If I were to plan a wine-focused road trip for this summer, I’d start by opening a map of Okanagan Valley in the Canadian province of British Columbia.
For one, at international wine competitions over the past couple of years, I’ve been struck by the number of gold medals and other high awards won by wines from Okanagan Valley, and not all of them have been ice wines. Actually, most of them have been dry table wines like gewürztraminer, pinot noir, riesling and merlot.
Now add to that list wines made with grenache, a black grape long identified with warm wine regions of France and Spain, and more recently California.
Grenache is the varietal wine we chose for this year’s Judgment of Geyserville, a blind tasting that a half-dozen wine writers began to convene four years ago on the eve of the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition in northern Sonoma County.
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For the Judgment of Geyserville, which for the first time this year was held in the Lookout Room of Francis Ford Coppola’s Virginia Dare Winery, this is our game plan: Participants each are assigned a region, from which they are to select and bring three or so candidates for the tasting, which in the past have been the varietal wines cabernet sauvignon, riesling and syrah.
My assignment was to round up grenaches from California, no simple task given the growing popularity and esteem of the varietal here. Over the years, I’ve savored and written of outstanding grenaches from such producers as Lavender Ridge, Wilderotter, Holly’s Hill and Unti.
Other regions in this year’s tasting were Australia, Washington and Oregon in addition to Okanagan Valley; we also folded in one from Idaho just for kicks. I expected my California entries to pretty much run away from the rest of the field, as did the three syrahs I brought last year.
I think it fair to say, however, that all judges were startled if not stunned by the assertiveness and clarity of the three grenaches from Okanagan Valley. What’s more, all three were from the same producer, Stag’s Hollow Winery of Okanagan Falls, at the southern reaches of Skaha Lake, an approximate four-hour drive from Seattle. For anyone else pondering a trip thataway, dozens of other wineries line both Skaha Lake and Okanagan Lake just to the north. With 8,619 acres planted to wine grapes and 173 wineries, Okanagan Valley must be Canada’s liveliest appellation.
Going in, what were we expecting of grenache? From my perspective, grenache yields a red wine that while often light in color can express itself with surprisingly precocious aromas and flavors. At its best, it leads off with sunny suggestions of pomegranates, raspberries, cranberries and cherries, often with floral overtones and occasionally with a dash of spice. An earthy component isn’t uncommon. Texture tends to be more silken than steely, though its structure generally is firm. Tannins are evident but not intrusive, oak is marginalized and the finish lingering. On more than one occasion, I’ve referred to grenache out of the Sierra foothills as the region’s pinot noir for its lucidity, transparency and adaptability at the table.
In California, grenache customarily has been released as a rosé or used as a blender in everyday wines. Today, however, its role in blending has been upgraded as it frequently is combined with syrah and mourvèdre in emulation of the traditionally complex and vigorous wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Gigondas. In addition, more grenache is being made into stand-alone varietal wines. While acreage in California is small, it has been slowly growing, from 4,770 acres in 2007 to 5,435 acres in 2015.
At the Judgment of Geyserville, the panel’s overall favorite was the Stag’s Hollow Winery 2014 Okanagan Valley Renaissance Grenache ($40), a wiry yet confident take on the varietal, fresh with raspberry fruit, spiced with a dash of cinnamon and unusually long in the finish. It was the only one of the 16 candidates to be anointed with a gold medal by all six judges. On paper, it stood out in two other respects. For one, it was one of the warmer wines in the tasting, coming in at 14.8 percent alcohol. Also, 3 percent syrah was added.
Two other entries from Stag’s Hollow also finished high in the tasting, the more youthful, more peppery and longer lasting 2013 Okanagan Valley Grenache ($30), which finished fourth out of the 16 tasted, and the earthier, chewier and more muscular and complex 2015 Okanagan Valley Grenache ($30), for which winemaker Dwight Sick bumped up his inclusion of syrah to 12 percent, and which came in at fifth place.
Sick, who has been releasing his grenaches only since 2012, attributes their command in large part to the atypical and challenging setting for growing the variety. While Okanagan Valley is balmy in the summer, its compressed growing season tests the ability of grapes to mature fully. “When the grapes do ripen here, the flavors are more extreme than elsewhere in the world,” Sick says.
My California entries didn’t fare nearly as well, although comments by other judges and by myself were largely positive. I like to think that they didn’t finish higher in the final standings solely because we’d assembled an unusually strong field of contenders; nine of the 16 won gold medals.
Two of the California grenaches were from producers with highly regarded track records for the varietal. The one that finished highest among the California contingent was the Bonny Doon Vineyard 2014 Monterey County Rancho Solo Cuvée “R” Grenache ($48). I especially liked the focus, spice, length and sharp strawberry fruit of the wine. Other judges also were taken with its suggestions of strawberry, using descriptors that ranged from “candy” to “jam,” but they also found raspberries and craisins lurking in the glass.
Finishing just behind the Bonny Doon was the A Tribute to Grace 2014 Santa Barbara Highlands Vineyard Grenache ($45), one of the lighter-colored members of the lineup, fleet of foot across the palate but not without leaving lasting impressions of fruit, earth and tannin. Other judges complimented it for its suggestions of strawberries and raspberries and its strapping structure.
My third candidate, and the wine to finish next to last, was the Andis Winery 2012 Amador County Grenache ($26), also a light take on the varietal, but widely evocative, suggesting to judges such associations as saddle leather, pomegranates, while pepper, lavender, rose hips and toast. (Curiously, the 2014 version of the Andis grenache, not in our tasting, was elected best of its class at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition that got underway the day after the Judgment of Geyserville.)
Other than the Andis and the Bonny Doon, grenaches from the tasting likely to be found in the Sacramento area are the dense yet jaunty Abacela 2014 Umpqua Valley Barrel Select Estate Garnacha ($29); the sweetly fruity Columbia Crest 2013 Horse Heaven Hills Reserve Grenache ($35), draped with oak; the exceptionally aromatic, peppery and silken Yalumba Family Vignerons 2014 Barossa Valley Samuel’s Garden Collection Old Bush Vine Grenache ($20); the blustery and layered d’Arenberg 2013 McLaren Vale The Derelict Vineyard Grenache ($20); and the bright, complex and feral Kilikanoon 2013 Clare Valley Prodigal Grenache ($27), our third overall favorite.
As to the Stag’s Hollow grenaches, they are made in small lots – just 65 cases of the winning 2014 – and tend to sell out fast. On top of that, Canadian wines aren’t widely distributed in the U.S. The best solution to get your hands on them is to open a map of British Columbia and start to draw up an itinerary for a summer trip to Okanagan Valley.
Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.