There’s a black grape variety that ranks second globally for the most acreage under cultivation, yet it gets nowhere near the same recognition as the noble cabernet sauvignon or sexy syrah.
Grenache is really the dominant grape of Europe, sprawling, in several hues, all across Spain and southern France. In Australia, grenache was only recently overtaken by shiraz, and on the West Coast of the United States, we can thank our ancestors for the original plantings of grenache and the “Rhone rangers” for perpetuating its popularity today.
The presence of grenache around the western Mediterranean can be traced to the once-powerful Aragon kingdom of eastern Spain that controlled territory as far away as southern Italy. The grape was, and still is, known as garnacha in Spain. It originated in the northern province of Aragon and then spread to Rioja and Navarre before settling in with extensive vineyard lands both north and south of the Pyrenees. From here grenache made its way east to become well established in the southern Rhone Valley in France.
Whatever its origins, grenache today covers more vine-dedicated ground than any other high profile variety. For a grape that covers such an amazing amount of terrain, the average wine drinker encounters it remarkably rarely under its own name. That’s because grenache is mostly blended with other varieties that inject darker color and/or firmer tannins.
I had the distinct pleasure recently of gathering with some fellow “grenache geeks” for a retrospective tasting of this wonderful grape in its various incarnations. The diversity that this grape displayed was incredible. From the northern Rhone there were the most majestic Chateauneuf-du-Pape houses representing the most prestigious vintages. From the south of France further along the Rhone, there were wines from the tiny medieval villages of Vacqueyras and Gigondas that showcased how this grape can seamlessly integrate with its cousins (syrah, cinsault, mourvedre or carignan) to create a truly gorgeous beverage. Australia was represented with grenache less diluted; in fact, a 100 percent grenache showed what the grape can express given the right conditions (and our slightly dimmed clarity) and the results were a resounding … WOW!
Next came the Spanish contingency and the inspiring wines from Priorato. This wine comes from the northeastern part of Spain where the methods used to make this grenache-based wine have barely altered since Carthusian monks first established this winemaking practice in the 12th century.
Finally, we came back home to discover American style grenache, and the result was a trifecta. You see, the same bottle (producer and vintage) was brought by three different enophiles, and these wines were the quintessential expression of the grape with a California twist.
Washington state is also giving grenache a look-see, and Doug McCrea of McCrea Winery is leading the way. His wines are showing elegance and grace worthy of global recognition and local duplication. Look for grenache to be an up-and-coming grape variety in our home state.
It’s tough work doing all this research to find and taste all the wines of the world able to curl your toes and raise your brows and then relay that information to anyone who may be interested. This week I’m the pied piper of grenache.
Jeff Wicklund, wine consultant and writer, is the proprietor of Colby Hospitality in Everett. He can be reached at 425-317-9858, or email@example.com.
Hill of Content Grenache/Shiraz 2001 $15. Here is a beautifully rich and smooth Australian blend of 60 percent Grenache and 40 percent shiraz that coats your palate with bright raspberry and black cherry flavors with a hint of fresh cracked black pepper on the long, velvety finish.
Sang des Cailloux 2001 Vacqueyras $30. This is one of the most impressive southern Rhones I’ve ever tasted. A blend of 65 percent grenache, 20 percent syrah, 10 percent mourvedre and 5 percent cinsault, Sang des Cailloux means “blood of the stones.” Its aromas are loaded with spice and black pepper, the magical scent of the Provencal shrub garrigue, and all so expansive you can literally breathe it in. It’s a phenomenal bottle of wine.
McCrea 2002 Sirocco $15. A Washington state blend of 52 percent grenache, 24 percent syrah, 19 percent mourvedre and 5 percent counoise, this wine is named after the hot, dry wind that blows from Africa across the Mediterranean. Lush and fruit-forward with slightly higher alcohol, it’s balanced by greater fruit intensity, tannins and excellent acidity.