The Glory of Grenache

Overshadowed by the likes of Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Merlot, Grenache is the world’s workhorse warm-climate grape variety.

“Garnacha is a fighter, a battler,” the highly regarded winemaker Alvaro Palacios once explained to me as we hiked like  mules through his  precipitous L’Ermita vineyard in Spain’s Priorat. “I love working with this grape because it  has personality and character.”

A battler with personality, but also generous, flavorful, fleshy, jammy, robust, versatile, willing to play with others: these are the characteristics that define Grenache—or whatever name you may want to call it. In Spain it is called Garnacha, in Sardinia it is Cannonau, and in certain corners of the wine world, Alicante.

Varietal Grenache wines are, generally speaking, robust and rich in color, with aromas of rubber, roasted black fruits, molten chocolate and pepper. Conversely, when Grenache is picked too young or made from oversized crops, or if winemakers excessively press the grapes or ferment at too high a temperature, the wines can be green, harsh and herbal. Due to the fact that growers must let their Grenache hang for a long time before picking, varietal wines from places like Campo de Borja (Spain), Barossa (Australia) and the southern Rhône can achieve alcohol levels of 15 percent or more, while certain bottlings may even wander into the 16 percent zone.

For many decades running, Grenache has ranked as one of the most widely planted red wine grapes on earth, if not the most widely planted variety. With strong Mediterranean roots originating either in Spain or Sardinia, depending on whether you believe the 15th-century kings of Aragón were importers or exporters, Grenache has long been the leading grape in the southern Rhône, throughout much of the south of France, and in the Aragón section of central Spain. In addition, Catalonian regions such as Priorat and Montsant, as well as traditional Spanish spots like Navarra and Rioja Baja are home to large swaths of Garnacha, much of it rather old and grown without irrigation. The same goes for the island of Sardinia, Italy’s prime source for varietal Cannonau.

Over the centuries Grenache has also proven itself to be a good traveler, evidenced by the fact that it has thrived in the warm-to-hot climate of South Australia since the first half of the 19th century, when cuttings from southern France were transported to now-established regions including McLaren Vale and the Clare and Barossa valleys.

Even California, and to a lesser extent the state of Washington, both of which sport dry, warm climates, have been home to Grenache for some time—more than 100 years in the Golden State; since the first half of the 20th century in Washington.

And recently there have been reports of new Grenache plantings sprouting up in far-off places such as Chile and Argentina, even Uruguay. Suffice it to say: if the sun shines bright in a particular place then Grenache will grow, and grow vigorously. A fighter, in Palacios’ terms. In general terms, Grenache is known to be one of the wine world’s hardest-working, biggest-yielding, latest-ripening grapes. It is heralded for being resistant to the elements, especially heat and wind, and in the Northern Hemisphere it is almost never harvested prior to the month of October (April in places like Australia and South America).

As for the key to growing high-quality Grenache, it mostly comes down to yield size, which is why when we travel through the terraced plantings of Priorat, the high plains of Aragón, the stony soils of Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Gigondas, the sea-kissed lands of Sardinia, and the old vineyards of the Barossa and McLaren Vale, we see ancient bush vines that dole out miserly quantities of intense grapes.
Commercially, sommeliers and wine retailers are exhibiting a fondness for Grenache-based wines. “Personally I love Garnacha. It’s one of my mainstream go-to wines,” says Nick Nahigian, wine director for the Patina Restaurant Group’s La Fonda del Sol in New York. “Outside of Priorat, I serve the Borsao Tres Picos (100% Garnacha) from Campo de Borja, a great value under $40 with big fruit, bright acid and minimal oak.”

While there is ample varietal Grenache/ Garnacha/Cannonau to be found, Grenache also plays the role of a blending grape in various well-known regions. A textbook example is Châteauneuf-du-Pape, where Grenache makes up the lion’s share of blends that also include Syrah, Cinsault and Mourvèdre, among other grapes.

So-called “GSM” blends, or Grenache-Syrah-Mourvèdre amalgams, are also commonly made in Australia and increasingly in California and Washington, where a loosely affiliated group of winemakers operating under the moniker Rhône Rangers have rallied behind Grenache and its blending capabilities. And in the Priorat, where poor schisty soils rule, Garnacha is usually mixed with equally old Carignan to form sturdy, minerally wines of stature.

