Picture yourself in a party of four at one of your favorite restaurants. You’re getting a variety of dishes (salmon, lamb, mushroom risotto, and pork), and are trying to find the right wine to go with all these different flavors. For something unique, Grenache is my recommendation for a versatile red. When made well, it has the elegance of Pinot Noir, and the depth of Syrah. The medium body, and vibrant acidity places it in the wheelhouse of food versatile wines. When I’m teaching at one of my restaurants, I’m always educating the staff about these types of wines, as “go to”, when a group needs a wine to go with everything.
Garnacha (Grenache) originated in northeast Spain around the time of the “Crown of Aragon”, which reached the height of its power between the 14th and 15th centuries. It ripens late into the season, so hot and dry weather are an absolute necessity. The key to a well made Garnacha, mostly grown as a single varietal in Navarra, is to pick before it gets too ripe and extracted. It wants to ripen like a Zinfandel, and get high in brix (measurement of sugar in grapes), sacrificing the lovely acidity, and grace that makes it so food friendly. My favorite Spanish appellation for Garnacha is Montsant, near Barcelona. These wines are usually blended with Mazuela (Carignane), and have so much grace and style. Montsant and neighboring Priorat have the perfect conditions for growing old vines. The dry weather and sandy soils prevent powdery mildew and disease from setting in, a common affliction for vines with age in wetter climates.
Cannonau di Sardegna (a Grenache synonym), grown on the Italian island of Sardinia in the Mediterranean, might be my favorite expression of Grenache on the planet. In true European fashion, there seems to be a bit of nationalism around this ancient and important varietal. A recent study puts the origins of Cannonau around 1200 B.C., yet the Spanish claim to have brought Garnacha over when the Aragonese crown ruled. Any way you slice it, Cannonau has become its own thing. Yummy black cherry, and blackberry fruit flavors leave you believing you’re about to feast your lips on a fruit bomb of epic proportions, yet the Italian sottobosco (dried, rotting leaves of the forest), herbs, violets, vibrant acid, and palpable tannins give it the yin/yang you need for food.
I can’t get away with talking about Grenache without mentioning the French Rhone. Grenache drives the bus in southern Rhone, in places like Lirac, Vacqueyras, Gigondas, and Tavel. But, most well known in the region is the appellation of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, made famous by the Avignon Papacy starting in the 14th century. Although its name did not fully come to be until the 19th century, the Papacy promoted its local wine as an alternative to Burgundy. It’s almost never packaged as a single varietal, but you can bet it’s the dominant grape of the blend of up to thirteen grapes! The weather is hot, just as Grenache likes it, and the soil is made of quartzite pebbles that retain the heat at night, retain moisture, and hasten ripening. These wines are made for the international market, with juicy blueberry-like fruit, garriques (dried lavender and herbs), and a lovely combination of power and grace.
California is starting to excel at producing Grenache, too. Appellations in the Central Coast (Paso Robles, Edna Valley, Santa Ynez) have very similar terrior to that of the south Rhone. The largest limestone deposits in California are there, imparting an all-important aspect to wine; minerality. The weather can also be hot during the day, with the Pacific Ocean cooling things off at night, to help with balance and elegance. Check out wineries like Verdad, Tablas Creek, and Andrew Murray for great, well balanced Grenache-based wines that will wow you with quality.
My favorite Grenache and Grenache-based blends:
- Republic of Quibia Garnacha 2013, “R-OH”, Montsant, Spain
- Surrau Cannonau di Sardegna 2013, Italy
- Saint Préfert -Chateauneuf du Pape 2012, Réserve Auguste Favier, France
- Verdad Garnacha 2014, Sawyer Lindquist Vineyard, Edna Valley
We can never know everything about wine. Let’s keep learning.