Grenache is one of the most widely planted grape varieties in the world. It goes by many different names, such as Garnacha in Spain and Cannonau in Sardegna. This workhorse grape is a key component to two of the world’s most celebrated wines, Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Priorat, at yet it is largely under-appreciated. Jancis Robinson argues, “Part of Grenache’s problem is that it is so widely planted.” Perhaps. Another contributing factor may be that Grenache is largely known as a blending grape; therefore, lacking the credit it deserves.
There is an ongoing debate about the origin of Grenache. In a 2016 article titled, “Call it Grenache or Garnacha, but Order this Wine When You Want Big Flavor,” Michael Austin of the Chicago Tribune wrote, “The consensus of the folks who study such things is that Garnacha hails from the Aragon region of northern Spain. Over time the grape made its way into southwestern France and all the way east to its wheelhouse, the Rhone Valley.” However, Karen MacNeil states, in the second edition of The Wine Bible, “a strong scientific hypothesis had Grenache originating in Italy, first as a white grape called Vernaccia, and later brought to Spain (where it matured to form a red clone) and from there to France.” Further testing indicates there is no genetic relationship between Vernaccia and Garnacha. MacNeil elaborates, “The Italian connection is not without merit, however, since DNA typing shows Sardinia’s important grape Cannonau to be Garnacha Tint/Grenache Noir.” (61)
The book Wine Grapes, by Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding, and Jose Vouillamoz, surmises “From a historical point of view, both hypothesis are equally plausible because commercial and cultural links between the two regions are so well established….Based on historical data, it is therefore impossible to be categorical about the origin of Garnacha.” (397) The book goes on to suggest two possible reasons Spain is the likely origin: first, all three color variants of the grape are illustrated in Spain and not Sardegna; second, recent scientific studies indicate significant clonal diversity in Spain that is lacking among Cannonau on Sardegna. Though a sound conclusion may be absent it is likely the first reference to this grape should be Garnacha above all else.
Regardless of the grape’s name it has the same characteristics all over the world. This black grape is late ripening and needs to be planted in a warm or hot climate. It has a high tolerance for drought. Its thin skin results in wines with soft tannins and low acidity but high alcohol, crafting full bodied wines with red fruit flavors. Grenache rouge is also a key component (comprising at least 50%) to Banyuls AOC wines in Roussillon. This fortified dessert wine is, like port, chocolate’s best friend.
Grenache Blanc is the fifth most planted white grape in France, ninth in Spain. Its notes of green pear, apple, lime, under-ripe mango, white flowers, white nectarine, and at times salinity. It can be crafted into a high acid wine that is crisp and refreshing, or aged in oak to add textural depth, complexity, and notes of almonds and brioche. It is a versatile, food friendly wine with medium to even high alcohol. Like its red counterpart, it is often blended but can be increasingly found as a single variety wine. Furthermore, in Roussillon it is a key component to the fortified sweet wine of the region called Rivesaltes Vin Doux Naturel.
Spanning the Globe
In Spain, Garnacha is a key blending grape in Priorat and Rioja. In Priorat, it is blended with Carignan, producing dark full bodied wines with high tannins and dark black fruit. In Rioja, it is blended with Tempranillo, contributing perfumed aromas, body, and alcohol to the wine. It is also widely made into rose throughout Spain.
In France, Grenache is the most widely planted grape variety in the Southern Rhone, and is a key component to what is arguably the finest wines of the appellation, Châteauneuf-du-Pape. In this region it is typically blended with Syrah and Mourvèdre, commonly known as a GSM, producing wines that are full in body, with rich texture, and concentrated red spicy fruit.
It is also widely planted in the Languedoc and Roussillon and blended with Syrah, Mourvèdre, Cinsault, and Carignan. These wines tend to be earthy with notes of garrigue (wild herbs) mixed with fruit.
On Sardegna, Cannonau reigns supreme. It is the most cultivated grape on the island. It is also the most consumed, reportedly one of out every five bottles consumed is Cannonau. Finally, it is recognized as a Blue Zone wine, with its elevated antioxidant components playing a key role in the health and longevity of Sardinians.
Outside of Europe, Australia’s Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale are known for Grenache. The style produced in these two regions used to be ripe and concentrated; however, today the style is more restrained. Old bush vines of Grenache in these regions yield low volumes of intensely concentrated grapes that create powerful and robust wines with red fruit and peppery spice notes.
Grenache has met some fame in California by a group known as the Rhone Rangers. This non-profit organization has a mission “to educate the public on Rhone varietal wine grapes grown in America and to promote the production and enjoyment of these wines, with emphasis on integration into our daily lives.” The member wineries span the Central Coast, including wineries in Sonoma, Lodi, and Napa Valley.
Grenache/Garnacha Back to the Beginning
I encourage you to explore the world of Grenache. Head to your local wine retailer or online and find some bottles from Australia, South Africa, Sardegna, and the US. Each will offer a unique expression of this workhorse grape that deserves more attention. Think of it this way, Michael Jordan reigns supreme as the star of the Chicago Bulls and arguably the best basketball player of all time, but former teammate Steve Kerr (who only started 30 NBA games in his career) is arguably one of the best workhorses of the NBA. In 15 seasons he won a total of 5 Championship rings, 3 with Chicago and 2 with San Antonio, and now has 1 more as Head Coach of the Golden State Warriors in a record-breaking season. Kerr and Grenache teach a valuable lesson: Never discount the work horse.
Here are a few Grenache/Garnacha’s to wet your palate:
2014 Domaine Gardies Cotes de Roussillon Villages Tautavel Clos Des Vignes France ($23): 60% Grenache Blanc, 35% Grenache Gris, 5% Macabeo; pale lemon; medium aromas of pears, yellow apples, white nectarine, touch of spice, white floral notes; round and textured on the palate, medium acidity, medium body, long finish
2013 Vinas del Vero ‘La Miranda de Secastilla’ Garnacha Blanca Somonano Spain ($13): 100% Garnacha Blanca; medium- lemon-green; medium aromas of green pears, green apples, lime zest, under-ripe pineapple, almonds; light body wine with medium- acidity, textural due to four months aging in French oak; pair with creamy seafood or soup
2010 Las Moradas de San Martin Initio Garnacha Vinos de Madrid Spain ($16): 100% Garnacha; medium+ ruby; medium aromas of baked cherry, black berry jam, black raspberry, licorice, spice, violets, dried savory herbs, cocoa, vanilla; a well-structured wine with medium+ tannins and acidity, full body, silky mouth-feel, medium+ finish; elegant and over-delivers for price
2014 Bodega San Valero ‘Particular’ Garnacha Cariñena Spain ($7):100% Garnacha; deep violet; medium+ aromas of baked black cherry, black berry, black plum, raspberry, licorice, black pepper, baking spice, cocoa, trailing menthol and vanilla; dense and dark palate, full bodied with pronounced tannins that are smooth and medium+ acidity, long finish with notes of baked fruit and spice; crafted of 25 year old vines, aged 6 months in French oak to add texture and smooth out characters
Domaine La Tour Vielle Banyuls Reserva Languedoc-Roussillon France ($24): 80% Grenache Noir, 15% Grey Grenache, 5% Carignan; medium tawny color; medium aromas of dried white figs, apricots, caramel, honey, candied walnuts; silky on palate, sweet, coffee notes on palate, medium acidity, mouth-coating but not cloying, elegant, perfect for chocolate, nuts, cookies