Grenache is found all over southern France and Spain, thriving in hot, dry vineyards where less hardy grapes would struggle. It grows old very gracefully as the centenarians of the Roussillon's Côte Vermeille and Upper Agly Valley testify. It is a key player in the Rhône Villages and Châteauneuf-du-Pape, in northern Spain where it's known as garnacha, and in Australia, where it represents the G in the Rhône-inspired GSM blends. Naturally high in alcohol, it lends itself to the production not only of reds but excellent rosés and fortified wines too.
Southern Rhône | Languedoc | Southern France Rosé | Roussillon | Spain | Australia
- White Pepper
How do I pronounce grenache?
'At its simplest grenache makes round, heart-warming wines. At its best it has real majesty, making full-bodied wines with a sensation of sweetness due to the amount of alcohol and glycerol. It can become complex and spicy, with flavours reminiscent, some say, of rich fruit cake.'
In France, the variety's stronghold is firmly in the south. The southern end of the Rhône Valley is where the Mediterranean heat and character of the garrigue - the herb-covered scrubland, really start to make themselves felt. Syrah, the grape of the northern Rhône, takes a back seat to grenache, which is usually found blended with mourvèdre and cinsault.
In the southern Rhône grenache dominates in Côtes-du-Rhône, Côtes-du-Rhône Villages and the crus, with Châteauneuf-du-Pape one of the best known of those at the top of the quality scale. These dark, earthy wines are full-bodied and often densely-structured.
Whilst wines labelled Côtes-du-Rhône are the 'generic' wines of the appellation structure, this by no means signifies they are lacking in quality. Frequently, some extraordinary wines are produced and sold as Côtes-du-Rhône. With aromas of ripe red and black fruit, sweet, rounded tannins and surprising concentration and intensity, they offer excellent value for money.
There are nearly 20 villages producing wines that are a considered a step up from Côtes-du-Rhône. The appellation Côtes-du-Rhône Villages is therefore the focal point of some wonderful grenache-based blends. The best are permitted to display the name of a village and are an excellent source of reliable reds that show a little more structure, finesse and depth of flavour.
The seven crus, where production is focused on red wines, are Lirac, Vinsobres, Rasteau, Gigondas and Vacqueyras. Lirac is home to soft reds that are like an early-maturing Côtes-du-Rhône Villages in style. Vinsobres' focus is on reds from syrah, blended with grenache. Its sub-alpine climate gives a lighter, fresher style of wine. Rasteau produces deeply coloured, full-bodied reds, tannic when young and needing a little time in bottle. Head to Gigondas to encounter big heavyweight reds, the essence of the south and finally, to Vacqueyras, producer of less weighty, fruitier, cherry-like wines with a touch of elegance.
A Gigondas vineyard
Arguably the finest wines of the southern Rhône are made in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Generally grenache-based, with syrah and mourvèdre added (though winemakers are permitted to blend in wines from up to 13 different varieties), these wines are full-bodied, rich and dark. While often made to drink at an earlier stage than those of the northern Rhône, few wines combine immense strength with perfect elegance quite so convincingly.
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The sheer scale of production and the intense competition in the Languedoc result in there being a wealth of wine styles to meet almost every budget and palate. Grenache features most strongly in the eastern Languedoc.
The wines produced here take stylistic cues from the neighbouring Rhône: generous, thickly textured and often high in alcohol. Grenache and syrah feature most prominently in the blend.
The key regions are Faugères, Côteaux du Languedoc, Pic Saint Loup and Montpeyroux.
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Southern France - Rosé
Grenache's pale colour and vibrant, sweet-fruit flavours make it an ideal grape variety for the production of rosé. Tavel, a cru within the southern Rhône, is famed for the production of rosé wines. Grenache grapes reach such levels of ripeness on the vine that the resultant wines are packed with flavour, alcohol and structure. Though generally bone-dry, the wines possess an apparent sweetness as a result of such plump, ripe fruit.
The wines are made to be drunk young and well chilled, the grenache often blended with cinsault to create vibrant red-fruit flavours with spice and concentration.
Another southern Rhône appellation noted for its production of grenache rosé is Lirac, similar in style to Tavel, and a good-value alternative. Delicious pinks are also produced in the Roussillon.
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In Roussillon, to the west of the Languedoc, grenache is perhaps best known as the grape behind the sweet red vins doux naturels.
These wines come about by stopping the natural fermentation process midway by the addition of grape spirit. The result of this deliberate spanner in the works is a strongly alcoholic, sweet wine that is capable of standing up to the heartiest of puddings.
The seemingly vertical vineyard slopes of Rivesaltes, Banyuls and Maury provide exceptionally dry, arid ripening conditions for grenache. Wines can undergo extreme ageing, often in Spanish solera-style systems, creating figgy, heady wines with flavours of jammy red fruits. The concentration and structure of these wines make them wonderful partners for rich chocolate desserts.
Grenache - a wonderful partner to rich chocolate desserts
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Along with tempranillo, mazuelo and graciano, grenache (known here as garnacha) is a major player in Rioja blends. The heat of this famous region suits its sweet, fruit-forward style and the variety adds body, weight and structure to the slightly more austere tempranillo to create the classic character of Rioja.
The natural flavours of garnacha also work well with those induced by barrel age, a key feature of Rioja winemaking. New American oak is frequently the wood of choice, imparting a soft, vanilla flavour with gentle spice notes that integrate well into the fruit and concentration of the garnacha blend. The degree to which these oak flavours are present in the wine depends on its time in contact with oak; in ascending order the wines move from crianza to reserva and gran reserva, increasing with oak integration and flavour.
Neighbouring Rioja to the north-east is the slightly lesser-known region of Navarra. Again garnacha is the dominant variety in the blend, supported by tempranillo. Navarra's more northerly latitude and cooler sites give a slightly lighter style of wine than those produced in Rioja, and for the most part made for drinking earlier. The wines retain their vibrant, fleshy fruit flavours, with a sappy character, and with light pepper and spice notes.
Navarra and Rioja also produce rosé wines from garnacha. These dry wines can be full-bodied, packed with fresh red fruits with surprising alcoholic strength. Raspberry and red cherry flavours dominate these darkly coloured, concentrated wines.
A Navarra vineyard
But many would say that Spain produces some of the finest wines made from the garnacha grape in the relatively tiny DO (denominación de origen) of Priorat(o) in Catalonia. Here garnacha is the dominant grape in the blend often supported by cariñena (carignan), cabernet, merlot and syrah. The wines are sophisticate, highly sought-after, intense and brooding. The secret is the old gnarled vines planted in poor schist soils, which a new breed of winemaker is expert in taming.
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After the success of shiraz Down Under, its winemakers have looked increasingly to the southern Rhône for inspiration. Sun-loving grenache which is well-suited to being bush trained was an obvious candidate for the warmth of South Australia - in particular the wine regions of McLaren Vale and the Barossa Valley - where bush-vines of up to 100 years-old produce fruit of outstanding quality.
The blended wines from such old vines tend to be wonderfully soft yet full-bodied with spicy, chocolaty aromas and flavours, supported by high levels of alcohol and fresh mouth-watering acidity.
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