The world is awash with familiar grapes that define wines, just think of Cabernet, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc. But what happens when a grape is forced to play a supporting role for most of its life? When the products of its juice take center stage? Yes, I’m talking about wines that we all love: Chateauneuf du Pape, Cotes du Rhone, why even Rioja are all made better by the inclusion of a common grape, one that is starting to receive the accolades that it deserves. And just what could I be talking about you ask?
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Why Grenache of course. Grenache is much more widely planted than many people assume and it has been a true workhorse of a grape for decades if not centuries. It’s dominion stretches from the tip of Spain, throughout the lower reaches of France, across the sea to North Africa (not to mention Sardinia) and on to the shores of the New World where Grenache blends have always been important (just think of all the GSM blends from Australia) and are increasingly becoming better known, thanks to California’s Rhone Rangers.
So what is Grenache and why should we care? That’s a good question and one that in all honesty has become increasing difficult to answer. When I started buying wine, Grenache was the backbone of Chateauneuf du Pape, where in the hands of a few producers, it was molded into a fun, rich, bold and inexpensive red wine to pair with hearty, rustic fare. Okay, so that’s just what I recall about Chateauneuf, but it’s not terribly far from the truth.
Fast forward to today when you might occasionally find a Chateauneuf valued under $25, but the majority of the better wines are now routinely $40 and above with luxury cuvees priced in the $100s. Not exactly a compelling argument for why you should be paying attention here, but the truth is that there remain compelling Grenache stories and they’re right under your noses; you just have to search a bit for them.
For starters in France’s Rhône Valley, there’s always Cotes du Rhone to be had for fair money, though here as well, prices seem to have outpaced quality over the past decade, with the unfavorable currency exchange rate being partially to blame. While most Cotes du Rhones don’t pretend to be anything special, many are downright fun to drink as they revel in their unaffectedness. I choose this term quite carefully, mind you. One of the big issues with wine today is how much winemakers are able to affect the final product, whether it be through the use of new oak, ridiculously low yields, or other measures, you can be sure that each of these steps adds to the bottom line.
Inexpensive wines generally are less affected, perhaps not by choice. It’s most likely a simple financial consequence of the market for these wines and the prices they command, but for a casual wine drinker, this turns out to be a boon. What we end up with are fun wines, bright and fresh and as I said, unaffected by trend, fad and the heavy hand of the winemaker.
If that sounds like your kind of wine, another country that is blazing the way with Grenache is Spain. Blessed with seemingly endless old vine Grenache, previously used primarily for bulk wine production, winemakers have transformed Spanish wine over the last decade and as with any region, one can argue whether this is for the good or not. But the end result is that at the lower end of the spectrum, Spanish Grenache represents terrific values. These are boldly fruited, often with remarkable verve and depth considering their price. But also, all too often for my palate, confected and plastered with oak flavors turning more into blackberry pie than the red-fruited Grenache I tend to prefer.
Speaking of red-fruited, Grenache is one of the great oséwine grapes, responsible for a slew of tasty choices from around the globe, though Tavel from Franc and many of Spain’s lovely rosés are Grenache-based wines. From delicate to bold, Grenache seems to be a chameleon of a grape, able to adapt to land, climate and prevailing tastes in nearly any corner of the globe.
If, for example, you want to explore dark fruited Grenache, if big and bold are right up your alley, you have even more choice. Return to France in the Languedoc and Rousillon for wines that combine the old vine depth of Spain’s, with the complexity achieved through blending made famous by Chateauneuf. This style of wine frequently referred to as GSM (Grenache – Syrah – Mourvedre) is well-represented in Australia and California as well. And if you want to experience full throttle Grenache in all its fruit bomb glory, check out some of the best of west. California’s Rhone Rangers have led the way by introducing Grenache to regions that may have struggled with Cabernet, but are turning out to be ideally suited to this warm weather, dry climate loving grape.
So let’s try some Grenache and see where our favorites are being made!