The Successful Collector – By Julian Hitner ~ Grenache – as noble as the greatest of grapes ~ Saturday, July 9th, 2011
A wonderful grape – but how to best appreciate it? The most widely planted red grape in the world, yet unfortunately one of the most abused, Grenache – also known as Garnacha in Spain – has experienced something of a renaissance in recent years. Reaching new heights in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Priorat, and Australia, collectors and casual wine lovers are slowly realizing that not all Grenache is overly alcoholic and excessively tarry. On the contrary, when yields are kept down and excessive oak is kept to a minimum, the best examples of Grenache, whether crafted on its own or (more often) blended, can easily rank among the finest red grapes in existence, from Pinot Noir and Syrah to Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.In Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Grenache is found everywhere. Typically planted on hot, dry soils that possess good drainage, the famous galet roulés stones of the appellation would seem to be a natural fit for this heat-loving varietal. Elsewhere, such as in Rioja and Priorat, Grenache takes very well to more schist-based terrains. Either way, for Grenache to make the finest wine possible, yields should always be kept reasonably low, otherwise the wine will simply not be as good.
And this is precisely why Grenache has had such a hard time garnering more respect: too many mediocre wines from high-yielding, poorly managed vines. Such wines can be found in plenty of places, so at least no one winegrowing nation, or region, is entirely to blame. The most guilty culprits, however? Probably Spain, southern France, California, and (even) Australia. In such places, Grenache is often mass-produced and tends to taste very straightforward and alcoholic. Granted, Grenache can make for some great rosé – particularly those found in Navarra and Tavel – even when harvested at excessively high yields, yet this hardly atones for all the lousy red table wine produced from this same grape.
On the premium side of the spectrum, however, Grenache really is like nothing else. In Châteauneuf-du-Pape (and Roussillon, to a remarkable extent), where Grenache is commonly blended with Syrah and Mourvèdre, the finest youthful examples will often give off extraordinary aromas of fresh dark raspberried currants and plums, blackberries, leather, Provencal herbs, mocha shavings (sometimes roasted coffee beans), minerals, and spice. On the palate: these same wines are distinctly full-bodied, carrying lots of ‘dark’ fruit and firm, yet accessible tannins. As for cellaring potential, the best examples of Grenache should be able to age for at least ten years, oftentimes much more.
In other places, such as Priorat in southern Spain, the best bottlings of Grenache will often contain a dollop of Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot. Compared to Châteauneuf-du-Pape or Roussillon, I have often found these wines to be far more robust and oak-driven as a whole, yet the quality of the finest examples is unmistakable. Indeed, collectors should be on the lookout for these wines, as they will give great pleasure over the short and long term.
Heading to Australia, quality tends to vary significantly. As is often the case elsewhere, the best bottlings are those that have been blended with other varietals. In the case of Oz, the blending partners are Syrah and Mourvèdre. For collectors and wine lovers, however, the thing to remember is that the ‘entry range’ Grenache-based wines from Australia are seldom worth buying. This all changes, though, as you enter the more premium spectrum. This is where the Grenache-based wines of Australia have a tendency to shine, with the finest examples, while typically the reversal of inexpensive, often reminding me of a fruitier, New World, Aussie-styled version of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. High praise, to say the least.