Last but not least, anyone fond of Rhône and other Mediterranean rosé wines should raise a toast to Grenache. Tavel, for example, is a rosé based largely on Grenache; Navarran rosados (rosés) are frequently Garnacha-based, while most Provençal rosés contain at least some percentage of Grenache.
Following are wine ratings, recommendations and summaries of the status of Grenache in four areas of the world where the grape is a mainstay: Spain, France (specifically the southern Rhône), Australia and California. —MICHAEL SCHACHNER

Spain

Garnacha is the most widely planted red grape in Spain, with more than 250,000 acres of vines spread across the country. The bulk of Spain’s Garnacha is planted in the denominated regions of Campo de Borja, Calatayud and Cariñena. Garnacha is also planted throughout Priorat, Montsant, Empordà, Navarra and Rioja.

In some cases, for example in Priorat and Rioja, Garnacha is used as a blending grape. The heady, potentially impressive wines of Priorat rely on old-vine Garnacha to soften and sweeten the tough, tannic Carignan that also comprises most Priorat blends. In Rioja, Garnacha is used to make Tempranillo more open and friendly. Garnacha is also frequently used in rosado wines, where it yields a rosy-colored dry quaffer that some might call quintessential rosé. There is even Garnacha Blanca (white Garnacha) being harvested in some parts of Spain, but let’s leave that for another day.

Last year I took my first trip to the hot, dry regions of Campo de Borja and Calatayud—this is rustic, dusty countryside, what one might call “true old Spain.” I saw old, unirrigated bush vines baking in the July heat, but was told by almost everyone that the plants love the sun—in fact, need the sun to ripen—and have roots that run meters down into the rocky soils to find water and nutrients. It wasn’t the most beautiful wine country I’ve been to, but like in rugged Priorat, the wines speak for themselves with a deep, loud voice. —M.S.

Recommended wines: 92 Bodegas Ateca 2007 Atteca Armas Old Vines (Calatyayud); $45. Potent, deep and lush, with minty aromas along with wild berry and tobacco. Packed full of ripe berry and black plum flavors, while the finish is spirited, ripe, full and lusty.

90 Borsao 2008 Tres Picos (Campo de Borja); $17. The bouquet is all mocha and smoky/oaky richness, while the palate deals blackberry and chewy, rooty medicinality. Oaky and spicy late, with licorice and warmth. Not heavy or overextracted despite being modern in style.

90 Cellers Sant Rafel 2007 Solpost Fresc (Montsant); $19. A blend of 80 percent Garnacha with Cabernet and Syrah. Purple in color with friendly black fruit aromas. Plum, fresh raisin and blackberry flavors are smooth and structured. —M.S.

France

Grenache plays a prominent role in Languedoc-Roussillon, Provence and it is the workhorse of the southern Rhône and that region’s most famous wine, Châteauneuf-du-Pape. But throughout France, Grenache rarely stands on its own because it has a tendency to oxidize easily, routinely attains very high alcohol levels and can sometimes lack structure. These common pitfalls are often countered by blending in Syrah and Mourvèdre, which add stability and balance.

Grenache is considered somewhat delicate and easily influenced by winemaking decisions, so very little of it is aged in small or new oak barrels. Stainless steel, concrete or large old foudres are the aging vessels of choice for Grenache, allowing the grape variety to speak most clearly: a range of cherry fruit is probably the most typical, from tart pie cherries through to Bing cherries and even yellow Rainier types. But there’s more to great Grenache than fruit. It provides silky tannins and ample volume, making for a wonderfully seductive mouthfeel. And it often displays complex herb and spice notes characterized as garrigue, the wild thyme-lavender-bay mix that so frequently perfumes the air in the south of France.

Because of their supple tannins, the Grenache-based red wines of the south of France are more versatile with food than firmly tannic Cabernets. Lightweight versions from the Côtes-du-Rhône make ideal partners with simple roast chicken or veal; more intense, sturdier wines can pair with game birds, lamb or beef. The biggest winter-weight bruisers from Châteauneuf-du-Pape do well with stews and braises.

