Exploring the Diversity of European Grenache Wine  

grenache planted signage

By: Becky Garrison

Grenache has the distinction of being one of the world’s most widely planted wine grapes. Additionally, this versatile wine pairs very effectively with food. Grenache wines have diverse levels of texture and depth with a slight spiciness that work well with a wide range of braised, grilled and stewed meats, as well as the milder styles of Asian cuisine. 

  As part of Feast Portland 2019, a regional food and drink festival with international appeal, Hoke Harden, SWE Certified Spirits Educator, offered an industry presentation into European Grenache wine. He focused on those wines that range in cost from $10 to $20. At this reasonable price point, Harden describes the wines as “not wine you take home and save, but wine you take home and drink.”

  Although lower priced Grenache may not be the sort of wine one ages in a cellar, these wines have a distinguished history that belies their price tag. Carbon dating of seeds and leaves discovered at archeological sites indicate Grenache was planted as early as 153 BCE. Most likely, Grenache originated in the region of Spain now known as Aragon, where it goes by the name Garnacha. However, some have speculated the grape originated in Sardinia, where the grape is called Cannonau.

  As these vines flourish best in hot, sunny and dry conditions, the Mediterranean climate proved to be ideal for growing them. Grenache vines were then planted in Catalonia and then in places outside of Spain that were under the Crown of Aragon, such as France, Corsica, Southern Italy, Sicily, Croatia and Greece.

  The old vines currently growing in the region can be over one hundred years old. They tend to produce a finer and more complex wine than Grenache produced in areas where the vines are much younger.

  The grape comes primarily in three versions: red—Grenache Noir, white—Grenache Blanc, and a version of white known as Grenache Gris. The Grenache Noir is round and smooth with notes of prunes, cherries and other red-pitted fruits. Conversely, Grenache Blanc has a combination of floral, fruity and herbaceous notes and fresh aniseed licorice flavors for a fleshy, mellow wine of medium intensity, a medium to high acidity and high levels of alcohol. The Grenache Gris produces pale rosés and mineral-driven whites with copper hues and citrus notes that are fleshy, round and elegant.

  Additionally, there are two less common Grenache grapes—the Lledoner Pelut (black) and Garnacha Peluda (hairy). The Lledoner Pelut, which is a cousin to the Grenache Noir, is very similar but has more structure and a bluer color. Garnacha Peluda, which gets its name from its hairy leaves, has a lower alcohol content, medium acidity, aromas of red fruits, and rapid oxidation.

  From these varieties of grapes, winemakers can produce a vast array of wines ranging from light- to full-bodied red or white wines, as well as rosé wines, fortified wines, natural wines and sparkling wines. Each of these varieties is highly sensitive to the growing conditions of a particular region. Depending on the soil, climate and elevation, wines produced from these grapes can vary dramatically from one appellation to another. For example, one appellation may yield full-bodied, black-fruited wines, while a nearby region produces a more light-bodied wine made with red fruits. 

  While Grenache can grow in a diverse range of soils, the vines respond best to the schist, limestone and clay soils abundantly found in Northeastern Spain and the Roussillon in southern France. Here the grapes’ tight clusters make it a perfect choice for these hot and dry soils. However, the same tight grape clusters make Grenache prone to downy mildew and bunch rot when grown in humid or rainy locations. Also, as the grapes ripen relatively late, they work best in very warm regions.

  Another positive attribute of these hardy and vigorous Grenache vines is that they use less natural resources than many other vines. In fact, Grenache could be seen as the world’s most eco-friendly and sustainable grape. As this grape adapts to arid weather conditions, it can be grown using environmentally friendly vineyard practices. For instance, these vines are not dependent on rainwater because their roots can delve deep into subterranean water tables. In addition, the plant has a robust wooden frame that is drought and disease resistant. Often Grenache is grown as a free-standing bush with its strong, sturdy trunk able to survive in strong winds. In consideration of all these attributes, in 2011, the World Climate Change and Wine Conference with Kofi Annan in Marbella, Spain recognized Grenache as a product well prepared for climate change.

  Currently, over 90 percent of Grenache grows in Spain and France. The regions have been certified in two European Union quality schemes: PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) and PDO (Protected Designation of Origin). The EU established these schemes in 2012 for agricultural commodities to ensure that the products originated in this particular region. Also, these schemes ensure that the product has been produced in accordance with European agricultural production methods that focus on nutrition and health, food safety, traceability, authenticity and labeling.

  Five PDO vineyards in Spain specialize in the Grenache grape variety: Somontano, Terra Alta, Cariñena, Calatayud, and Campo de Borja. Within these regions exists 5,500 wine growers and 144 wineries, with Grenache repenting about 40% of their vineyards. (Other varieties are Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah). Rosé and White Grenache is grown in the Terra Alta PDO, while Red Grenache is the main variety grown in the other four PDOs.

  Roussillon in France houses 2,200 winemaker families, 25 co-ops and 350 private cellars. The varied topography of this region produces a wide variety of Grenache grapes that can create a range of wine styles, including dry still wines and fortified sweet wines.  

  Most of the reviews about Grenache wines tend to focus on blends such as the Châteauneuf-du-Pape wine blend from France’s southern Rhône Valley. French winemakers discovered this variety in their search for a grape that would add alcohol, body and fruity flavors to their existing wines. Other noted blends made using Grenache can be found in Gigondas, and in the Priorat reds produced in the Priorat county, situated in the southwest of Catalonia in the province of Tarragona. Many of these wines tend to carry a significantly higher price tag than the moderately priced wines highlighted by Harden, with select bottles garnering a price as high as $800. 

  Harden noted throughout his talk that while winemakers continue to blend Grenache with other grapes, some producers have begun to make wines with 100% Grenache. Of the 10 wines Harden selected for his presentation, six wines were made with 100% Grenache. These wines ranged from light- to full-bodied reds.

  On its own, Grenache has historically tended to be a light red with very light tannins, fruity aromas, medium body, a low to medium acidity and high alcohol. But Harden spoke about a generation of winemakers who have begun a new approach to growing Grenache grapes. About twenty years ago, these winemakers discovered that by cultivating the older gnarled vines, limiting yields and seeking out the right terroir, they could grow Grenache grapes that possess a fuller, more robust flavor.

  Along those lines, some growers find that when they experiment with growing these older vines at higher elevations in colder climates, they can produce wines that are more complex, elegant and concentrated. These wines often benefit from bottle aging. When these vintages mature, winemakers will be able to compare the properties of the wines with those grown in hotter, drier climates where Grenache grapes have grown for centuries.

  Moving forward, some wineries are experimenting with growing organic and biodynamic Grenache wines, which favor the environment by limiting the use of chemicals. In a similar vein, some producers are experimenting with making Grenache wines without sulfites. All these developments appear to be creating a wine that is sustainable from both an environmental and an economic standpoint while also producing a wine that remains in line with EU quality standards.

  From an industry standpoint, Grenache wines—the single-varietal styles in particular—remain unknown to most U.S. consumers. Hence, many of these wines stay at an affordable price point even as the quality rises.

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