Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Phinney’s Department 66 Highlights French Grenache

Master winemaker Dave Phinney’s greatest success came with a Zinfandel blend. His latest French releases show his fine skills with Grenache.

Phinney Is No Prisoner To The Past

Department 66 is a region tucked deep in the southwest corner of France. A decade ago wine phenom Dave Phinney visited friends there and discovered the town of Maury and its steep hillside vineyards of old growth Grenache.

Phinney grew to prominence with his runaway best-selling wine, The Prisoner. The Prisoner is an unusual blend of Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Petite Sirah, and Charbono. He later sold the brand and assets in a deal that totaled nearly $300 million. Part of the deal was a non-compete clause that prevented him from making Zinfandel-based wines for eight years. Phinney was not deterred, shifting his focus to a different grape.

In 2008 he purchased his first 40 acres of old vine Grenache in Maury. Today that has grown to 300 acres with a winery. He returns to Maury at least once a month during the regular season and seven to 10 days during harvest. The fruit of his labor is Department 66 winery, named after the area’s governmental division.

Hillside Grenache, Intense Heat

Maury is roughly two hours east of Barcelona and about 30 minutes from the Mediterranean coast. The area is part of the Côtes Catalanes growing region, a sub-appellation of Roussillon.

Old vine Grenache thrives along with Syrah and Carignan. Nutrient-poor soil, strong winds and scorching heat stress the vines, resulting in intensely concentrated grapes.

We drank through three new releases from Department 66: a Grenache, red blend and a rosé. The winery also offers a top-end Grenache-Syrah blend called Pharaon and a Grenache Gris.

Roussillon was once largely overlooked in the search for quality wines. For years it was known for producing vast quantities of inexpensive, simple wines. That is changing as winemakers focus on quality and incorporate new technology.

The 2017 Fragile Rosé is Grenache based with small quantities of Syrah and Carignan, an unusual blend. This was a nice change of pace after the parade of Provence-style rosé we tasted during the summer.

Fragile is a more substantial style of rosé. Indeed, it weighs in at 15.3% alcohol. There are flavors of strawberry and rhubarb mingled with a nice acidity. SRP is $18.

The 2015 Others red blend is a mix of Grenache, Carignan, Syrah and Mourvedre. The flavor notes are of blueberry and spice. There is also a herbal thread, known as garrigue for the bushy fragrant plants that grow on the limestone hills of the Mediterranean coast. The suggested price is $25.

Not Your Grandfather’s Grenache

We love Rhône wines and Grenache is prominently featured. It can be light and airy and is used to soften the Syrah with which it is usually blended. The Grenache in the hills of Maury, with some vines up to 65 years in age, is much more robust.

Big, bold and assertive describes the D66 Grenache. Spice, cedar and red berry flavors are framed by firm tannins. The wine is aged in new French oak for 18 months and gets an additional five months of aging in the bottle. We decanted D66 for about 30 minutes and also poured it through an aerator.
The initial impression is of a sturdy wine but with a smooth texture. It was “hot” at the onset, but settled down in the glass. At 15.2% ABV, this is a wine that could benefit from a thick steak. SRP is $38.

Dave Phinney has the golden touch. For another expression of Grenache, visit Department 66.

Full disclosure: We received this wine as a marketing sample.

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