Grenache (and friends)
With so much recent talk about grenache, UK-based wine writer Jane Parkinson looks at its rise in some further-flung places. This handpicked dozen highlights the grape's diversity and, in more than a few cases, affordability too.
Grenache used to lurk in syrah’s shadows in much the same way merlot can with cabernet sauvignon. But grenache has emerged from the shadows in recent years in a way that merlot still has not. Yes, these days it’s cool to drink grenache.
If you think about it, this is pretty impressive given that grenache has two uphill battles. Firstly, volume. As one of the most planted grape varieties in the world, it’s tricky to then stand your ground as a quality variety too. Secondly, it’s a victim of its own success as an extremely successful blending grape, so praise for grenache in isolation can get lost when we’re all cooing instead over some grenache, syrah and mourvedre blend.
Despite these challenges, the change in respect for grenache is undeniable, not least thanks to initiatives such as International Grenache Day (September 21 this year, if anyone’s asking) and to countries that have really started to champion grenache, Australia in particular. The dry Mediterranean climate suits this grape a treat.
Even though Australia has done more than its fair share in improving grenache’s popularity over the past decade, strides have also been made elsewhere in the world, including some of its native countries. In Spain, for example, garnacha (as it’s known locally) is famous for old-vine stock, much of which contributes to some seriously hedonistic wines. Spanish garnacha as a single varietal wine is not the most common, but their numbers are definitely on the up. These styles can range from gutsy and high-ish in alcohol to pure refined elegance; the latter especially where a combination of high-altitude and old vines can be found. This can be seen in the land-locked northerly region of Priorat where the slate and red clay/ limestone soils help shape grenache’s many personalities as much as its elegance.
Spain isn’t the only country coming up with the new grenache goods. Pockets of South Africa are showing real promise too, including the region of the moment – Swartland. Not only can South Africa make good-value ballsy wines out of grenache, but it can also make enchanting wines with real complexity, adorned with all manner of spices and herbs.
You could say that French grenache has been flying under the radar for too long. After all, is Chateauneuf-du-Pape – arguably France’s most famous grenache crusader – famous because of grenache itself? Not really. In fact, none of the Southern Rhone appellations make a big deal out of it being their protagonist grape. The rest of the south of France acts much the same, whether it’s the vital role it can play in Provencal rosé or even Languedoc-Roussillon’s hedonistic fortified Banyuls.
People haven’t found it easy to love grenache in the past, but this sun-worshipping, late-ripening, pale-ish grape that loves to make gutsy wines with low acidity is now being honed into a wine grape with the likeability factor. And not just because it has improved in quality and quantity, but because the penny has finally dropped that it plays a much larger part in our everyday red-wine drinking life than many people realise. Go grenache!