Finally, some French Grenaches are even made to go with desserts or cheeses. The sweet, lightly fortified wines (vin doux naturel) of Banyuls and Rasteau bear some similarities to Port, but impress with their opulent fruit rather than powerful structure. —JOE CZERWINSKI

Recommeded wines: 94 Domaine de Cristia 2007 Vieilles Vignes (Châteauneuf-du-Pape); $90. A rare example of 100 percent Grenache, the fruit is from 80-year-old vines, vinified in concrete and then aged in used barriques. The result allows the Grenache to come through as waves of superripe cherries, just barely framed by hints of brown sugar and coffee. But be warned: the high alcohol (17%) and slight residual sugar may prove too much for some classicist palates. Drink this luscious wine over the next several years. —J.C.

91 Château Mont-Redon 2007 Châteauneuf-du-Pape; $35. A typical blend from Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Mont-Redon’s 2007 includes 65 percent Grenache, supplemented by a halfdozen other varieties. Black cherry fruit is simultaneously ripe yet herbal, peppery yet touched with other spices and velvety in texture. Proprietor Jean Abeille suggests it will age for 20 years. Editors’ Choice. — J. C.

89 J. Vidal-Fleury 2007 Côtes-du- Rhône; $13. Now owned by Guigal, this bottling should be fairly easy to find in the United States, with 35,000 cases imported. Its dense, youthful purple color presages intense aromas of jammy black and red berry fruit, while gamy notes, black olives and dried herbs add complexity. The blend of 65% Grenache, 20% Syrah, 10% Mourvèdre and 5% Carignan is long and smooth on the finish, with supple tannins and just the right grip. Best Buy. — J. C.

Australia

Grenache provided much of the fleshiness for which Australian tawny “Ports,” as they were then called, were once so valued. Yet as the movement away from fortified  wines gathered steam, in just a half-century    Grenache went from being one of Australia’s mainstays to be being a red-headed stepchild. Hundred-year-old vines were pulled up to make room for more fashionable varieties.  

Thankfully, the pendulum is beginning  to swing back again, as growers and winemakers committed to preserving Australia’s old-vine heritage have started giving this temperamental grape the respect it deserves. Australian winemakers often compare Grenache to Pinot Noir in its sensitivity to growing conditions and vinification techniques, both of which must be just right to coax the maximum potential out of its often thin skin.

Grenache needs warmth to ripen properly, hence the South Australian regions of Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale are the variety’s traditional strongholds, where it can be made in a range of styles from simple and sweetly fruity to brooding and densely tannic. The best examples find a middle ground that combines vivacious cherry and raspberry fruit with herb and spice complexity, framing the variety’s natural voluptuousness in silky tannins.

Because of Australian Grenache’s fruity softness and immediate approachability, it doesn’t require much thought in the way of food pairing. It can easily be sipped on its own, partner chicken or salmon and be matched with darker meats, although it can sometimes lack the acid and tannin to properly pair a fatty cut of beef.

To give their Grenaches more structure—and, one supposes, make them “more properly red wines”—many winemakers blend Grenache with Shiraz and Mourvèdre, just as in the southern Rhône. Some even carry fanciful names in tribute, such as Charles Melton’s Nine Popes or Grant Burge’s The Holy Trinity. —J.C.

Recommended wines: 94 R Wines 2007 Chateau Chateau Pergola Blewitt Springs Grenache (McLaren Vale); $67. Remarkably well balanced for a wine at nearly 16 percent alcohol, this is also remarkably fragrant and complex, boasting an array of scents ranging from slightly mushroomy, savory notes through dried flowers and baking spices. The texture is wonderfully lush and supple, while the flavors add fruit sweetness to the savory components. Long on the finish. Drink now–2015. Cellar Selection. — J. C.

93 Clarendon Hills 2007 Blewitt Springs Grenache (McLaren Vale); $50. Blewitt + Grenache + 2007 = something magical, to judge from the two offerings tasted for this report. Clarendon Hills’s bottling is dense and powerful yet doesn’t lose its way. Potent plum pudding and spice cake notes offer plenty of complexity and richness, without excessive weight. Long and slightly warming on the finish. Drink now–2017. Editors’ Choice. — J. C.

