Grenache, also known as garnacha in Spanish, is among the most widely planted grape varieties across the Mediterranean Basin, although its fortunes have ebbed and most recently, flowed.
In Australia, grenache was the most widely planted variety until the 1960s, while in its home turf of Spain, it has been pulled up to such an extent (total area down from 170,000 ha in the late 1980s to just over 63,000 ha in 2012) that France now has the world’s broadest vine-scape (87,723 ha in 2011 and likely more now). That’s greater than any other variety except for merlot.
While Australia is responsible for compelling old-vine grenache, its apotheosis reached on the high sands of McLaren Vale’s Blewitt Springs, in my view grenache’s finest wines come from southern France. Here, pulpy, spicy wines are crafted between the Languedoc and the environs of Avignon, showcasing ageable mettle in Chateauneuf-du-Pape and lesser known, but equally fascinating satellites such as Gigondas and Vacqueyras.
Grenache struts a brood of dark fruit, crushed herb and smoked meat across these zones, exploiting the refractive capacity of white alluvial stones while, conversely, displaying a shimmering veil of gentle red fruit scents across the appellation’s rarer sandy terroir and limestone reaches. Older wines, such as those of my beloved Chateau Rayas, are beguilingly akin to top-drawer red Burgundy, albeit with a core of Mediterranean sweetness.
Grenache’s sphere stretches to the Spanish border and beyond, across the semi-arid plains of the Roussillon and its polyglot of schist, granite and limestone high into the Pyrenees, where its voice is one of mineral-clad energy. Into Spain, the licorella-marked elixirs of Priorat are arguably the variety’s most potent manifest, while it appears across Catalunya in various guises: from snappy wines to headier expressions. It’s also the mainstay in Rioja Baja and a back burner in wines from the Rioja Alta and Alavesa. In these parts, grenache is seldom expressed as a single-varietal wine but as the mainstay of intricate blends. These may incorporate tempranillo, mourvedre, cinsault, carignan and other Mediterranean seasonings.
Early to bud and late to ripen, grenache serves a wide variety of styles defined by joyous fruit, medium acidity and low to moderate tannins. The hue of its wines is seldom dark unless blended with sturdier varieties, yet its vinosity is effusive.
Here lies the intrigue. Grenache can be many things depending on the place it is grown and to what goal. From bouncy, quaffable wines to some of the world’s most prodigious, grenache allows us to have the cake and eat it too.