hill sent the grenache noir to members of its wine club, it included a recipe and a packet of chili-pepper flakes for "veg box tacos." It is a recipe for vegetarian tacos that takes advantage
of the obscure sorts of greens that are apt to show up in a box of produce distributed by growers involved in community-supported agriculture, such as mustard greens and Swiss chard. Chop them up, sauté them with onion, garlic and the chili flakes, and serve them with corn tortillas, cotija cheese, cilantro and the grenache noir. The recipe isn't on the winery's website, but another dish recommended for the grenache noir is salmon with a caper cream sauce. In addition, Carrie Bendick likes the grenache noir with slow-cooked pork rubbed with sage or accompanied with cilantro. "The herbs bring out the earth-iness in the mouth feel of the wine," she said.
Availability: In Sacramento, the grenache noir is carried by Corti Brothers and the Shack restaurant, both on Folsom Boulevard, and the Press Bistro on Capitol Avenue in midtown. The wine also can be ordered online through the winery's website, www.hollyshill.com.
More information: The tasting room at Holly's Hill Vineyards, 3680 Leisure Lane, Placerville, is open 10 a.m.- 5 p.m. daily.