TS Eliot got it wrong in my view: October, not April, is the cruellest month. Once the clocks go back you know you’re in for a winter of sniffles, short days and exorbitant heating bills. The only compensation — at least if you’re a wine drinker — is that you can open a few fireside reds. Wines that seem too rich in summer are suddenly perfect, especially with game or a good stew.
For me, October is the time to start raiding my stash of Grenache. There are other candidates — sturdy Barolos, spicy Zinfandels, rich Malbecs — but Grenache (or Garnacha or Canonau, as it’s known in Spain and Sardinia) is what I reach for first. Heady, aromatic and packed with flavour, it never fails to lighten my dark mood.
The ironic thing about a grape that works so well with autumnal dishes is that it’s a sun worshipper. If it were a holidaymaker, Grenache would be the first grape on the poolside loungers, elbowing the likes of Pinot Noir, Gamay and Cabernet Franc to one side. That’s why it’s generally so high in, first, sugar, and then, after fermentation, alcohol. It’s unusual to find examples under 14% alcohol and common to drink ones with 15% or more. If it’s not ripe, verging on the over-ripe at times, then it isn’t really Grenache. For bashful and retiring, go elsewhere.
This most Mediterranean of grapes always reminds me of southern Europe: of Spain, Greece, Sardinia, Sicily and, best of all, the southern Rhône Valley, where I spent a year as student in the 1980s and first developed an interest in wine. But it grows well pretty much anywhere where the weather is sizzling hot, from North Africa to the South Australia, the Cape to southern California.
To many winemakers, Grenache is not a stand-alone grape. They think it needs one or more partners, be it Syrah, Tempranillo, Carignan or Mourvèdre. I find this a little baffling, given that the most famous red wine of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, a region that is allowed to use as many as 13 grape varieties, is a pure Grenache. If it’s good enough for Rayas, it’s got more than enough personality.
Finding unblended, unfortified Grenache is harder than you’d imagine. Northern Spain, which has traditionally used the grape to make pink wines, is your best bet. The regions of Campo de Borja, Cariñena and Calatayud, all three of them planted with lots of old, low-yielding bush vines, are excellent sources, generally at bargain prices. Try the pepper spicy, unoaked 2008 Gran Tesoro Garnacha Red, Campo de Borja (£3.54, 13.5%, Tesco), or the firmer, more powerful 2007 Garnacha, Cruz de Piedra, Calatayud (£5.99, 14%, Adnams, 01502 727 222).
Blended Grenaches can be lovely, too, and are arguably more complex for the addition of other things. Grenache is an essential ingredient in older-style Rioja, Priorat, Montsant, Côtes du Rhône, Côtes du Rhône Villages and Châteauneuf-du-Pape, as well as in the GSM (short for Grenache, Shiraz, Mourvèdre) wines of Australia, contributing warmth, breadth and lots of alcohol.
Four wines I’d recommend with at least 45% Grenache are the liquorice and blackberry fruity 2007 Taste the Difference Côtes du Rhône Villages (£5.99, 14.5%, Sainsbury’s), the savoury, raisiny 2006 Clos de Mont-Olivet, Côtes du Rhône (£6.99 each for two, 14%, Majestic), the smooth, polished 2007 Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Les Pradel (£17, 14%, Marks & Spencer) and, most entertaining of all, the intense, chocolate-, vanilla- and black fruits-like 2006 Charles Melton Nine Popes, Barossa Valley (£24.95, 14.5%, Liberty Wines, 020 7720 5350), a quirky Australian tribute to the great wines of the southern Rhône.
So draw the curtains, light the fire, crank up the central heating and open a bottle of one of these wines. Winter may be upon us, but who cares when we’ve got red wines like these in our glasses?
Originally published in The Observer