Widely planted throughout the world though an unsung hero of the wine world, Grenache is like
that perpetual Golden Glove shortstop who hit .250 through his career. No 500 foot homeruns,
no 20 win seasons, no flirting with the .400 batting average. Just steady performance and the
ability to play well with others. In France, it plays 3rd fiddle to the Cabernets, Pinot Noirs and
Chardonnays. In Spain, 2nd fiddle to Tempranillo and Palomino. In Italy, it’s not even in the same
orchestra as Sangiovese, Nebbiolo and Pinot Grigio. And forget about the States, only a handful
of vintners are even toying with Grenache.
What is Grenache?
Also known as Garnacha in Spain and Cannonau in Italy, Grenache is a red grape that ripens late so
it requires hotter, drier conditions as those found in Spain or Southern France to flourish (hmm,
sounds like the perfect California grape). Because it is lower in acid, tannin and color it usually is
blended with other red grapes to make a distinct wine. On occasion, it does pretty well by itself
with ripe cherry and red berry qualities, a hint of spice and just a hint of acid to cleanse the palate
and a nice short finish. In fact, pure Grenache driven Bodegas Borsao from Spain is the perfect
accompaniment to grilled meat, poultry or sausages whether it’s from new vines or 30 to 40 year
old vines. Never mind the fancy stemware, its even better straight from a porron!
The Vanguard Grenache
The prototype Grenache blended wine comes from the Southern Rhone of France. Namely
Chateauneuf du Pape, Gigondas and Vacqueyras where Grenache is the backbone of the wine with
other red grapes blended into the mixture.
Chateauneuf du Pape or “New Castle of the Pope” was so named because the papacy was relocated
to Avignon in the early 1300’s under Pope Clement V. During his successor’s term, Pope John
XXII regularly drank wines produced along the Rhone River so the wines took their current name
after he built a castle in the region. As mentioned, Chateauneuf du Pape or CDP can contain up
to 13 different grape varieties including 6 different white grapes though Grenache still makes up
60% to 80% of the blend. Some wineries still bottle their CDPs in bottles that look like they’ve
started melting. If you run across a wine bottle that looks like it was dredged from the ocean and
sat too close to a nuclear reactor, it’s probably a CDP.
Gigondas is usually considered CDP’s baby brother. It also contains at least 65% Grenache though
it’s primarily blended with Syrah, Mourvedre or Cinsault.
Finally, Vacqueyras is arguably the little brother to Gigondas. Its base is also Grenache though
about 7 other grape varieties are allowed but Syrah is usually the primary blended variety.
Some of the greatest red wines I’ve had the pleasure of drinking are CDPs. Namely those with 10
to 15 years of aging. Whereas a young CDP can be a massive, teeth staining, tannic monster of a
wine, the aged version is a harmonious blend of red and black fruit, mineral and underbrush,
roasted meat, licorice and a plethora of dried spices. I purchase CDPs to cellar (for 10 to 15 years)
and Gigondas and Vacqueyras to drink young – preferably during barbecue and grilling season.
That Other Old World Grenache
In Spain, Garnacha used to be king in the Priorat wine making region and was primarily blended
with Carinena (Carignane). However ever since the region allowed those hearty foreign grapes;
Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah into the blend, they’re sort of taken over the swimming
pool. And in the Rioja region, Garnacha was never the star but always played second fiddle to
Tempranillo. Despite these changes in winemaking and the wines themselves, Garnacha still plays a
vital part of the winemaking in these two Spanish winegrowing regions. And once again, both
Riojas and Priorats are excellent partners for barbecued and grilled meats.
New World Grenache
Australia has been growing Grenache for a very long period of time. Maybe not making wine or
selling the product of these old vine grapes. But they are there none the less and just beginning to
hit the retail market. Probably one of the best examples of old vine Grenache in new school wine
is Betts & Scholls O.G. and The Chronique, the latter gaining notoriety as the French name for
one of Andre Young’s classic albums. These are both examples of Grenache shining as the star as is.
No blends, just pure ripe red berry and raspberry with hints spice and a
touch of mineral.
Australia also does its own version of Gigondas with their own version in
G.S.M. You may have seen a bottle or two on your neighborhood wine shop
shelf. The G.S.M. stands for Grenache-Syrah-Mourvedre. In fact this blend
is gaining acceptance in the States so you’ll see similar blends produced by
Linne Calodo, Villa Creek, Saxum and Terry Hoage all in Paso Robles.
In fact, Grenache is also being bottled by itself in the States with the Denner Vineyards providing
exceptional fruit for their own label as well as Villa Creek. Beckman Vineyards in the Central Coast
also makes very good pure Grenache wines.
Grenache by the Case
At a recent Grenache blind tasting hosted by Chuck Furuya, MS of the D.K. Restaurant Group, we
tasted (and self evaluated) about 24 different Grenache based wines. My favorites were:
2004 Betts & Scholl “Chronique”
2005 Sang des Cailloux Vacqueyras
2004 Domaine Pallieres Gigondas
1996 Chateau de Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape
2006 Chateau Chateau Chateau
Interestingly, two different bottles of the Betts & Scholl “Chronique” from the same vintage were
sampled. I gave the first 3 out of 5 (wouldn’t purchase unless it was less than $20). The second
bottle 4 wines later garnered one of the higher scores that evening (a 4.5 out of 5 meaning I
would go out of my way to find a bottle). Evidence of that old saying “there are no great vintages
of wine, only great bottles of wine”. A voitre sante!
Grenache, no Longer Second Fiddle