Friday, June 6, 2008

"Grenache is the Paris Hilton of grape varieties"

Peter Grogan on a grape that brings out the best in others

Everybody's heard of it but nobody seems to quite know why.

'Grenache is relatively low in tannins and this lets its pure fruit flavours shine through'
There the comparison should end, though, because it's a grape with real substance which has landed leading roles in universally acclaimed classics like Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Rioja.

It's a character actor that makes wine in a broad range of styles. It's the perfect grape for a themed dinner party, as its repertoire runs from succulent summer rosés and classy dry whites (from its cousin grenache blanc), through to full-bodied reds and sumptuous sweet wines.

Grenache is also the second most widely-planted grape variety on the planet. (Most people think cabernet sauvignon is the biggest, but this title goes to airén, which makes oceans of Spanish brandy.)

The variety thrives in the poorest soils where it needs to send its roots way down in search of moisture and the precious minerals which provide its serious side and offset the eager-to-please "Juicy Fruit" part of its character.

The grapes are relatively low in tannins - the same mouth-puckering compounds found in a stewed pot of tea - and this is what lets the pure fruit flavours shine through.

Unblended, grenache makes ripe, round wines with a touch of sweetness that's often described as "jammy." It wasn't luck that got its name in lights, though, but its abilities as an ensemble player by bringing out the best in other grapes.

This, and the fact that until very recently the French have disdained to mention grape varieties on their wine labels, are the reasons for the low-profile of this most clubbable of grapes.


The southern Rhône's Châteauneuf-du-Pape region makes rather grand wines and its demarcation (in 1923) provided the prototype for the whole appellation contrôlée system.

Grenache reigns supreme although producers may use any, or all, of the 13 permitted grape varieties (of which five, surprisingly, are white). Among my favourite red wines, the best are rich and complex.

A word of warning, though. Overall standards are much improved, but it's still not an appellation that anyone should buy randomly, especially with prices starting at around £10. Gamey, mature Clos de l'Oratoire des Papes 2001 (£19.99; Majestic) - full black-olives and spice - shows what it's all about.

A tip worth remembering is that a number of top Châteauneuf producers make wines that, whether by accident or design, have to be sold under less exalted appellations. Among the accidents is Gérard Charvin, through whose vineyard the perimeter of the demarcation runs.

Try as he might, the fonctionnaires refuse to re-draw the boundary so he has to sell half his crop as Châteauneuf while the other half must be called lowly Côtes-du-Rhône.

The price isn't so lowly, at about £10.50, and if you want to hunt down bargains like this you often have to buy a case (Fine & Rare Wines: 020 8960 1995) but the black-cherries-in-kirsch flavours are better than most Châteauneufs at twice the price.

By design, Domaine de Pégaü blend the best wines from the wrong side of the tracks to make a roistering, brambly vin de table, Plan de Pegaü, that is anything but humble (£7.99; Majestic).


Most of the rosés that taste so good on a sweltering Provençal hillside and never quite the same back home are made from grenache.

If they're from producers like Domaine de la Mordorée in Tavel though, (£12.95; H&H Bancroft 020 7232 5440) they are, for my money, the world's best pink wines. Surprisingly complex but with plenty of stuffing, they're perfect for high-testosterone barbecues.

At its best, grenache blanc makes big, multi-faceted dry whites with floral and appley aromas that lead into lingering white-fruit and mineral flavours. At £5.49, Marks & Spencer have a cracking example which finishes with a twist of allspice.

Heading West, a stone's-throw from the Spanish border, the chocolate-friendly wines of Banyuls are a gift to lovers of sweet wines. All about nuts, toffee and spice, complex, age-worthy wines like Domaine La Tour Vieille Reserva (£13.95; Yapp Brothers 01747 860423) are often a serious bargain.


The Spanish, as slow to name names as the French where grapes are concerned, know grenache as garnacha, or garnatxa in Navarra, where no Basque-ified word is complete without at least one "x" and preferably a "z" or two.

Grenache is the cornerstone there and in up-and-coming Priorato. It also gets the award for best supporting actor in Rioja, providing the richness to broaden out the darker, denser tones of tempranillo. The gushing, crimson Gran Tesoro 2006 (an irresistible £3.19 at Tesco) comes from the rather more obscure Campo de Borja region but at this price, and with these mulberry aromas and perky, plum flavours, who cares?

In the Eighties, the Australians grubbed-up acres of grenache to plant even more cabernet sauvignon. Now they cherish the remainder and are re-planting with promising results.

Sardinia's finest wine, Turriga, is a dark and uncharacteristically macho style of grenache which is gaining cult status (£39.95 Sussex Wine Company 01273 477205). The grape does business here under the alias of canonau but once you get a taste for it you'll know grenache anywhere.