What’s this then? Grenache is a red grape variety, until 2000 the second-most planted variety in the world. It’s most commonly associated with France but actually believed to have originated in Spain – so we should probably refer to it by its Spanish name, Garnacha. It’s capable of making ripe and juicy quaffers, hefting bruisers or pale, elegant and ethereal delights. There’s even a white variant (Blanc) and a rare, pink-skinned one (Gris). And yet despite this, until recently Garnacha suffered from indifference – or even disdain – thanks to its dominant use as part of blends.
Why does it matter? Because it’s behind so, so many of the wines you love. Are you sitting comfortably? Then let’s begin. In France’s Southern Rhone valley it’s the dominant variety, usually cut with a splash of Syrah and/or Mourvedre in the wines of the Cotes du Rhone (combined, the famed GSM blend), and the beast that is Chateauneuf-du-Pape.
A short hop along the coast and we find Garnacha forming the backbone of the rosés of Provence (yes, including that triumph of marketing, Whispering Angel); the increasingly appreciated wines of Priorat in north-eastern Spain; blended with Tempranillo in Rioja; as the calling card of the island of Sardinia (where it’s known as Cannonau); and tailor-made for France’s answer to Port, the fortified red Vin Doux Naturels such as Banyuls and Rasteau. Phew. And that’s just one corner of the Med – further afield there’s plantings in South Africa, California and Chile, whilst Australia has long championed its own GSM blends.
As a variety Garnacha thrives in warmer climates and is drought tolerant, meaning it’s able to survive in conditions that would kill off other varieties.
As climate change pushes temperatures ever higher and limits water availability in many established wine regions, many growers are looking at the likes of Garnacha in order to cope. Even Bordeaux, a region not exactly renowned for openness to change, has granted permission to use a new range of varieties that can cope with increasingly unfavourable conditions.
What does it taste like? In its essence, loads of ripe red fruit, a touch of peppery spice and ripe tannin, and often a decent whack of alcohol that’s in line with the richness of flavour (in theory). Fans of big, bold but complex wines need not look away therefore.
However, modern, lighter touch winemaking shows a whole new side to Grenache – especially in the Sierra de Gredos region of Spain, where the wines often bear more in common with Pinot Noir than southern Rhone. As with good Beaujolais, the granitic soil that the vines grow on here is actually tangible in the end result, rather than being a meaningless selling point.
Blanc is all about ripe pear and peach (often blended with other white Rhone grapes in a cheery, fruit-laden style). Gris is arguably more interesting, combining Blanc’s richness of fruit with a more savoury element. A great example from South Africa can be found below.
What do I buy? Rosé is rarely far from one’s mind at this time of year. Rós Rosado (£14.95, Philglas & Swiggot) from Spain’s Navarra is the work of two female winemakers and a great showcase for the variety’s ripe, rounded delights, which puts much of Provence to shame.
Over in the Sierra de Gredos, Comando G are great champions for a lighter, fresher style of Garnacha. Their Bruja de Rozas (Wayward Wines, £24.50) is light, juicy but with a grippy texture that’ll have you coming back again and again.
If your tastes are on the weightier side, then southern Rhone is your friend. Chateauneuf-du-Pape has been creeping up in alcohol (and price) of late so it’s worth looking to buy something with a little more age on it. The second wine from the famed Vieux Telegraphe estate, Telegramme (£35 for the 2017 vintage, House of Townend), is great with a few years of age on it to generate some additional complexity.
Meanwhile, showing up to dinner with a bottle of the rarely-seen Grenache Gris is sure to earn you some sort of wine-related badge. Momento (£25, Q Wines), made by the extremely talented Mareliese Niemann with fruit from the only Grenache Gris vineyard in South Africa, is a stunner of an example. Badge not included with your purchase.
Finally, if you like Tawny port then end the night with a glass of Banyuls (Domaine la Tour Vieille, £24, Yapp Brothers) – made in a similar style, it’s delicious by itself or with chocolate-based puds. After all that, you’ll never take Grenache for granted again.