Andy Newman sings the praises of a widely-planted but under-rated grape variety
I am often asked at tastings which is my favourite grape. It is an impossible question to answer, a bit like trying to say which is your favourite child (actually, probably more difficult than that); the answer depends so much on the mood I’m in, the occasion, what I’m eating, and how a particular wine is made.
I always try to turn the question around and provide a non-obvious answer. Instead of the expected varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir or Chardonnay, I try to steer the conversation in the direction of discussing under-rated grapes. Often these will include obscure varieties which no-one has heard of because they are only grown in one particular valley in Italy or Chile; but surprisingly, perhaps the most under-rated grape of all is one of the world’s most prolific.
Grenache is in fact the seventh most planted (wine) grape variety on the planet, ahead of stars like Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc. Its heartland is right across southern France and in Spain (where it is called Garnacha); it was Australia’s most important red grape variety until the 1960s, when it was supplanted by first Syrah and then Cabernet Sauvignon; and it is an integral part of the ‘Rhone Ranger’ movement in California.
You will find Grenache made as a single varietal wine, when its character can range from a light quaffing wine through to a dark, aromatic, spicy, age-worthy red, not to mention the kind of delightful rosé which has made so many holiday lunchtimes such a dream. But its true value to the wine lover (much like Cabernet Sauvignon) is principally as part of a blend.
The grape probably originated in Spain, and was brought into southern France by the Aragon kings who ruled Roussillon for four centuries until 1659. Productive and disease-resistant, it proved a popular variety with winemakers. Its easy-to-grow nature is one of the reasons for its lack of prestige: unfortunately too many Mediterranean growers could not resist allowing it to over-crop, producing pale and insipid wine with a tendency to oxidise.
However, growers in big-name appellations such as Châteauneuf-du-Pape realised that, through careful viticulture and drastic pruning, Grenache can produce dense wines with great character. This paved the way for something of a Grenache revival – or certainly a boost to its standing – right across the southern Rhône, where producers used it to produce lighter-style, more approachable wines than the Syrah-based versions from the northern Rhône.
In fact, the relatively new mnemonic ‘GSM’ (which stands for Grenache Syrah Mourvèdre) is becoming as well known as the Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. It is a branding which is finding its way onto the front labels of bottles, although quite how many drinkers actually know what it stands for is a moot point – hence Grenache’s relative obscurity.
For me, though, the Rhône blend – which may also include such varieties as Cinsault and Carignan – is where the value lies in red wine today, and it is made possible by the workhorse Grenache variety.
It is probably true to say that those wine-producing areas where Grenache is widespread have not always been blessed with the most talented growers and winemakers. But with improvements in both viticulture and in the winery, these are now the areas which are challenging the big names, and it is Grenache which is at the heart of this challenge to better-known and more prestigious types of wine.
These are areas that wine speculators (as opposed to wine lovers) have not yet discovered, which means that prices still represent great value, especially as quality improves exponentially. The only possible exceptions to this rule are in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and more recently in Priorat in Spain.
Wines made from Grenache are perfect foils for most types of food. They bring fruit-forward flavours of strawberries, cherries, raspberries and figs, as well as texture, body and spice. And with pudding you can serve the fortified wines of Maury and Banyuls, also made from this versatile star.
In a list of the half dozen most important red grape varieties, most people would fail to name Grenache. That’s a shame, because it is a grape which is the backbone of much of the Mediterranean’s wine production, and it deserves its place in the metaphorical sun, as well as the actual one.
Three wines Andy has enjoyed this month
Château Cap de Mourlin St Emilion GrandCru 2005
Bakers & Larners, £27
Bought en primeur and matured in Bakers & Larners’ own cellars, this is stunning value for a perfectly mature Grand Cru St Emilion. Touched by the hand of the mercurial Michel Rolland, as you would expect this is bigger and more concentrated than other St Emilion wines. I drank it with a rib of beef, which was just about right.
Ramos Pinto ‘Born Retiro’ 20 Year Old Tawny Port
Bakers & Larners, £56.50
North of fifty quid is a lot for a 20 year old tawny, but this is justifiably described by Hugh Johnson as ‘best in class’. From a quinta owned by Champagne house Roederer and boasting one of the few female winemakers in Oporto, it boasts harmonious layers of dried fruit, roasted hazelnut, cinnamon, caramel and coffee – worth every penny.
Valencay Blanc, Domaine Andre Fouassier
Les Garrigues, £13.95
Most of the wine you drink from the Touraine region of France will be 100% Sauvignon Blanc, but this fascinating bottle is an unusual blend of Sauvignon and Chardonnay, giving a balanced, harmonious wine with good acidity but also a pleasing creaminess on the palate.
Recipe published in Feast Issue 33