“Grenache is for me, the wild, wild woman of wine, the sex on wheels and devil take the hindmost, the don’t say I didn’t warn you.” – Oz Clarke
I rather like Oz’s description of Grenache, the wine grape of many personalities. Having spent a bit of time in Spain, I myself have fallen prey to her charms: sometimes in the magenta-hued guise of a flirty Rosado, as I dined on fresh-grilled sardines; other times cloaked in the dense blackberry velvet of Priorat, where she embodied elegant perfection with seared lamb chops. I can remember a winter meal with dear friends, when we shared stories by the fire, over cassoulet and a glass or three of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Whichever Grenache avatar you prefer, the truth is simple: this grape gets under your skin.
Where Did It Come From?
Until recently, researchers believed that Grenache originated in Spain (where it is known as Garnacha), along the eastern coast of the Mediterranean. There is still much evidence to support this theory, including the fact that all three color variations of the grape have been documented here. And ampelographers (scientists who research grape pedigrees and genetic relationships) have found significant evidence of clonal diversity among current plantings of Spanish Garnacha. However, historians in Italy have proffered a different explanation. They posit that Grenache actually comes from Sardegna, the island off the west coast of Italy. Cannonau di Sardegna, as it is known there, makes earthy varietal wines often boasting alcohol levels of 15% or higher.
Which version holds sway? It’s a tough question. Throughout history there has been much crossover between Spain and Sardegna, both culturally and commercially. By 800 BC Sardinians had put down roots in southern Iberia, giving rise to the possibility that it was they who brought the grape to Spain. On the flip side, Sardegna eventually became a Spanish colony in 1479, and remained one for almost 250 years. Maybe the Spaniards brought Garnacha seedlings with them when they conquered the island. Who knows? And who really cares? I’m just glad I get to enjoy a glass of it now and again.
Leaving aside the Spanish-Sardinian debate, there is another place where Grenache has made a comfortable home for itself – the south of France. It is the principal grape in the storied blends of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, where it makes powerful wines with tremendous ageability. It also dominates the blends of nearby Gigondas and Vacqueyras and serves as a reliable blending partner with Syrah and Mourvèdre, in the wines of Côtes du Rhône. Australia boasts some of the oldest Grenache vines in the world, testament to its long history with the grape. Unfortunately many of those bush-trained vines were uprooted in the 1980s, during the rush to convert vineyards to international varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. But lately there has been renewed interest in Grenache, with growers looking to coax the highest quality out of the vines that remain. At the 2015 Conference of the Society of Wine Educators, I had the good fortune to attend a day-long seminar on Australian wine. We participated in a tasting of wines made from Old Vines Grenache, all of which were powerful, elegant, and tantalizingly complex.
Stateside, varietal Grenache wines can be found in California (Paso Robles, Dry Creek, and Sierra Foothills) and in Washington. You might be able to track down a bottle or two from producers like Ridge, Sine Qua Non, Tablas Creek, or McCrae Cellars. Most of these wines are crafted by aficionados of Rhône-style wines, so if you consider yourself a Rhône Ranger, get some.
What Do They Taste Like?
Let’s start in Spain, and look at each Grenache “personality” separately.
Rosado: The best Spanish Rosados come from the northern province of Navarra, where Garnacha vines lie among the plantings of Tempranillo that seem to increase each year. No matter; the bright pink wines from this region are full of strawberry fruit and are really easy to drink. Don’t think too much about it – just pour yourself a glass and pretend you’re sitting at a beachside café with a plate of camarones a la plancha. Heaven!
Priorat: Nestled in the coastal hills of Cataluña in northeast Spain, the vineyards of Priorat give rise to wines that are the stylistic opposites of the Rosados of Navarra. These are Serious Wines that often sell for Serious Money! Varietal wines are not unknown here, but most are blends that include Cariñena and, sometimes, international varieties. Yields are low, thanks to the poor llicorella (slate and quartz) soils, and the terraced vines must be tended by hand. All that work pays off, however, with velvety wines redolent of figs and blackberries. Seared lamb chops, anyone?
Southern France: As I mentioned above, Châteauneuf-du-Pape and the other red blends of the Southern Rhône feature Grenache quite prominently. They are earthier specimens than their Spanish counterparts; real heart-warming wines for cooler weather. That said, you’ll detect lovely notes of raspberry and licorice, too. Cassoulet is a classic pairing, but any grilled meat would match well. I happen to love rabbit braised in white wine and rosemary with Gigondas, one of the most highly respected of the Côtes du Rhône villages.
Sardegna: When I taste a Cannonau di Sardegna, I feel instinctively that its heritage is Italian, not Spanish. Even if it’s genetically from Spain, it has embraced the culture of its adopted homeland. I smell cherries – sour, black, pie-filling – all kinds of cherries, which remind me of Italian wine. And there is some leather, and cigar smoke, too. If you find a bottle from Sardegna, do a comparative tasting with a version from France or Spain. They share some qualities, but each of the wines is unique. It’s a great experiment.
Australia: Within the Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale, serious efforts are underway to bring back Grenache, especially versions made from the oldest surviving vines. They are proof that hard work pays off! Style-wise I’d place them somewhere in the middle of the earthy wines of Southern France and the lush, fruit extravaganza of Priorat. They truly have elements of both, plus a pleasant herbal component. They might not be easy to find, but they are definitely well-worth seeking out.
I hope you have been inspired to celebrate Grenache Day by learning a little bit about this chameleon of a grape, in all her guises. Which one got under your skin?
Wine Grapes by Jancis Robinson; Julia Harding; and José Vouillamoz; Harper Collins, 2012.
The Oxford Companion to Wine by Jancis Robinson and Julia Harding; Oxford University Press, 2015.
Oz Clarke’s Encyclopedia of Grapes; Oz Clarke and Margaret Rand; Webster International Publishers, 2001.