Let’s say you had a friend whom you loved in a group setting but whom, alone, you found to be over the top, obnoxious, rude, and sort of base or low class. Try as you may, you just couldn’t hang out with the friend on a one-on-one basis, and ultimately, you decided that the only thing that would work was to see him in mixed company.
Up until recently, this has been the deal with Garnacha Tinta or red Grenache, as it’s more commonly known around the world.
Garnacha is seen as brash – ripening to sugar levels that will yield 16% alcohol with no problem. Fittingly, it’s used to provide alcohol and red fruit flavor to subtler and more ponderous wines like Syrah and Mourvedre.
The problem with Garnacha?
I guess I understand. Garnacha is not without issues. First of all, it isn’t really that fussy in the vineyard. It likes hot and windy weather, and it ripens late, so it doesn’t require the attention of something like Merlot or Pinot Noir, which are far higher maintenance and need cooler climates to thrive. It’s a vigorous vine that’s used as a base for lots of characterless wines in Côtes-du-Rhône, the Central Valley of California, and for many blah-tasting rosés in Provence. If you just want a boring red with lots of alcohol to put in with some other grapes, Garnacha is your friend. That’s probably why it’s the third most planted red in Spain (after Tempranillo and Bobal) and the second most planted in France (after Merlot). The alcohol and it’s very overty fruity raspberry, strawberry, and cherry flavors make it too obvious for wine lovers who like a wine to unfold over hours or give them something to discuss.
But even with shortcomings, there is a flip side to this, of course. Going back to our friend analogy, sometimes our first few interactions with someone aren’t representative of the person. And sometimes, if you get that rude, overbearing person in a different setting or give them a chance to express themselves differently, he shows another side. And so it is for Garnacha.
In places like Châteauneuf-du-Pape in the southern Rhône and in Priorat in eastern Spain, the grape is nothing like what I’ve described above. In these places and in a handful of others, growers have figured out how to make Garnacha that is absolutely fabulous. If you treat this grape a bit differently and figure out what’s best for it, it will reward the grower and winemaker, and ultimately, the drinker. For example:
- If yields are too high, the grape loses acid, color, and any distinguishing characteristics. Winemakers in quality regions know that aggressive pruning is necessary to get grapes with lots of flavor and enough tannin and acid to make an interesting wine.
- Garnacha likes warm weather, but if it’s too hot, the grapes get overripe and become alcohol bombs with little else to recommend them. Garnacha needs heat to ripen but it likes to do so over time – picking too early to maintain acidity and avoid high alcohol may work with other grapes, but if you want to do Garnacha right, you have to find the point at which the grape has fruit flavor, moderate sugar levels that will yield tame alcohol levels, and bright acidity.
- Although bulk producers will stick the vine anywhere they can get big production, quality producers look for poor, well-drained soils. The schist in Priorat works well and the huge, heat radiating stones in Châteauneuf-du-Pape are ideal. If this vine struggles to get nutrients and water from deep in the ground, it’s going to gather unrivaled flavor.
- Garnacha is a champ at surviving horrible winds and dramatic weather – the Mistral in France is a whipping Arctic wind that can destroy a vine, but if trained in small bushes, like in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the grape will easily survive the fiercest of gales. In Priorat, where wind is less of an issue, trellising works just fine. The grower must know her land and treat the vine well to coax out great flavor.
And then there’s the winemaking end. Picking at the pivotal moment, doing a long, slow fermentation that will prevent the grape’s desire to oxidize and leave it tasting old and lifeless, and cautious decisions about oak that will ensure it doesn’t overpower the bright, fruity nature of the grape. each play a part in making something special from Garnacha.
Decisions, decisions. That’s what good winemaking ultimately comes down to. And with Garnacha, the quality of the wine is affected strongly by the place and person who made it.
Where does the grape shine?
So what can you expect and from where should you look for this often misunderstood grape?
Well, world class Garnacha is made in its homeland of Spain in the Priorat region, in Châteauneuf-du-Pape in the Southern Rhône Valley of France, in a sweet form in the Roussillon region of France, and in some tiny pockets of Australia and California in the US.
