Every great restaurant wine list I’ve seen was peppered with fancy Bordeaux, big bad Barolos, cultish California Cabernets, budget-busting Burgundy and so on. Well, I think Grenache should be right up there with the other top stars of the wine world. In my opinion, Grenache is one of the world’s great wine grapes. But it doesn’t seem to get much respect. After all, when was the last time you saw a wine list with a separate section for Grenache-based wines? The closest you’re likely to come is a catchall potpourri portion of the list usually called Rhône Rangers or Rhône-style Reds.
And yet, Grenache (or Grenacha, Garnacha or Garnatxa) is a fixture in Spain’s vineyards, an up-and-coming varietal in California and Australia, and the mainstay of France’s sought-after appellations Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas, Tavel, Côtes du Rhône and Vacqueyras—not to mention, essential to the wonderful sweet wines of Languedoc-Roussillon, like Banyuls. Oh, by the way, Grenache is also the world’s most widely planted red grape.
At its best, Grenache is aromatic and richly textured. By the way, for the purposes of this piece, I’m talking about Grenache red wine. There’s also a white Grenache grape (Grenache Blanc), but that’s another story.
On its own—that is, not blended with other grapes—Grenache is a sun-loving, sweet grape. That sweetness in Grenache tends to result in ultra-alcoholic (the sugar turns to alcohol), jammy, fruit-bomb wines, but ones that too often lack structure. For one thing, Grenache produces low-tannin wines, not traditionally known much for being age-worthy or terribly complex. Its love of hot, dry weather makes Grenache a good candidate for thriving in the hot, dry climate of the southern Rhône and warm, arid regions of Spain, California and Australia.
So, by itself, Grenache is often über-alcoholic and hot—a rough, rustic wine in need of taming. Thus, Grenache tends to perform best when it plays the lead role among a blend of varietals, often accompanied by other grapes such Cabernet, Mourvèdre, Tempranillo, Syrah, Cinsault and Carignan.
If you’re interested in trying straight-forward Grenache, it’s easily and inexpensively done. There are a number of examples from Spain, such as Altovinum Evodia Old Vines Garnacha 2010 ($10.99), a custom cuvee from Calatayud, made specifically for American importer Eric Solomon. It’s 100 percent Garnacha, sourced from vines over 100 years old, and a whopping 15 percent alcohol by volume. Don’t let that scare you, however; Evodia is very well-balanced wine with intense fruit and a surprisingly silky texture. Another entry-level Spanish Garnacha is Borgia Borsao ($8.99). This one is made with grapes from young vines: 10 to 15 years old. It’s full of ripe, bright fruit flavors—raspberries mingling with raisins. It’s a great partner for barbecue.
At California’s Austin Hope Winery, there’s a laser-like focus on making top-notch Rhône-style wines. Austin Hope Grenache ($34.99) is a fine example. This, too, is a high-alcohol wine (15 percent), but very well-balanced, with dark fruit aromas and blackberry flavors on the palate. There are also spicy hints of black pepper and allspice. Try this one with steak au poivre.
Of course, the best Grenache-based wines (in my opinion) come from France. Most are fairly expensive, but LePlan Côtes du Rhône GT-G is only $19.99 and is a racy but well-rounded wine, brimming with cherry flavors and hints of vanilla from French and American oak. However, my favorite use of Grenache is in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. At Château La Nerthe, the Châteauneuf-du-Pape ($42.64) is a luscious blend of Grenache, along with Mourvèdre, Syrah, Cinsault and Divers. This is Grenache that will blow your mind.