Grenache – The Spicy and Well-Traveled Grape

Harry Lambourne
19th August 2021

Grenache, or Garancha, is one of the most widely planted grapes in the world today. In this article, I will be focusing on the noir/red variety. However, it is worth mentioning that even the white variety is incredibly popular and is France’s fourth most popular white grape.

Indeed, its popularity really cannot be understated. It is an ever prevalent partner in blends across both old and new world wines. So it is likely that if you have drunk wine from a country where Grenache is grown in large numbers, then you’ve drunk it in one form or another.

This article can act as a guide to Grenache. By the end, you’ll know what to expect taste-wise, what food to pair with it, as well as some context for the history of this divine grape in both the old and new world.

A Big Bunch of Grenache Grapes
A Big Bunch of Grenache Grapes

The Grenache Grape

Grenache grapes are all over the world. However, they most likely originated from either Sardinia Italy or Aragon where they are called Cannonau and Garnacha respectively. So, maybe we shouldn’t be calling it Grenache at all! Many would argue that it is simply native to the Aragon region of north eastern Spain. The other argument is that Aragonese Spaniards who occupied the Italian island Sardinia took it back with them around 600 years ago. While it cannot be completely confirmed which is right, it doesn’t surprise me that everyone wants to take credit for this delicious grape.

Aragon (top) & Sardinia (bottom) - the home(s) of Grenache
Aragon (top) & Sardinia (bottom) – the home(s) of Grenache

Now for the grape itself. Grenache is particularly versatile in both its ability to grow and its uses thereafter, which explains its prevalence throughout the world. The vines themselves are thick, resembling thin tree stumps. This makes them incredibly sturdy and able to withstand a great deal of wind. It is also think-skinned and takes a long time to ripen, often being one of the last grapes on the vines. Due to this, the natural sugars in Grenache can reach a high level which translates to a higher alcohol content.

Sturdy Grenache Vines
Sturdy Grenache Vines

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, is the aromas and flavour. On the nose you will note both red and black fruits along with cracked black pepper and dried herbs. Grenache is dominated by primary flavours of stewed strawberry, plums and blood orange. This translates into a rich sweetness, as Grenache tends to lack any real natural acidity. There is also a spiciness to these grapes. Most Grenache wines will have a particular pepperiness to them.

Old World Grenache

Grenache may be synonymous with French wine in the Rhone Valley and wider France. However, let’s begin our world tour with the primary home of this grape, where they refer to it as Garnacha. Although, the Italian wine of Cannonau di Sardegna deserves an honourable mention, as it by law must contain 90% Grenache, (or Cannonau), grapes. 

In Spain, Garnacha is still the second most-planted red wine grape. Garancha is primarily planted in the northern and eastern parts of the country. This includes the notable wine regions of Aragon, Montsant and Priorat.

The prevalence of the Garnacha grape in the northern and eastern parts of Spain also explains why it gained such fame in France. This is the Spanish-French border and in the middle of the 16th century Louis XIII went to war with the Spanish crown, in aid of Catalonia. The end result was a treaty which saw the Roussillon region given to France.

It was here in what is now the Languedoc-Roussillon region that Grenache found its French legs. These legs then quickly walked through the Rhône Valley and much of France. Today Grenache is a ubiquitous feature in French wine and a key partner in a number of flagship varieties such as Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Côtes du Rhône.

Languedoc-Roussillon - the start of French Grenache
Languedoc-Roussillon – the start of French Grenache

A considerable time into this long-history, Grenache seemed to fall out of favour. At the end of the 20th century quantities of Grenache wine being produced fell. Rather, than seeing this as a decline, it may be better to view it as consolidation. New European Grenache producers became stricter in their monitoring of yields and controlling alcohol levels. This was all done at selected vineyards with protected vines. These are the more modern old world wines you will find on the market today.

New World Grenache

Similarly, to other notable grapes like Malbec, Grenache has found another life outside the old world. Its versatility has seen it adopted by winemakers across the world. Most notably, the USA and Australia. The ability for it to withstand both heat and winds allow it to thrive in the scorching hot wine regions of California and Southern Australia, (the McLaren Vale and Barossa Valley regions in particular).

You will primarily find Grenache in the USA as part of a blend. Indeed, it also saw itself fall out of favour here, as it did in the old world. Yet, its resilience and versatility have seen it remain a key component in the world of American red wine. Blends are growing in popularity and this means that the Grenache will continue to be a pivotal part of American wine production. 

Next on the list of new world wine nations to embrace Grenache is Australia. Originally, it arrived in Australia back in 1832, but it took the introduction of a new variety of French cuttings to allow it to take off. Although vines in the Barossa Valley, dating back to 1850, are still producing Grenache today. Australia is most famous for the GSM blend. This typical French blend, (famous in the Rhône region), is composed of Grenache, Shiraz (Syrah) and Mourvèdre.

Someone enjoying a tour of some Grenache vines in the Barossa Valley
Someone enjoying a tour in the Barossa Valley

Grenache Food Pairings

It is hard to go wrong when choosing a Grenache wine to pair with food, as there are a great number of blends which are available to choose from. Look for one with a high percentage and Grenache grapes and you should be good to go. The spiciness and fruit-forward nature of this wine allow for a great amount of versatility. Grilled meat will work well in particular. Game is especially good to pair with Grenache. This is due to games rich and herbaceous flavour. Indeed, it is a type of game which we will be in our primary food pairing.

There are plenty of ways to keep things simple for this pairing. For example, a winning combination is some cracked black pepper crackers, a spread of fig chutney and a big wedge of a hard cheese, (comté or manchego would be particularly good). There isn’t any need to elaborate on this classic and simple snack.

However, you may not need to play it as safe with the Grenache. It’s adaptability allows you to really experiment more with spice and seasonings. Anything that is not too spicy will balance well with this peppery wine. Then, the richness from the fruit allows for a lot of room for big flavours. If you do want to push the boat out a little bit more, then we have a recipe to try that really hits the spot.

Five-Spice Duck Breast with Fresh Blackberries

Rich, spicy and fruity. These are three attributes which consistently apply to a Grenache strong blend. For this reason, our recommendation is a combination of the decadent and gamey duck, with blackberries.

In this example, a delicious five-spice duck breast with fresh blackberries. This Asian-Fusion dish is sure to get the palate going and will without a doubt go perfectly with a bottle of Grenache which fulfils the three adjectives we’ve laid out. The rich red fruits match the gamey duck and blackberries perfectly. Then, the subtle spiciness imbued into the duck breast will work fantastically with the spiciness of your favourite Grenache.

Spiced Duck & Blackberries
Spiced Duck & Blackberries

It is clear that both old and new world wine nations appreciate the adaptability of this spicy grape, which is present in so many of the great wines we love. It is likely in even more than you realise. Next time you’re deciding on a wine to pick, make sure you check that label and pick the one with a high percentage of Grenache – you won’t regret it!

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