As high as 11,000 feet, the craggy peaks of the Pyrenees set a natural border between Northeast Spain and Southwest France. The range divides the winemaking communities of Catalonia and Roussillon, though certain cultural proclivities have seeped through. Among them is awe over the profundity of Grenache.
Grenache is best known for fruity red wines with intense aromas of strawberry and spice. Wines made from Grenache are often considered transparent, or apparent in their provenance and reflective of their terroir of origin. Comparisons to Pinot Noir’s ability to transmit terroir abound.
Yet, Grenache is more than just a pretty ruby hue. In fact, it comes in three variants: Noir (red/black), the most common, as well as two mutations, Blanc (white) and Gris (gray). If you count rosé offerings, you could even call pink a fourth.
Rarely grown as a trio elsewhere in the world, these varieties of Grenache thrive throughout Roussillon and Catalonia. They grow on sturdy vines that can tolerate heat, drought and the rocky, barren soil.
A comparison of the region might start with their differences, but New York-based sommelier and educator Jim Sligh finds Catalonia and Roussillon wines have more in common than one might think.
“In terms of climate and terroir, there’s perhaps more similarities to chew on between the two of them than if you drink the Roussillon next to the Languedoc or the Southern Rhône, or Catalonia next to Gredos or Navarra,” says Sligh.
The regions share a common language and political past that dates to the Crown of Aragon in the Middle Ages. For hundreds of years, both Spain and France claimed Roussillon.
Winemakers from both countries long regarded Grenache Noir as a workhorse for blends. That perspective has dropped away as better winemaking techniques and experimentation have revealed the grape’s breadth of expressions as a varietal wine.
Carrie Sumner, cellar master at biodynamic winery Domaine des Enfants in Maury, in northern Roussillon, once hated Grenache. After she learned to manage and manipulate oxygen exposure, however, she fell in love with the grape.
Sumner produces several wines, each a manifestation of different oxygen exposures. They include an anaerobiotic carbonic maceration for red blend Le Jouet, limited micro-oxygenation for her personal project, Chroma Soma, and early and deliberate oxidation for a Grenache Blanc.
“When we process our white Grenache grapes, we like to smash them directly in the cases they are picked into,” says Sumner. The presence of oxygen turns the juice an “ugly brown apple” color, she says, though once it’s fermented, “it’s a beautiful golden color like Chardonnay.”
Sumner found it difficult to characterize Grenache of any color from Roussillon.
“The rich, raisiny historical style of vins doux in [Maury] is reflected in many of the traditional Grenache producers, which is definitely cherished,” she says. “But nowadays, there are many new, exciting producers coming into the region, bringing new techniques.”
Sligh finds terroir further confounds any attempt at regional characterization.
“I think there’s quite a bit of diversity within Roussillon when it comes to expressions of Grenache of all colors, only partly due to producer style,” says Sligh. “You’ve got Mediterranean coast versus inland river valleys, schist versus granite and some limestone. There are guys aging their Grenache Blanc under flor or intentionally oxidizing it, and people making really pure, dimensional, mineral styles of Grenache Gris, hand-selected out of centenarian vineyards.”
Grenache from Catalonia also defies easy categorization, as the region embraces both traditional and innovative winemaking. Compared to Roussillon, Beth Antías of New Jersey-based Regal Wine Imports finds Catalonian Garnatxa, or Garnacha, to be fuller and juicier than its French equivalent.
“Garnacha is capable of bolder styles, but there is now an effort towards toning down the heft and weight in favor of fresher, lighter styles and higher acidity, an adjustment that the good winemakers are able to make easily with a versatile grape like Garnacha,” she says.
No matter the winemaker’s stylistic vision, terroir still has sway. When not blended with Carignan, varietal Garnatxa from the Denominació d’Origen Qualificada (DOQ) of Priorat in Southwest Catalonia conveys the influence of the region’s dual wind forces. The Cerç offers cold dry winds from the northwest during winter, while the Garbinada provides warm humid breezes from the southeast during the growing season.
The result: an array of aromatics and texture. Of course, producers that work the warmest, most arid plots in often produce high-alcohol, concentrated expressions, especially in combination with old, low-yield vines.
Such old-vine Grenache is common throughout both Catalonia and Roussillon. Ultimately, it lends characteristics of greater parallel between the regions’ expressions than with others from their respective countries.