The grape is native to the eastern part of Spain and it reaches the highest heights of tastiness in Priorat, southwest of Barcelona. This 800 year old region was revived in the 1990s by winemakers from Rioja, who were looking for the next great region. Everything goes right for Garnacha here – low yields, high altitudes, poor soils—and the wines that result are dense, dark, fragrant ones that smack of land and floral, herbal notes. The old-school producers make wines to age and often blend with Cariñena (Carignan) – if you get a Priorat, expect a fruity, earthy, and dense drink. Newer producers blend with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah and make alcohol bombs that are drinkable on release. In both camps, quality varies, but Priorat growers and winemakers respect Garnacha and the result is stunning.
Garnacha is used in other notable wines, namely Rioja, where it is looked on as an accessory to Tempranillo boosting alcohol, red fruit notes, and acidity. There are varietal versions in Rioja, but these are rare. You’ll see it a lot planted inNavarra, where it’s mainly used to make fruity, tasty rosé. Maybe the most exciting for everyday drinking is the new wave of winemakers that have successfully marketed easy drinking, lighter, fruitier Garnacha based reds from places like Calatayud, Campo Borja (where the grape is said to have originated), and the region of Cariñena. These wines are spicy, fruity, and moderate in alcohol. Many are labeled as Garnacha and nearly all are awesome values. These less expensive wines are our opportunity to taste Garnacha unadulterated and see how pleasant it really is when well cared for.
Moving to France, Grenache, as it’s called here, is the base for nearly every wine in the southern Rhône and many in the Languedoc, Roussillon, and Provence regions as well. It’s used (and sometimes abused) for its predictable alcohol levels, pretty red fruit aromas, and occasional bright acidity and mild tannin. But often, Grenache is second fiddle to the more “serious” blending partners, Syrah and Mourvedre, which are extolled for their brooding natures and multifaceted structures.
There are a few exceptions. Top producers of Châteauneuf-du-Pape tend well to their Grenache. Meticulous attention means that top producers grow small berried, thick skinned, tannic, dark, concentrated grapes. Although blended with Syrah, Mourvedre and others, the wines show off Grenache’s true nature. It contributes spice, alcohol, acidity, silky dark and red fruit, and a lush character to the wine. Similarly in Gigondas and Vacqueyras, top producers can make Grenache-based wines that are lush, full, spicy, leathery, and dusty. In Roussillon, Banyuls, a sweet Vin Doux Naturel, is made of Grenache and its figgy, herbal, dried fruit character is a knockout with any chocolate dessert. The Grenache-based rosés of Provence are satisfying for their strawberry, cream, and herbal notes.
Italy’s isle of Sardegna makes a varietal Garnacha that they call Cannonau. Growing on rugged hillsides the wine ranges from overly acidic and floral to fruity and dry to full and sweet in fortified wines. Sardegna has a rich history but investment in modernization of wine varies, so caveat emptor.
Warmer climates in the New World can do good things with Garnacha too. The Central Coast of California makes some outstanding blends and standalone Grenache (they take the French moniker here). Most are tempered with good acidity and tannin, which makes them lovely sippers and rarely too jammy or hot feeling (Ridge and Tablas Creek are some favorites).
Australia – especially McLaren Vale – can make lush, full, gorgeous wines that are sometimes over-the-top and other times the picture of perfection (Clarendon Hills makes some of the best in the world). As I’ve already said, with Garnacha there are two sides of the coin. You have to check producer especially before you invest in a New World wine, where the tendency is towards fruitier, fuller styles and there are no laws regulating growing and production, as there are in Spain and France.
So are you ready to go out and get a Garnacha this instant? Expect a young one to have bright strawberry and raspberry notes with an earthy note. An older one or a higher end one will taste more like black cherry, black plum, pepper, coffee, baking spice, earth, ginger and leather. Yum. In my opinion, Garnacha is about to take the world by storm…so get on the trend!
Have you had Garnacha or Grenache? What do you think of it? Is it a favorite? Write a comment below!