It's Not Not Grenache but it is Something Special.

Grenache, once the most planted red grape variety in the world, was only recently surpassed by the ubiquitous Cabernet Sauvignon. Yet where most avid wine drinkers could give you a fairly accurate albeit broad description of Cabernet, few, especially in the new world, would be able to pin down exactly what a Grenache should taste like.

According to Jancis Robinson’s Oxford Companion to wine; “Grenache produces essentially very fruity, rich, sweet-tasting wine”. In my own experience of tasting examples from across Europe these wines can range from confected black and red fruit to having distinct balsamic and saline characters in Sardinia. Although the latter is a topic for another day.

But, few grape varieties highlight the importance of place and heritage quite like Grenache. Or shall we rather call it Cannonao? I think we should. And I’ll explain why… Hold on, it gets a bit nerdy from here.

A hypothetical new grape variety is conceived every time the flower of a vine is pollinated. This is brought to life if that seed is planted and allowed to grow. But, with all the countless variables there really is no way of knowing whether this new grape variety will be suited to its terroir, white or red, aromatic or restrained. Few things are certain other than that it will have some characteristics of both the parent plants.

Thus, unless you have a couple of centuries to experiment with cultivating countless new varietals, a much better bet would be to take a cutting from a desired plant, a clone of that plant if you will, and propagate it. And that’s just what we’ve done for centuries.

But as soon as this clone is replanted and starts to grow things can get interesting. The process of vine growth, at its lowest resolution, is pretty simple, a constant process of single cells dividing into two supposedly identical cells, using DNA as their blueprint. But, identical isn’t always the case.

Due to a myriad of environmental factors, the DNA can often express itself differently. Which in turn results in tiny mutations. These tiny mutations compounded over many many, at times, result in marked differences in vines. Some of these mutations might even produce more favourable characteristics than the original. And that is why it is so important to keep old vines in the ground. There is simply no substitute for time.

Insofar, if a quality-minded producer was to propagate a new vineyard he might ask his neighbour if he could collect some cuttings from his established one. Then select only the best canes and replant them. Repeat this process, called massal selection, a few hundred times and voila. A modern-day vineyard suddenly demonstrates markedly different characteristics than the one it historically originated from. You have a new biotype.

This became evidently clear when the Italian wine boom took hold in the 1980’s. With Cannonau fast becoming a hot commodity Sardinia suddenly found itself needing a lot more grapes than it had vines to produce and the nurseries found themselves in high demand. Probably out of a sense of urgency, but certainly with a lack of care, the nurseries began propagating whatever “clone” of Cannonanu was readily available. So much so that it is estimated today that up to 80% of the “Cannonau” planted on the island is in fact Tocai Rosso. A biotype of Cannonau that was originally taken from Sardinia to Veneto where it slowly started adapting to its new terroir. But which, according to ampelographic analysis, and even to modern DNA analysis, is and was identical to the original. However, when the vine found itself back in its homeland it could no longer produce the quality wine it was once able to. Somehow, it was no longer suited to its terroir.

While all this was going on Grenache, Cannonau or Garnacha, whatever you want to call it, was still the most planted red grape in the world. With the majority of those plantings across the Balearic Sea in Spain. And an argument was raging over where the grape originated from. Spain or Italy? It has since been confirmed, with a fair amount of certainty, that the grape indeed originated in Italy on the Island or Sardinia. Which therefore means that Cannonau is in fact the original varietal and Tocai Rosso, Garnacha and Grenache are all biotypes that originated from it at some point in time as clonal cuttings.

So what then does that mean for us here in South Africa? Well, an awful lot actually. It means that that old block of Grenache planted in Piekenierskloof in the 60’s is no longer completely Grenache. It’s not not Grenache either. But it’s certainly not Grenache or Cannonau in the way the Europeans would recognise it. It’s something new. Something unique. Something of ours. Something South African! And we should do everything to preserve it!

You only need to taste it in a flight next to international examples to understand that you are dealing with an altogether different beast. Ours is lighter, more perfumed, with bright red fruit, dried herbs, rose petals and spice. Of course, winemaking style has a huge impact on these wines. And terroir. And there is always still that thread that connects it to the original. But, this is uniquely ours!

On the back of last week’s Grenache Benchmark Tasting, this week’s mixed case consists of two of the outstanding Grenache in our own stable as well as one very rare little number, The Tierhoek OVP, produced from that very vineyard planted in the 60’s I was referring to earlier.

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