Some grapes are born great, some achieve greatness, while others have greatness thrust upon them. But what about the supporting actors: the spear carriers, the chorus, the walk-on parts? There are thousands of grapes varieties in the world, but only a handful have secured international fame. For the rest, low-key success must suffice: repertory theatre rather than the big time.
The paradox of grenache, one of the most widely planted grapes, is that it is both A list and Z list, depending on your point of view. Ask most consumers about this quintessential Mediterranean grape and you’ll be met with a vacant expression. But tell them that it’s an essential component of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Priorat and Gigondas, makes some of the best rosés, and is widely grown in southern France, Spain, California and Australia and they understand its star quality.
Why isn’t this ancient grape better known? I recently returned from the first ever grenache symposium (www.grenachesymposium.com), held in the southern Rhône Valley, and its relative anonymity was one of the central themes. Over the years, I’ve attended international gatherings devoted to pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon, syrah, sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, sangiovese, nebbiolo and zinfandel, but never grenache. Even the French seemed slightly surprised that so many foreigners had turned up to talk about, taste and celebrate their local grape.
But turn up they did — and from no fewer than 23 countries – to attend a “call-to-action” launched by four grenache lovers: two Brits, a Frenchman and one American. The Brits were local winemaker Walter McKinlay of Domaine de Mourchon and the debonair journalist, Steven Spurrier, who is something of a wine celebrity himself, having been played by Alan Rickman in the 2008 film, Bottle Shock. The Frenchman was Michel Bettane, that country’s leading wine commentator. And the American was the multi-lingual, can-do Nicole Rolet of Chêne Bleu, the conference’s winery home.
For three days, we discussed, dissected and drank grenache. There are tougher assignments, I concede, but given that temperatures hit 30C and that grenache is widely regarded as a grape that needs 14% alcohol or more to show at its best, a tasting of 100-odd bottles was a hang-over (or afternoon snooze) waiting to happen. No wonder most producers chose to cool their red wines in ice buckets.
Grenache’s biggest problem is that it doesn’t appear on labels very often. It’s generally blended with other things (mostly syrah, carignan, mourvèdre or tempranillo, occasionally merlot and cabernet sauvignon), needing friends and allies to show at its best. It appears as the G in the Australian acronym GSM (short for grenache, shiraz, mourvèdre), but goes unnamed in European appellations such as Rioja and Châteauneuf du Pape. All too often, people drink grenache without knowing it.
So what does grenache taste like? The best way to find out is to buy a stand-alone example from Spain (especially Campo de Borja), Australia or (very occasionally) Châteauneuf so that you can understand what the grape brings to a blend. Grenache is full-bodied, spicy and soft, with smooth tannins, a rich texture and flavours of ripe red fruits. In short, it’s well-suited to prevailing tastes, being approachable young, well-priced and easy to drink. The only drawback can be those high levels of alcohol
To people who think it’s all about head banger reds, grenache is a surprisingly diverse grape. It comes in three forms (red and two whites, grenache gris and blanc) and can be white, pink or red. It can also be fruity and light (think Côtes de Provence rosé) as well as fortified, though not at the same time. It’s the ultimate chameleon in many ways, like Woody Allen’s fictional character, Zelig.
For all its qualities, grenache is in decline. It has lost a third of its vineyards in the last 20 years and is set to fall further in France and Spain under Brussels’ ongoing vine pull scheme. Many of these parcels are more than half a century old; each time one is removed, we destroy a small piece of wine history. Can anything be done to stop the slide? Indeed it can. Buy a bottle, get to know the grape and you’ll help to put grenache in the spotlight where it belongs.
2009 Gran Tesoro Garnacha Rosé, Campo de Borja (£3.62, 13.5%, Tesco)
I love the pink and the red versions of this Spanish cheapie from Campo de Borja. Made from pure garnacha (Grenache) it’s got lovely cherry stone and raspberry fruit, good acidity and the faintest hint of sweetness.
2008 Old Vines Grenache Noir (£5.99, 14.5%, Marks & Spencer)
This is sourced from vines between 25 and 100 years old, grown close to the French Pyrenees. It’s a big wine, with more tannin than you often find in grenache, but with ripe, plum and raisin notes and a spicy undertone.
2006 Mas de Subira, Priorat (£7.99 each for two, 14.5%, Majestic)
Wines from the ultra-trendy region of Priorat near Barcelona can be very pricey, but this smoky, wild, full-throttle blend of grenache with carignan and a little cabernet is great value for two bottles. Rich, yet refreshing.
2005 D’Arenberg The Sticks and Stones, McLaren Vale (£16.99, or £13.59 by the case, 14.5%, Oddbins)
Chester Osborn of d’Arenberg is one of Australia’s great Grenache enthusiasts, with shirts to match the variety’s more extravagant side. Grenache, tempranillo and syrah combine beautifully here, with sweet fruit and oak and lovely, savoury tannins.
2008 Asda Extra Special Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Ogier (£14.47, 14%)
Anything under £15 is cheap for Châteauneuf, the pinnacle of the grenache world. This is comparatively forward for such a powerful wine, with the spicy, clove-scented Grenache complemented by lesser amounts of syrah, mourvèdre and cinsault.
2007 Patrick Lesec Les Espalines, Gigondas (£14.99, 15.35%, Waitrose)
Gigondas can be pretty firm and unforgiving (for a grenache-based wine) in its youth, but not here. This is quite tannic, but it has plenty of ripe, fleshy red and black fruits flavours, combined with Mediterranean spices, too. One to lay down.
Originally published in The Times