Friday, May 16, 2014

Grenache -- Show Some Love!

I’ve been on a Grenache kick lately. This grape, grown…

…wait, come back! Where are you going? This is not a parody column! Get your noses out of the air and belly up to the bar.

I know, I know – your notion of Grenache may have been formed the same way mine was – commercials in the 80’s for Gallo White Grenache, a pinkish concoction (which I believe you can still get if you walk past the Boone’s) poured over ice. You know, something like this:

The commercials claimed “It will change the way you think about Gallo.” While I can’t speak to that, it certainly poisoned the way I think about the poor Grenache grape for quite some time!

Along similar lines, when the Sweet Partner in Crime and I were starting down our slippery wine-drinking slope, we used to go through Rosemount Estates Grenache-Shiraz – a dirt-cheap Australian red blend – by the virtual bucketful. At the time, it seemed perfectly drinkable, and it was a couple of dollars per bottle less expensive than the straight Rosemount Shiraz.

These days, if I recommend a Grenache to someone, about half the time they’ll look at me like I have a second head, because that’s the image Grenache has with many folks: cheap, uninteresting wine. What changed my outlook on this grape? As I’ve learned and consumed more, I’ve come to think of Grenache as the “red Chardonnay.”

Why? First off, it’s an incredibly ubiquitous grape. There are more acres of vineyard planted with Grenache in the world than any other red grape and the vines are generally quite high-yielding. These yields are a prime reason for Grenache’s bad name in the states, since a lot of those grapes landed in cheap jug wine. Forget the jugs, but remember the high yield. Because of this, winemakers can have plenty of raw material to work from, so even well-made Grenache tends to be less expensive compared to other grapes, so there are plenty of bargains to be had.

Secondly, like Chardonnay, Grenache-based wines are incredibly terroir driven. Grenache juice on its own, produces a light-styled wine, so the flavors derived from climate and soil can really shine. Good growers and winemakers, through smart cultivation, blending, and skill, can wrangle fascinating results from this grape. And they have all over the world, for years.

Finally, spring is turning to summer. Since Grenache is generally somewhat lighter in style, it makes a great red wine option when the heat starts cranking up, especially if you’re interested in something that has a little more oomph than, say, a Beaujolais. There’s a smoky undercurrent to most Grenache that just calls for food, especially grilled food.

A couple of weeks ago, K2, my Brother in Things Wine, invited me to do a tasting with him at the Party Source. I wanted to spread the word about my new grapey affection, so we ran down a series of Grenaches from around the world to educate folks on just how good this underappreciated grape can be. We put together an “around the world” Grenache tasting to show the breadth of what this grape can do.

We started our world tour in Spain, where Grenache is known as Garnacha. Many of the wines you’ll see from Spain’s Navarra region are blends that include a lion’s share of Garnacha. Garnacha is second only to Tempranillo among red grapes in the Rioja region, as well. Garnacha thrives in the Mistral winds, but rather than yielding a high-alcohol fruit bomb, it yields a lighter, smokier drink, like the Campo Vieja 2012 Rioja Garnacha. This is a quaffable wine with a very pretty floral and cherry nose. While light-bodied, it’s got good structure and finishes with lingering pepper and spice. Grilled pork, ribs, or ham would be great with this. ($18)

From there, we nipped over to Italy, specifically to the island of Sardinia. Here, Grenache goes by the alias Cannonau. The volcanic soils of Italy lend the traditional Italian minerality (which I think tastes a little “chalky”) to the finished product. Sardinian Cannonau, perhaps because of the particular terroir, has some of the highest levels of reservatrol of any red wine in the world. That’s the compound that makes red wine so good for your heart. For an example here, we had the Argiolas Costera 2009 Cannonau di Sardegna.($14) If you’re a fan of Italian wines, I’d put this somewhere between Chianti and Barbera on the “mineral vs. fruit” scale. Black cherry and licorice are the flavors I found most prevalent, but with minerality that would make it welcome next to a big plate of red sauced pasta.

For a change of pace, we headed down under to Australia. As I mentioned, Grenache was used in a lot of inexpensive plonk for quite some time, but in many regions, such as McLaren Vale, winemakers are exploring what this grape can do. In Australia, Grenache gains some heft on the palate and becomes much more fruit forward. A perfect example is the d’Arenberg 2009 “The Custodian” Grenache. ($13) Rather than the cherry and spice the previous wines showed, this one featured much richer blackberry and raspberry flavors, and the tannins turned much smokier. It’s quite a bold, pretty wine, in my estimation, which would be great with anything you might find sizzling on your grill.

The touchstone of Grenache, however, is in France. Grenache, along with Syrah, are the dominant grapes of the entire Rhone region. The finest (and most expensive, generally) wines in the Rhone, Chateauneuf-de-Pape, are made from as much as 80% Grenache. The less-expensive Rhone wines, usually labeled “Cotes-du-Rhone” are almost always made up of a majority of Grenache. That was no different with the wine we chose to illustrate French Grenache, the Cercius 2011 Cotes-du-Rhone, a blend of 85% Grenache and 15% Syrah. This is a rich, earthy wine that filled my nose and mouth with blackberries and a healthy dose of an earthy funkiness. It’s layered and complex with a finish that lasts and lasts. With any sort of roasted meats or vegetables, this would be a winner. ($16)

Finally, we arrived back in the States. The renaissance of Grenache in the U.S. was driven by a group of California winemakers in the 1980’s (led by Randall Graham) known colloquially as the “Rhone Rangers.” They thought certain varietals usually found in the Rhone, including Grenache, would respond well to certain California terroir. In general, California versions of these wines tend to be rounder and fruitier, and the Tablas Creek 2010 Patelin de Tablas ($19) from the Paso Robles region was no exception. This asskicker of a wine, which actually is a blend of Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, and Counoise, comes on strong with a full mouth of blueberries and blackberries, but also a bit of a bacony flavor through the midpalate and onto the long, fruity finish. This was easily the biggest of the fine wines we poured and was the overall favorite of the folks who stopped by the table.

So…enough with the poor reputation of Grenache! Go get a bottle and try it out. As you can see, you’ve got many variations on the theme with which to experiment. Try them out this summer and beyond. Who’s with me?