In the world of wine, only seven grapes earn the title of “noble”: cabernet sauvignon, merlot, syrah, pinot noir, sangiovese, riesling and Chardonnay.
The best wines in the world come from these fruits, with a reputation for unequaled quality and the ability to command high prices. There are, however, grapes that form a second tier that have unique personalities and create wines of distinct flavors and nuance. The red grape known as grenache is one of these. A workhorse in the areas where it thrives, grenache can be blended with other varietals, bottled singly or added in the production of rosé.
In Spain, the grape is known as garnacha and is most likely the source of its origin. The hot, dry growing region suits the fruit well, and it can reach depth and subtlety. When bottled alone, the flavors run from red fruit to milk chocolate with vanilla highlights from the use of oak. Some garnacha is blended with tempranillo to create a newer style of rioja that I think is a definite improvement. For a lighter quaff, seek out Spanish rosés, where the red grapes are fermented off the skins. It’s a delicious version of garnacha.
Interestingly, grenache is an important grape on the island of Sardinia, where it is called cannonau. There, the wine is made so that not all of the sugar is converted to alcohol, giving it a fruitiness that is reminiscent of a zinfandel or Montecucco sangiovese. The local cuisine, based on lamb, cheese and flatbreads, matches this wine perfectly. Definitely worth a try.
Grenache reaches its pinnacle in the southern Rhone Valley of France. The grape is used extensively in the sub-region of Languedoc Roussillon and through all the villages known as Cotes-du-Rhone to its northern terminus in the medieval city of Avignon. The 14th-century seat of the Catholic papacy, Avignon is where the world’s greatest grenache-based wines are made to this day.
A complex quaff with a total of 18 grapes allowed, these grenache blends are wonderful, full-bodied reds that can be enjoyed young or aged to mellow the tannins. They are very much a foil for the rich food of the area with its sauces and heavy beef dishes. The villages of Vacqueyras, Gigondas and Lirac also produce spicy grenache-based quaffs. Here, one should check the bottles carefully looking for the words non-filtre, which is a new and tasty trend for this part of the world.