Sunday, March 06, 2011

The Alphabet Soup Project – G is for “Grenache”

A quick programming note before we get rolling. I’m going to be co-leading a wine tasting with Danny Gold on Wednesday evening (March 9, 2011) from 6:30-8:00 at the Party Source in Bellevue, KY. The cost is $20, but you get a $5 gift card. The theme is “California Wines under $15,” so come on down, grab a glass, and hang with us. Want to reserve a spot? Click here.


I owe my earliest memories of Grenache to my folks. Back in the day, they usually kept a jug of Gallo white Grenache around for entertaining visitors. (In case you’re wondering, Mom – I never sneaked any…) Almaden, Rossi, Franzia – all of the major jug wine producers cranked out inexpensive, sweet blushes made from Grenache. White Grenache was what White Zinfandel eventually became in the wine market – a “refreshing” wine. (Gallo actually tried to market White Grenache as an upscale alternative to White Zin in the late 80’s. That campaign didn’t last long.)

Since pink, sweet wines were never really my thing, I put Grenache out of my head for a long time. Along came the Sweet Partner in Crime. In our wine-appreciation infancy, we powered through many a bottle of Rosemount Estates’ Shiraz blends from Australia. When the weather got warm, we’d replace our bottle of Rosemount Shiraz/Cab with their Grenache/Shiraz blend, since it was lighter. Once our wine preferences began to broaden a bit, our everpresent bottle of Rosemount got replaced with other stuff and Grenache again retreated to an afterthought.

Fast forward a bit. I started seeing Grenache as a varietal more and more, especially as French and Spanish wines became more common in my rack. But what is it? One way to find out…

Grenache is a high-yielding grape that’s extremely common in the world’s hottest, driest wine regions. It’s best known as the backbone of the wines of the Southern Rhone region – especially Chateauneuf-de-Pape and many Cotes-du-Rhone. It’s the primary grape in Tavel, one of the best regions for rosé in the world. In Spain, it’s known as “Garnacha” and the wines of Rioja, Priorat, and Navarra simply wouldn’t exist without it.

Post-Prohibition winemakers in California grew a lot of Grenache. The sturdiness and drought-resistant properties of the vines (not to mention the high yields) made it a natural match for many of the growing areas. The wines, however, were often of the aforementioned jug variety. This began to change with the advent of the “Rhone Ranger” movement, where many winemakers started putting together high quality French-style blends in the late 1990’s.

Rarely used as a single varietal, Grenache yields a fruity, low-tannin, medium-bodied wine. The French Grenache-based wines tend to be quite earthy, since the bitterness of the tannin doesn’t get in the way of the “funk.” Spanish Grenache tends to be on the smoky side. American Grenache blends usually are more

fruit forward. Most good Grenache is be easy to drink and extremely food friendly. As a pairing, Grenache works in almost any instance where you’d normally choose a pinot noir. I’ve seen Grenache described as “pinot with a punch,” and that’s accurate – similar flavors, slightly heavier body, and a more fruit-forward flavor.

The SPinC and I did a side-by-side with a pair of Grenache-dominant wines. The first was the Writer’s Block 2008 Grenache from Lake County, California. The other was Penelope Sanchez 2009 Grenache/Syrah from Campo de Borja, Spain. The Penelope is 80/20 Grenache/Syrah and the Writer’s Block is over 80% Grenache with some Syrah and Conoise blended along. Both retail for $12-15.

Both wines improve greatly with a little decanting. The Penelope, especially, was very “tight” initially. (Javier Bardem commentary withheld…) It took a few minutes, even after some heavy swirling, for the smokiness and tannin to start balancing with the fruit. Once it had a few minutes in the air, it opened into a nose laced with herbs and vanilla. The body is light-to-medium and is well-balanced cherries, smoke, and vanilla. Those flavors all twined through a long finish.

The Writer’s Block (one of my favorite names for a wine) was heavier. Like most American wines compared to Euro-counterparts, the Lake County Grenache wasn’t as subtle and had a much “stronger” profile. Everything tasted “bigger,” even though the color of the wine itself was lighter. The nose was cherries and bubblegum with much less smoke. Very straightforward. There’s more of a “leather and cigar box” flavor on the finish. The SPinC thought it tasted like black licorice.

For dinner, we grilled some salmon and roasted some cauliflower with garlic and balsamic vinegar. When we tasted the two initially, our first reaction was that we liked the Spanish version better. The flavors in the food made the wine taste bigger and smokier. After a few bites, though, we came to the realization that we weren’t observing closely enough.

The Writer’s Block was better with the fish. There was more tannin (as would be expected from a Lake County wine *add link*), so the wine’s flavors cut much more easily through the oiliness of the fish and stood up better to the grilled flavors. The Penelope was better with the cauliflower. The roasting and the balsamic brought out the sweetness in the cauliflower, which was a much more harmonious pairing with the complexity of the Spanish entry.

Both wines were quite good. They’re excellent values and either would be fine with almost any food, short of something really heavy like a cassoulet or a meal dripping with cheese.

One last point about Grenache. I’ve mentioned grapes like Alicante and Cannonau a few times in this space as varietals with which I wasn’t very familiar. Turns out that I was more familiar than I thought – both of them are actually Grenache. Whatever name’s on the bottle, it’s well worth your time geting familiarized or re-familiarized. I’m certainly glad that I did.

(Also, for remembrances’ sake, I tried a bottle of the old Rosemount Estates Grenache/Syrah. Interesting how time changes one's view of things. Sweetish nose of blackberry jam. Lots of fruit on the palate and a little noticeable residual sugar. The finish is fruity and you sort of have to hunt for the tannins in the blend. I wouldn’t pick it for a normal tipple these days. A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, I guess…)


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