What’s not to love about Grenache, the versatile European grape variety that has been able to adapt to so many different terroirs, vinification techniques and winemaking styles? Whether you call it Grenache or Garnacha, this ever-more-popular grape is more than a passing trend.
Garnacha is one of the varieties whose wines have increased in popularity in recent years. Today, Garnacha is one of the top ten most widely-planted grape varieties worldwide, but its ancient origins lie in Aragón, northeast Spain.
The first reference data on Garnacha was in 1513 when Alonso de Herrara spoke of a variety called “Aragones” which, according to several experts, corresponds to Garnacha. That is why practically everyone recognizes its Spanish origin.
After phylloxera ravaged Spain’s vineyards at the end of the nineteenth century, Garnacha was widely replanted due to its fertile nature and tolerance of hot, arid conditions.
During the 20th century, Chateauneuf du Pape and Rioja were the areas where Garnacha of greatest importance was cultivated, producing wines of recognized prestige. Though, by the end of the century, there was a downturn that led to Garnacha being associated with wines of lesser quality. The main reasons were the susceptibility to millerandage (or shattering) and the scant resilience of this variety (when it produces many kilos it loses its qualities). The grape has since been eclipsed by the Tempranillo, as well as international varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot.
That is now history as in recent years, the once undervalued Garnacha grape has been experiencing a renaissance – thanks to a new wave of interest in preserving the country’s old vines and vinifying them with a more modern approach.
A Thriving Grape
The variety is now widely grown around the world. Because it thrives in dry soils without the extensive irrigation required for many other grapes, Garnacha-based wines are increasingly eco-friendly—a quality that’s becoming more and more important for today’s consumers.
Grenache thrives almost anywhere thanks to its hearty nature and versatility in blends. It has become synonymous with Rhône-style wines, particularly those from Châteauneuf-du-Pape where the grape reigns supreme. In this storied corner of Southeast France, blends are based primarily on Grenache and often have rounded red fruit flavours and higher-alcohol levels.
In Spain, where this grape is originally from, top examples tend to be brawny in structure with dark fruit flavours. Many producers here make wines based out of 100% Garnacha with diversity in terroir and style. In Sardinia and Sicily, the grape is called Cannonau and it is the regions’ signature red wine.
Grenache grown in sandy soils is known for its light tannins. In high-altitude limestone-based terroirs, it takes on pleasant freshness and mineral notes. The full-bodied varieties cultivated in stony soils with heat-retaining rocks that warm the grapes at night possess a deep and pronounced fruitiness. Under the added influence of a Mediterranean European climate, you can see why Garnacha is an ideal choice for so many top wines produced in France and Spain.
For several years now, winemakers in northeastern Spain and southern France have been honing their techniques. Garnacha has benefited from upgraded facilities, ongoing improvements to production standards and the push for European vineyards to stay competitive on the international market. Thanks to these developments’ great success, this grape continues to surprise and its appeal endures.
The Pinot Noir of the South
Garnacha is a thin-skinned grape, dubbed ‘the Pinot Noir of the south’, which doesn’t bring a lot of tannins to the final wine. But what it lacks in tannins, it makes up for in alcohol – often reaching above 14% abv.
More tannic structure and toast notes can be supplied by oak – although Garnacha can tend towards oxidation and it requires careful handling to avoid overpowering its primary aromas.
For this reason, some winemakers vinify Garnacha at lower temperatures and use whole-bunch fermentation to enhance ripe red fruit flavours.
When it comes to ageing, most Garnacha is better suited to large, used oak barrels (foudres) or neutral containers like concrete eggs to protect its fruit expression and terroir-driven flavours.
Not Just Red
It’s easy to forget that Garnacha is not only a red wine grape. Varieties exist in many different colours.
Whether blended or monovarietal, Garnacha expresses itself wonderfully in reds, whites, rosés, sparkling wines, dessert wines and even Vins Doux Naturels. Indeed, you can happily spend a whole evening sipping nothing but European Garnacha. A sparkling Garnacha white or voluptuous rosé as an apéritif, a mineral white served with an appetizer of fish and a strong red paired with grilled meat. Wine lovers will appreciate this variety’s many facets.