Thu 19 Sep 2013

Let’s Hear it For Grenache

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Grenache, or garnacha, is the most widely planted red grape in the world, but because it’s more often found in blends, its name rarely appearing on labels, it doesn’t always receive the recognition it deserves. The creation of International Grenache Day is intended to put this situation straight.

Society buyer Marcel Orford-Williams profiles the grape du jour

Grenache vines basking in the warmth of the Mediterranean sun, Gigondas, southern Rhône

Grenache vines basking in the warmth of the Mediterranean sun, Gigondas, southern Rhône

Grenache or garnacha?

As a buyer of French wine, I am more likely to call this grape grenache but its ancestry is definitely not French. Where it does come from is still debated as it could have originated either in Spain (garnacha) or in Sardinia (where it goes by the name of cannonau). What’s certain is that it’s an old variety with records of its planting going back 500 years and it is unquestionably one of the most widely planted red grapes, thriving in hot, dry and therefore typically Mediterranean climates.

Growing grenache is not easy; it buds early but ripens very late. Left to its own devices, grenache can produce high yields and make very average wine so it is best to prune grenache quite short, bush like. Less than ideal conditions during flowering often have a negative effect on yield. But if this is a problem for quantity, it is usually beneficial for quantity.

If its origins are perhaps not Gallic, grenache’s single-most celebrated wine is very definitely French. As grenache noir, it is widely planted, especially in the southern Rhône where it triumphs in such appellations as Gigondas and, most famously, Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Sometimes these wines will be made of pure grenache, but more often than not, it will be a majority in a veritable cocktail of grape varieties that may also include syrah, mourvèdre and cinsault. It is probably because many of the greatest grenache wines are not pure that the name has not become as well-known as merlot or cabernet. It is to redress this imbalance that International Grenache Day was launched.

It takes time to ripen grenache fully and, in the northern hemisphere, harvesting in October is not uncommon. Over the summer, sugars build up and as result ripe grenache can be very sweet and with high potential alcohol content. Lower than 14%, grenache is rarely ripe. This is one of the reasons why other varieties are added, to bring down the alcohol content.

Grenache is not especially deep in colour and goes brown quite quickly, another reason why a grape like syrah is often added to a blend. The very sweet nature of grenache makes it an obvious candidate for fortified wine. The best known come from the Roussillon: Banyuls, Maury and Rivesaltes.

Like pinot noir, grenache mutates quite easily. There is a grenache blanc, important in the southern Rhône, and more interesting still is the pink coloured grenache gris which makes wonderfully long-lived and concentrated whites and fortifieds.

Outside France, Spain is obviously the next major country for garnacha, as it is called here. It is planted in Rioja, especially the warmer southern end, and is the major variety next door in Navarra. The fashion for all things Rhône has led to its expansion worldwide. It works well in the heat of the west coast of America and of course in Australia.

What does grenache taste like?
At its simplest grenache tastes very round, heart-warming and maybe a little jammy. At its best, in Châteauneuf or Gigondas, grenache has real majesty. It is always a full-bodied wine with a sensation of sweetness due to the amount of alcohol and glycerol in the wine and it is capable of becoming quite complex with spicy, rich flavours which some say are reminiscent of fruit cake. All of which can make the best grenache into a thoroughly festive wine.

Grenache and food
The reds work well with the usual meats and stews. A classic pairing would be Daube Provençale, a very dark, slow-cooked beef stew for the winter. Grenache though works at many other levels including hard cheeses such as Cheddar. It also works well with ratatouille. White wines made from grenache go best with robust  fish dishes with olive oil, garlic and chillies. The sweet fortified wines from Banyuls, sometimes aged for years in glass demijohns out in the sun, are almost immortal and make wonderful wines to go with chocolate.

Marcel Orford-Williams
Society Buyer

• Browse for wines from the grenache grape.

• Read our Guide to Grenache.

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