Otherwise known as garnacha, garnatxa, grenache noir and alicante, grenache is a grape varietal that goes by many names and is well-loved by many palates. Renowned for its easy drinking nature (thanks to its balanced body, soft tannins and juicy fruits), grenache is a formidable blend partner (hello shiraz, hello mourvedre) and a stellar single varietal wine.
Grown widely all over the world, grenache is no longer pinot noir’s little sidekick - it’s a grape all grown up on its own.
The history of grenache
Once the world’s most planted grape variety, grenache is claimed by both Spain and Italy via the island of Sardinia. Science is yet to determine its exact origins but it’s considered indisputable fact that mutations of the grape over the centuries have led to grenache rouge, gris and blanc.
Grenache as we know it was first cultivated in the fourteenth century and gradually spread outwards from the Province of Aragon across northern Spain and southern France. Its plantings in southern Rhone are what set the stage for grenache in the New World. It was first embraced with fervour and open arms in the New World by California and South Australia - in fact, it was by the warmest, driest wine regions of those states.
An introduction to Australian grenache
South Australia well and truly led the grenache charge down under. James Halliday is of the opinion that the most important, in terms of quality, is McLaren Vale “although the vignerons of the Barossa and Clare valleys may well take umbrage at this distinction between the three major dry-grown bushvine regions”.
Before it became known as a veritable single varietal or component in delicious blended table wine (think GSM), grenache was mainly used in fortified and was probably best known as the cornerstone for the production of tawny port.
James says: “I believe McLaren Vale produces Australia’s greatest grenache… The best examples manage to combine density of aroma, colour, flavour and alcohol without threatening to engulf you. That said, they are most convincing with commensurately rich food such as jugged hare, wild mushroom risotto or ragout of venison (the list goes on).”
James says: “It is here, more than in McLaren Vale, that the varietal schizophrenia occurs. On the one hand there are some wines with very similar structure and flavour to those I’ve attributed to McLaren Vale. On the other hand, there are also many wines strangely light in colour, and with an overwhelming confectionery/jammy character and flavour. These wines are usually attributed to old, dry-grown vines…”
James says: “For reasons I understand even less than in the case of the Barossa Valley, old-vine Clare Valley grenache seems more likely to produce the light-coloured confectionery style than the Barossa Valley style. Here, too, blending with shiraz and mourvedre works wonders.”
The two world regions most famous for grenache can both be found in France: Châteauneuf-du-pape and Cote du Rhone. According to James, the Chateau Rayas, made from 100 per cent grenache is the ultimate achievement and expression of the variety. The wine has exotic aromas and flavours, and is sweetly spicy, with hits of forest berry, tobacco and liquorice.
Cote du Rhone is a vast appellation with a viticultural history stretching over 1000 years, of which grenache is the dominant variety. The hallmark of all Cote du Rhones is sheer drinkability. While the fruit is there in abundance, the tannins are soft. James says “this is a wine which Australians instinctively understand and, if for this reason if no other, the overwhelming majority of the Cote du Rhone wines brought into this country are from the top echelon of producers”.
Grenache wine characteristics
If you’re testing your palate with a blind tasting, the tell tale sign of a grenache is the candied fruit roll-up and cinnamon hit. Medium-bodied but deceptively light in colour, grenache is a varietal packed with aromas of orange rind and raspberry, red plum and tobacco. Your typical grenache is generally fruit driven, boasting balanced tannins and medium acidity, often plush with berries, making it a common crowd pleaser.
Styles do vary depending on where the grapes are grown. For example, the Spanish garnacha expression that’s produced in the warm regions of the north are normally high in alcohol (around 15%) and filled with ruby-red grapefruit, cherry and licorice. On the other hand, French grenache from the cooler souther Rhone region produces wines with more finesse and less alcohol, focussing on herbal notes such as oregano and lavender.
Pairing food with grenache
When we talk about pairing food with grenache, it’s all about what dishes will complement the spice in the wine. Turkey is a winner, as is other game meats such as duck. If you're pescatarian, opt for meaty fish such as a tuna steak. Something with a little extra heart to it. So don’t be afraid to serve your grenache alongside the humble BBQ, it goes well with a grill. Also, if your dinner choice is heavy on the spice itself, a lighter-bodied and slightly chilled grenache can really help balance the burn.