The Grenache Grape: You might be surprised by its presence
by Don Clemens
I have spent many years enjoying wines from all over the world. Some of them were familiar, some of them were new experiences. Most of the Old-World wines had the name of a place – perhaps a building/winery or a geographic location – while most of the New-World wines had the name of a grape variety. But it’s unusual to see a wine that is completely identified as “Grenache”. Renowned wine writer, Jancis Robinson wrote, “Grenache is an unlikely hero of a grape. Until recently reviled or at best ignored in much of the world, it is the grape chiefly responsible for two of the world's more celebrated reds, Châteauneuf-du-Pape and, a more recent star, Priorat.”
Grenache vines are some of the oldest vines that are still widely planted today. As recently as the last decade, there were more than 160,000 acres of Grenache planted worldwide. Historical evidence points to Spain (particularly Aragon) as being the point of origin for Grenache, or Garnacha, as it is known in Spain. It’s not surprising that so much of the south of France has so many Grenache vines planted. Much of the area, notably Roussillon, was ruled by Spain, and more particularly by the kingdom of Aragon, for more than 400 years until 1659. From this point, vignerons planted more and more of this hardy vine, moving farther and farther north of the Pyrenees and east to the Rhône Valley, and beyond. I think it would be difficult to find a good red wine from the Rhône Valley, south of Montpelier, that WOULD NOT have a significant amount of Grenache in its blend.
With its sturdy wood and upright growth, Grenache is well suited to traditional “Bush Vine” viticulture. The vine can withstand strong winds and is able to deal with hot and dry conditions, certainly important factors for successful harvests in most of Spain and southern France. This vine’s “sturdiness” does make machine harvesting very difficult, even prohibitive in areas where laborers are scarce and grapes are plentiful, which is not unusual for Grenache.
Grenache Vines planted among Rhône River “Galets” (gravel stones)
Grenache Noir vines
Harvest Time is Near
In France, the majority of Grenache is planted in the Languedoc-Roussillon, where it is second only to Carignan in quantity. In the Midi, its greatest contribution is in the growing areas for Tavel, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and Côtes du Rhône. As wines from the Languedoc become more fashionable, the demand for Grenache grapes continues to grow – again, for its fine blending quality.
In Spain, it’s difficult to point out a wine-growing appellation that DOESN’T have Garnacha (Grenache) growing in its vineyards. Priorat, Rioja, Navarra, Toro, Rueda, La Mancha, Calatayud, Ribera del Duero – all are homes to this grape. Only lately has the Tempranillo grape supplanted Grenache in volume.
In the New World, Grenache’s ability to withstand adverse weather conditions such as drought and heat made it a natural choice the winegrowers of the central San Joaquin Valley and some in Mendocino County. It took a while, but the “Rhone Rangers” seem to have recognized the importance of Grenache in the production of the red and rosé wines of the southern Rhône Valley. It is growing in significance every year.
In Australia, Grenache has fallen to third place, after Shiraz/Sirah became so fashionable in the 1970’s, and Cabernet Sauvignon found some excellent terroir for its growth. But Grenache is holding its own, especially with the growing popularity of Rhône-inspired blends, such as GSM (Grenache-Sirah/Shiraz-Mourvèdre).
Grenache comes in several varieties: Grenache Noir, Grenache Blanc, Grenache Gris and Grenache Rose are all found in southern France, and seen more and more in other parts of the world.
Though Grenache is most often encountered in blended wines (such as the Rhone wines or GSM blends), varietal examples of Grenache do exist. As a blending component, Grenache is sought after for the added body and fruitiness that it brings, without added tannins. As a varietal, the grape's naturally low concentration of phenolics contribute to its pale color and lack of extract. However, viticultural practices and low yields can increase the concentrations of phenolic compounds.
Grenache-based wines tend to be made for drinking when young. Its propensity for oxidation makes it a poor candidate for long-term cellaring. However, there are producers (such as some examples from Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Priorat) who use low yields grown on poor soils which can produce dense, concentrated wines. These can benefit from cellaring. The fortified “vin doux naturels” of France and Australian "port-style" wines are protected from Grenache's propensity for oxidation by the fortification process and can usually be drinkable for two or three decades.
Grenache’s flavors and aromas are usually compared to berry fruits, such as raspberries and strawberries. When yields are kept low, the resulting wines can develop complex and intense notes of blackcurrants, black cherries, black olives, coffee, gingerbread, honey, leather, black pepper, tar, spices, and roasted nuts. When yields are increased, more overtly earthy and herbal notes emerge that tend to quickly fade on the palate. The very low-yielding old vines of Priorat can impart dark black fruits and notes of figs and tar with many traits like the Italian wine, Amarone. Rosado or rosé Grenaches are often characterized by their strawberry and cream notes; fortified “vin doux naturels” and Australian "port style" wines are prone to exhibiting coffee and nutty tawny-like notes.
In summation, if you really like wine, there is a Grenache for you.