When looking at the potential for the Grenache grape in the Golden State, Tim Elliott turns to lessons learned from the failures of Syrah.
By Tim Elliott – Photo By Roomjosh via Flickr
Back in the mid-1990’s California Syrah was positioned to be the “next big thing” after Shiraz from Australia introduced the variety to the American wine consumer. Seeing those wines imported literally by the tanker load, California vintners expected to cash in on this trend and planted Syrah all across the Golden State. Looking back now some 15 years later, it is difficult to see what stood in the way of Syrah connecting as a variety with mainstream consumers. After all, the variety fits nicely between the more subtle Pinot Noir and full-bodied Cabernet in flavor profile. And Syrah has a respected pedigree as one of the Old Worlds’ noble varieties from the wines made in its native Rhône Valley. But in the end Syrah never took off and today many California vintners are looking to other grapes to pick up on Syrah’s market promise.
Jon Bonné from the San Francisco Chronicle thinks the next big wine out of California will be Grenache. And he might be right but I think we need to look at this Rhône variety from the lens of what went wrong with California Syrah to find out. Although there are a number of contributing factors, I think California Syrah didn’t carve out more than a cult status because it didn’t develop an identity. Pick up a Syrah from the Northern Rhône and you have a distinct frame of reference. They will almost always be savory, complex and acidic with a mineral streak. Pick up a California Syrah and you are likely to find a big, fruit-driven wine with little varietal character. The best examples of California Syrah come from cool, low-baring vineyards which limits production. This creates a problem where the best California Syrah tend to cost about as much as those from the Rhône and wine lovers continue to favor French imports at this price point. So California Syrah fell into this Catch-22 with American consumers preferring the Old World style in higher priced wines and the soda-pop, fruit-bomb stylings of tanker Shiraz on the low end. There was just not a large market opportunity for California Syrah to navigate within a get a sizable foothold in the market.
I’m a bit more optimistic about Grenache since it can be grown in warmer climates and still keep much of its character unlike Syrah which tends to lose it the riper it gets. But Grenache is often blended with other Rhône grapes and not always bottled as a varietal as Syrah is the world over. This makes for some interesting marketing scenarios where producers will need to educate consumers on the pleasures of varietal Grenache. California producers could also use some of that slow selling Syrah to bolster Grenache as long as this doesn’t exceed the legal limit of 15% of the blend. From a flavor perspective, however, I think the transition from Pinot Noir to well made California Grenache will be much easier given how each shows mostly a red fruit flavor profile and tend to be lighter in body. So it will be interesting to watch this develop over the next year or two and see what happens.
Perhaps Grenache will be the next big thing out of California. Or maybe the next big wine will continue to be Pinot Noir.
Tim Elliott is a marketer, blogger, and podcaster based in the Twin Cities. In 2004 he created Winecast, the first wine podcast, which is also a wine blog. He has also written about wine for Minneapolis City Pages and Vineyard & Winery Management Magazine.