Smash the Grenache

Smash the Grenache

Grenache is known for big beefy red blends, but a new generation of producers are exploring its lighter side. Hannah Crosbie, wine writer and founder of the Dalston Wine Club, does a deep dive on the new styles.

Grenache (or Garnacha) is a vital ingredient to some of the world’s most famous wines. It’s absolutely essential to a Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Priorat, Rioja, or a Côtes de Provence rosé. It’s perhaps best known as one of the Rhône blend’s holy trinity alongside Syrah and Mouvèdre. The list goes on, even Burgundian winemakers used Grenache to beef up their Pinot in the 17th century.

Grenache brings body, spice and sometimes fiery alcohol to a wine. But here’s the thing: because it lends itself so well to blends, it’s scarcely heralded as variety in its own right.

Old vines and the famous heat retaining pudding stones that contribute to the rich, spicy reds from Châteauneuf-du-Pape

The secret to Grenache’s success as a variety is its ability to thrive in climates others wouldn’t dare flower in. Unforgiving deserts, intense sunlight, the beating of the Mistral; all of the above bear no inconvenience to Grenache's tenacious old vines. Because it’s slow to ripen, these hot, continental climates naturally lead to rich and bold expressions. So, it comes as no surprise that Grenache is often typecast as this powerful, unsubtle, beast of a wine, when really, there’s a lot more potential in this variety than many give it credit for. More recently, more and more winemakers are leaning towards lighter, perfumed, more smashable expressions of Grenache — blends and varietal wines alike.

Grenache is often typecast as this powerful, unsubtle, beast of a wine, when really, there’s a lot more potential in this variety than many give it credit for.

Defying Expectations

It’s one thing to make a different style of wine, but another thing entirely to convince the consumer that it’s worth drinking. In this way, Grenache has been in need of something of a PR campaign for some time. Indeed, Australia’s sunbeaten Barossa Valley is home to the world’s oldest Grenache vines (still producing fruit, mind), which were planted way back in 1850.

The first Grenache I ever tried was of this ilk: a big, spicy bottle from Navarra made from 40-year-old vines. It blew my head off. Completely drinkable, mind, but as a guilt-free 5pm glass on a school night? A total misfire. Although it pains me to admit it, that mis-judgment resulted in my own misconceptions of Grenache.

Grenache is versatile, it makes refreshing, food-friendly fruity rosés and sparkling wines as well.

That is, until, I was greeted with a glass of something pink and effervescent for a tasting menu some months later. I’m one to leave myself in the hands of the sommelier in these situations (I’m all for being guided by someone far more experienced than me), so was none the wiser to what was in my glass. A swirl, a sip, and to me, it was a textbook Pinot-dominated sparkling wine. Swathes of strawberries, a subtle streak of citrus and a creamy mousse — you can imagine my surprise when I was told it was the same variety that had flushed my face several months earlier. It became apparent why Grenache is referred to as ‘the Pinot Noir of the south’. In the right hands, it has the capacity to seriously defy expectations.

Taming the beast

So how do you tame a grape famous for its power and body? You could source it from a cooler region or higher altitude vineyards like Dani Landi does for his perfumed Garnachas from the Gredos mountains north of Madrid. Grenache calls for a much more attentive approach from the winemaker. When treated right, Grenache can deliver a vibrant, complex and perfumed style of wine. Instead of leaving the late-ripening grape to intensify on the vine, it can be picked early to retain its underrated aromatics and natural high acidity, like Dominik Huber does at Terroir al Limit. Other techniques include crushing and pressing at a low temperature, as does a shorter period of maceration, especially if you’re making rosé.

Dani and Fer aka Comando G (for Garnacha!) in their winery in Gredos. Adi Badenhorst makes exceptional Grenache from some of the oldest vines in the Swartland

Varietal vs. blend

As I’ve mentioned, Grenache’s biggest asset is also its downfall. The ease with which it elevates other grapes in a blend means that it’s often not often taken seriously as a varietal wine. But there are hidden gems to be found of both. Navarra in Spain is less well known than neighbouring Rioja, but has a stash of old-vine Garnacha. Young producers like Viña Zorzal are mapping their vineyards, and making fresh juicy expressions and complex, restrained single vineyard wines from Garnacha. On its own, expressions range from spicy and heady to bright and ethereal — a style that’s also becoming more prominent in blends. When it comes to those, don’t be afraid to head off the beaten track. Swap Rioja and the Rhône for Australian, South African (check out Adi Badenhorst’s Family Red or sublime Raaigras Grenache), or even Sicilian styles. Whichever route you go down, there will always be a new side to this chameleon grape to discover.

Header image Caitlin Isola @scaitboard