92 Grant Burge 2005 The Holy Trinity Grenache- Syrah- Mourvèdre (Barossa); $46. The blend is 40% Grenache, 35% Shiraz and 25% Mourvèdre, and the result is a compelling mix of dark, plummy fruit with brighter hints of raspberry, liniment and dried spices. It’s full bodied and creamy in texture, finishing long and lush with hints of clove and coffee. While approachable now, this wine’s track record for aging suggests it should evolve through at least 2017. Cellar Selection. — J. C.

California

Grenache has yet to find its rightful place in California’s varietal hierarchy. Most of the state’s 7,000 planted acres are in the Central Valley, where the grapes make their way into blends. The few coastal plantings are in cool to moderately warm areas ranging from Santa Barbara up through the Central Coast, into Dry Creek Valley and north to inland Mendocino. The wines usually are medium-bodied, with cherry flavors often accented by oak, but too many bottlings are marred by high alcohol and deficient acidity. Uneven clusters can also be a problem, as they sometimes are with Zinfandel, giving both overripe, raisiny flavors side-by-side with green, unripe ones.

At their best, California Grenaches are deliciously drinkable, with bright fruit flavors and lush, sweet tannins, but they are not particularly complex or ageworthy. Among the best producers have been Alban (Edna Valley), Beckmen (Santa Ynez Valley), Quivira (Dry Creek Valley), Eaglepoint Ranch (Mendocino), Koehler (Santa Ynez Valley), Twisted Oak (Calaveras County) and Concannon, whose Reserve, from Monterey County, is made in a lighter style. Frick (Dry Creek), Stevenot (Calaveras) and Jaffurs (Santa Barbara) also weigh in. Grenache succeeds more frequently when it is used as a blending grape. Saxum, L’Aventure, Pharoah Moans and Tablas Creek (all Paso Robles) provide the most dependably decadent GSM bottlings. Prospect 772, from the Sierra Foothills, also is a player.  —STEVE HEIMOFF

Recommended wines: 95 Zaca Mesa 2007 Grenache (Santa Ynez Valley); $32.This spectacular
100 percent Grenache is a huge success. It’s so delicious, you can hardly stop drinking it. Just oozes in raspberry and red cherry purée, cocoa puff and caramelized, smoky oak richness, yet is thoroughly dry. An amazing, unforgettable wine that establishes a new benchmark for California Grenache from this winery that was an early pioneer in Rhône varieties. 377 cases, 14.5%. — S. H.

94 Prospect 772 2007 The Brat (Sierra Foothills); $36. Softly tannic, sexy and delicious, with waves of berry-cherry pie filling and mocha for richness, and drier, tarter notes of currants, leather, rhubarb and pomegranates, accentuated with smoky wood. A blend of Grenache and Syrah, it’s sophisticated and nuanced. Try as an interesting, more food-friendly alternative to Cabernet Sauvignon. 106 cases, 14.8%. — S. H.

92 Beckmen 2007 Purisima Mountain Vineyard Grenache (Santa Ynez Valley); $48. Deliciously drinkable, this is one of the best California Grenaches in recent memory. Complexity is not Grenache’s strong point, but lusciousness is, when the wine is well made. The cherry pie filling, raspberry tart and cinnamon spice flavors, enriched with smoky sandalwood, are wrapped into pure, fine tannins. Drink now. 900 cases, 15.5%. — S. H.


Here are additional Grenaches recommended by Wine Enthusiast’s casting panelists:

Spain:
92 Celler Burgos-Porta 2007 Mas Sinén Coster (Priorat); $74.
89 Borsao 2008 Monte Oton (Campo de Borja); $7. Best Buy.
88 El Escosés Volante 2007 La Multa La Revancha (Calatayud); $12. Best Buy. 
–M.S. 

California:
89 Terre Rouge 2007 L’Autre (Sierra Foothills); $30.
87 Frick 2006 Coney Vineyard Grenache (Dry Creek Valley); $27.
87 Jaffurs 2007 Grenache (Santa Barbara County); $34.
 

Australia:
90 Henschke 2007 Johann’s Garden Grenache-Syrah-Mourvèdre (Barossa); $38.
90 Reilly’s 2006 Old Bushvine Grenache (Clare Valley); $17. Editors’ Choice.
90 Rocland Estate 2008 Grenache (Barossa Valley); $21. Editors’ Choice. 

Published on September 9, 2010



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