Go, go grenache 

This under-the-radar wine is the perfect summer pick

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You say grenache and I say garnacha. You say what?, and I say just try it. It's an old French, I mean Spanish, ditty but then the Italians refer to the same grape as cannonau so maybe we should call the whole thing off. But wait a minute, it's only a month to summer and you know what that means in the wine world. It's time to get out of your comfort zone.

Unlike widely popular mainstream varietal wines such as cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay or pinot noir — and you can add shiraz, merlot and sauvignon blanc to that mix — grenache or, more properly, grenache noir is more likely to be linked to an appellation or blend then a single grape. It's hard to believe that when you consider it's estimated to be the fourth most widely planted grape variety in the world, with some 200,000 hectares in the ground.

The problem is when grenache flies solo its name is often camouflaged, lurking somewhere beneath an appellation, a sub-region or as part of a red blend rather than appearing as a straight varietal wine on the label. That said, it's not out of the question to encounter grenache on the labels of some trendy rosés.

In many ways grenache is a grape that does far better in blind tastings than it does when poured in the open. Think The Voice versus American Idol. That's because in a wine world infatuated by cool climates and extreme terroirs, where grapes barely cling to life in the vineyard, grenache thrives on warm sites. Also, it often has less colour than its always serious competitors and more alcohol, plus it tends to brown or oxidise earlier in the bottle and, hence, in the glass.

On the plus side, though, it has an amazing strawberry/black raspberry quality that can make it very attractive on the nose; it's low in tannins; and it seldom sees a lot of new oak. These three crucial factors point to smooth textures and an overtly friendly character in the glass, especially with food — which can't be overlooked.

Noted wine writer Steven Spurrier thinks grenache enjoys a number of advantages over its counterparts. He describes it this way: "... eco-friendly, long-lived (there is more old vine grenache than any other variety), it is economical to farm, adapts to small production, and is the perfect grape for blending or for use on its own."

Grenache is the principal component in most Southern Rhône red blends. It's likely best known as the base grape found in most Châteauneuf du Pape, Cotes du Rhône and Gigondas, yet the royalty bestowed by French appellations alone is not enough to give grenache a serious standing in the wine community. That help is coming from other countries.

Spain, where grenache is referred to as garnacha, is the homeland of the variety. It's an especially important player in Catalonia. In Priorat, where famed winegrower Alvaro Palacios is making waves, garnacha was on the decline until the mid-1990s. Palacios has become a fanatic, to say the least, of the juicy red grape, converting and planting bush vine garnacha on the schist of Priorat in search of wines brimming with finesse and elegance. His L'Ermita is the ultimate, ethereal expression of the variety.

Bush vines are no strangers to the Australians, whose extensive grenache plantings have yielded some terrific bottles albeit ones a bit more boisterous than their European counterparts.

California central coast's "Rhone Rangers" have dabbled with grenache for a couple of decades although few pure varietal grenache have made their way to the markets. In Italy, more specifically the island of Sardinia, grenache is known as cannonau. Some have suggested it was the Italian cannonau that was exported to Spain and France after its occupation of Sardinia.

Locally, Okanagan producers are probing grenache and it seems like it could be a fit in the south Okanagan. The Okanagan versus Priorat or Barossa may seem absurd, but when you're moved by a voice (taste) instead of looks and mannerisms (labels) you may just find your place among a sea of idols.

Finally, fortified grenache from Banyuls, a French appellation d'origine contrôlée (AOC) is a tasty dessert wine made from old vines cultivated on terraced slopes in Roussillon near the Spanish border. It is delicious with chocolates.

And, just in case you're fan of martinis, the French vermouth industry uses grenache blended with muscat to make its world-famous dry vermouth wines.

As we head outdoors for the summer, here's a short list of some tasty grenache you can enjoy all season with grilled items off the barbecue:

La Vieille Ferme Côtes du Ventoux Rosé $12 from the Rhone Valley, France. Pale copper colour, floral nose with dry, juicy, strawberry/cherry jam, licorice flavours. Try it with your favourite kabobs.

Shatter Grenache 2010 $40 from Roussillon, France. A serious glass of black raspberry, minerality and licorice made by Americans in the south of France.

The Show Garnacha 2010 $19 from Calatayud, Spain. Expect a meaty nose flecked with black raspberry jam and a generous, rustic red with fine fruit. Hamburgers and/or grilled chicken.

Yalumba Old Bush Vine Grenache $25 from Barossa Valley, Australia. Round, fresh, juicy black raspberry jam with orange, savoury, peppery, chocolate and licorice highlights.

Pablo Old Vine Garnacha 2012 $14 from Calatayud, Spain. Classic peppery, spicy nose with bits of licorice and a fresh, suave palate with black raspberry, chocolate, orange peel, savoury flavours. Try this with lamb chops.

Castillo de Monséran Garnacha 2012 $9 from Cariñena, Spain. This is a fun, juicy red with peppery, strawberry, earthy fruit flavours. A solid pizza/pasta/chicken red, now under screwcap.

Stag's Hollow Grenache 2012 $30 from Okanagan Valley. A rare local grenache. The attack is both sweet and fresh, blending ripe fruit with bright acidity. More red fruit than dark but with a savoury, sagebrush, spice underbelly. Roast chicken is the match.

M. Chapoutier Banyuls Vins Doux Naturel 2012 $26, from Roussillon, France. Delicious sipping thanks to a palate awash in chocolate and black, mostly raspberry, fruit with savoury licorice undertones and silky, soft, mellow textures.

Anthony Gismondi is a globetrotting wine writer who makes his home in West Vancouver, British Columbia. For more of his thoughts on wine log onto www.gismondionwine.com

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