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Grenache - ensemble player or soloist?

Updated: Jan 8, 2022

When you’re known for your great ensemble work, it’s sometimes hard to be considered an amazing soloist. Such is the case for the unsung hero of the wine world, Grenache.

Also known as Grenache Noir, Garnacha in Spain and Cannonau in Sardinia, where recent DNA evidence suggests that the grape originated, this grape is a versatile player in wine making. Master of blending for the Southern Rhone, Rioja, Navarra and the Ribera del Duero, the diva of Provencal Rosé, and anonymous star of the Chateauneuf-du-Pape and Priorat, Grenache can do it all.

So why the understudy status?

Grenache is an extremely vigorous and productive vine, which is one of the reasons it was Europe’s most widely planted grape through most of the 20th century and the world’s second most widely planted grape at one time. Its productivity is also its achilles heel, making Grenache a popular source for high volume, simple wines and blending.

Trends in wine preferences have also had their impact, as the popularity of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot as a premium varietals have supplanted Grenache in warm growing regions in Europe and the USA. The same is true in In Australia, where Grenache was the most widely planted grape until it was surpassed by Shiraz in the 1960s. Now Grenache has dropped to the 7th most widely planted in the world.

Grenache is a thin skinned grape, well suited to warm regions, that retains high acidity with medium to low tannin. Its red fruit aromas and flavor profile are prized for blending highlighting cherry, raspberry and sometimes notes of strawberry and red grapefruit. And the grape also brings some spiciness, which is a clue during blind tastings. Tasters will seek out cinnamon notes to identify the varietal. In warm regions, high sugar content can bring alcohol levels to over 15% adding to the body of the wine.

Taking center stage

Yet Grenache is also the basis for some of the world’s most prized wines. In the Chateaunuef-du-Pape, it is the dominant grape for the region with some of the most famous producers using over 90% Grenache in their wines.

The region is known for the dark stones that retain the heat to help ripen this long maturity varietal. Combined with the region’s old vines - some approaching a hundred years - which produce lower yields of concentrated fruit, Chateauneuf-du-Pape wines are big, complex, age-worthy wines that can reach prices in the hundreds of dollars per bottle. Some of the same elements of success from the Chateauneaf-du-Pape are being used by artisan winemakers around the world to make notable single varietal Grenache Noir wines. Heat is critical to ensure full ripening and older vines or limiting yield is also important to ensure the most concentrated fruit. There is some evidence that dry farming or limiting water also contributes to the best Grenache fruit. Due to its thin skins it is common to see extended maceration times and whole cluster fermentation to ensure deeper color and more developed tannin.

Winemakers are careful with Grenache’s tendency toward oxidation, and generally ferment in sealed containers. For similar reasons, it is common to see larger oak barrels used for aging as the thicker staves reduce the amount of oxygen reaching the wine.

With the advancement of viticultural techniques and wine making science, we’re seeing Grenache wines from all over the world join the ranks of the wine from the Chatueaneuf-du-Pape and Priorat. And with the growing popularity of Rhone style wines here in the USA, artisan winemakers are venturing out beyond the blends to feature single varietal Grenache from their best fruit.

It’s time for soloist Grenache to shine. Give it a try. Here are some of the many artisan producers you might consider:

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