In my opinion, Grenache is one of the world’s great wine grapes. But it doesn’t seem to get much respect. When was the last time you saw a wine list with a section for Grenache-based wines? The closest you’re likely to come is a catch-all potpourri portion of the list usually called “Rhone Rangers” or “Rhone-style Reds.”
And yet, Grenache (or Grenacha or 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 ChÃ¢teauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas, Tavel, Cotes-du-Rhone 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.
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), fruit-bomb wines, but ones that often lack structure. For one thing, Grenache produces low-tannin wines, not traditionally known for being age-worthy or complex. Its love of hot, dry weather makes Grenache a good candidate for thriving in the hot, dry climates of the Southern Rhone and Spain, California and Australia.
Well, although it might not get the respect it deserves, there is a small but passionate group of folks who really groove on Grenache. I’m one of them. And I’m thrilled to see more and more Grenache being grown, especially in California. Not that it’s new to the Golden State. Grenache, along with Syrah and Mourvedre has been in California since the 1800s. Until recently, however'with the arrival of Rhone Rangers like Bonny Doon Vineyard’s Randall Graham and others'Grenache and its sister Rhone grapes were only found in small batches in California wine country. Today, 100 or so California wineries produce Rhone-style wines that feature Grenache. In fact, there’s even a guy in Oxnard, Calif., named Dan Philips who’s created a Grenache-of-the-month club called The Grateful Palate.
Another reason to love Grenache is that it’s relatively inexpensive, ChÃ¢teauneuf-du-Pape and Gigondas notwithstanding. I recently wrote briefly about a Grenache-based blend from Australia’s Barossa Valley called Hewitson Miss Harry 2004 ($19.95), which I enjoyed very much. Another favorite New World Grenache of mine is the aforementioned Bonny Doon’s Glos de Gilroy ($12.95). The 2004 vintage was made from a combination of Bonny Doon’s traditional Grenache source: a very old vineyard in Gilroy, Calif., and its biodynamically farmed vineyard in Soledad. The result is a big, rich Grenache oozing with raspberry flavors and black peppercorns. Steak au poivre, anybody? Also, d’Arenberg Grenache The Custodian ($16.95) is a fruity mouthful of cherries and pomegranates if you can find it, a sensational accompaniment to a roasted leg of lamb.
And of course, Spain is a first-rate source of Grenache wines, which tend to be more of a bargain than most others. Among my favorites are ViÃ±a Alarba Grenache ’04 ($7.95), Las Rocas San Alejandro Garnacha ’03 ($7.95), Tres Ojos Garnacha ’04 ($7.95) and a new find that I’m psyched about: Tres Picos Old Vines Garnacha ’04 ($12.95), which drinks an awful lot like a ChÃ¢teauneuf-du-Pape, at less than a third the price.
Sips: The Rhone Rangers is America’s leading nonprofit education group dedicated to the promotion of America’s Rhone varietal wines (RhoneRangers.org). You can test your Rhone IQ at its Website, as well as learn about various wine tastings and other events held around the country. Best of all, members get a cool T-shirt with the Rhone Ranger logo.