Your Mini Basket
Garnacha: The old new kid on the block
A piece about garnacha
With no less than 59 known synonyms that include Garnacha, Cannonau and Rivesaltes and credited with being one of the most widely planted red wine grape varieties in the world, how much do we really know about Grenache?
It’s true that it was once planted globally much more than it is today, although new plantings are slowly on the up. It’s also true that it can represent a broad range of styles from ethereal and elegant to robust and spicy, and from vivacious, coral-coloured rosés to rich, nutty fortified wines, something few other red varieties are capable of achieving and thus draws comparisons with Chenin Blanc or Riesling as its white-skinned counterparts.
The Versatile Grenache
So what exactly makes Grenache such a prolific and popular variety? Well, at the value end of the market, it’s a high yielding vine that gives large bunches of comparatively large berries. Large berries means more juice extraction. Compared with other red varieties, the grapes are lower in colour and tannin compounds but higher in sugar and so it makes a very useful blending component for adding body and fruitiness. In addition, the vines themselves are pretty hardy and can withstand strong winds, can tolerate excessive heat and drought conditions and have a relatively long growing season. Because of this longer growing cycle, it can often be one of the last varieties to be picked.
But what is really attracting quality-conscious growers today are the remnants of Grenache’s former glory days, the original plantings from pre-1960 that have been saved from the many government-backed vine pull schemes, when the variety became unfashionable and made way for the rising stars of the time like Shiraz (Syrah in France), Tempranillo, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. These old vines are much lower-yielding and as we all know – as yields fall, quality rises! The strongholds where these prized ancient vineyards can be found are northern Spain (especially Aragon where the variety is said to have originated), the southern Rhône valley, the Roussillon in the deep south of France, Sardinia, South Australia and southern parts of California, especially Monterey and San Joaquin Valley.
The Famous Grenache
Perhaps the most famous and most coveted of all can be found in and around the village of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, right in the heart of the southern Rhône where the land plateaus and the mighty Rhône river broadens before its final descent south into the Mediterranean Sea. Here the vines are wild grown as bushes, as opposed to being wire-trained like most modern planted vineyards and therefore all harvesting has to be carried out by hand. There’s something almost mythical about these gnarly old vines in the way that they reach up from the earth, all twisted like contorted figures frozen during some strange pagan ritual. This sight is by no means unique to Châteauneuf, in fact it’s replicated in all the other aforementioned regions of the world. It’s just that here, the wines are renowned for their corpulence, complexity, richness and longevity. They seem to perfectly capture the relentless Mediterranean sun and the fragrant wild herbal flora that abound in this landscape.
Elsewhere in the southern Rhône, the variety plays its part in the other ‘Crus’ or villages like Vacqueyras, Cairanne, Gigondas and Lirac or the more affordable catch-all appellations like Ventoux and Cotes du Rhône where the wines are lighter and juicier. In nearby Tavel, it’s the driving force behind arguably the best rosé in France and stylistically it’s almost the antithesis of its close neighbour Provence. Deep-coloured, structured and age-worthy, it’s very much aligned with the rich, hearty gastronomy for which this region is famed. It was also a firm favourite of former French kings and more recently Ernest Hemingway.
The Wild Grenache
Moving southwest and staying relatively close to the Mediterranean coastline, you reach the wild mountainous terrain of the Eastern Pyrenees in southern Languedoc-Roussillon. Home to appellations like Corbières, Fitou, Côtes du Roussillon, Maury and Banyuls, the latter two are famed for their Vin Doux Naturels or naturally-sweet fortified wines made almost exclusively from Grenache. They’re not the easiest wines to find but they’re one of the few to perfectly match with hot and spicy Thai and Indian dishes at one extreme and rich chocolate desserts at the other.
The dry Grenache reds from this part of France can be lighter and more perfumed than their counterparts in the Rhône with more emphasis on red fruits as opposed to purple and black. Wines like Katie Jones’ Hairy Leaf Grenache (a mutation of Grenache proper) and the quirky-labelled Felicette featuring cats in space suits are prime examples that also highlight a more gentle and modernist approach to winemaking.
Continue south across the border, into the motherland and Grenache becomes Garnatxa in Catalonia and Garnacha in Aragon, Navarra and Rioja where it’s also widely planted. From the late 1980’s to the early noughties, nationwide plantings of this variety plunged by just over 50% to around 82,000 hectares, a colossal reduction - but its rate of decline has since slowed and today it represents the third most planted red grape variety in Spain with a little under 60,000 hectares.
What was once considered a workhorse variety is now capable of making world-class wines that can give even Châteauneuf a run for its money. The tiny region of Priorat in Catalonia is a case in point. The area shot to fame in the late twentieth century for its powerful, hedonistic reds made from old vine Garnatxa grown on slate soils (known locally as Llicorella). The iconic Pingus led this new charge but is today accompanied by many other outstanding estates.
To the west of here, in Aragon province, southwest of the isolated town of Zaragoza and you enter the DO of Calatayud. The vineyards are planted mainly on the Sierra de la Virgen’s south facing slopes at elevations between 550 and 800m above sea level. This altitude is crucial to counter the desert-like conditions enabling the Garnacha vines to enjoy their long growing season without excess stress. Again these are powerful wines that evolve beautifully with patience but tend to come round quicker than those of Priorat which show their mineral austerity in youth. The neighbouring sub-regions of Campo de Borja and Cariñena are great sources for good all-round quaffers.
Navarra deserves a special mention as it too has been a Garnacha stronghold and produces everything from bright, pale, strawberry-infused pinks to young, fruit-bomb gluggers (occasionally blended with Tempranillo) through to artisanal, small-batch reds that ooze charm and elegance like the exciting new project between childhood friends Pedro Leunda and Jon Aseginolaza. They specialise in crafting low intervention wines with minimal sulphur additions from tiny plots of Garnacha, some of which are relatively young and some very old. They are showing an exciting new side to this largely overlooked region that’s long been in the shadow of its neighbour, Rioja.
Run To The Hills
Whilst Garnacha is widely planted throughout Rioja, it rarely appears as a single varietal and so merely serves to add flesh and roundness to Tempranillo, Mazuelo (Carignan) and Graciano. However, travel south towards Madrid and there are two newer sub-regions that are currently making steady ripples but gaining momentum. The first lies west of Madrid in the remote but beautiful Gredos Mountains. The largely granitic Sierra de Gredos provides both the elevation and terroir for producing a more Pinot-like version which has critics and non-traditional Grenache fans drawing parallels with Burgundy and getting very animated. Judging by the soaring prices of some of the best examples, the growers think this is the case too. Leading the pack are Comando G, Daniel Gómez Jiménez-Landi (who not only co-produces the wines at Comando G but also produces under his own name), Bodega Jiménez-Landi (Daniel’s family estate) and Bodegas Bernabeleva.
Meanwhile over the other side of Madrid, on route towards Valencia, lies the small DO of Manchuela seated atop one of the highest plateaux in Spain. At around 1,100m above sea level, the growing conditions are favourable thanks to the prevailing winds, which minimises disease risks in the vineyards, and the broad diurnal variation in temperatures, which evens out the ripening of the grapes helping to maintain a good balance between sugars and acidity. A further benefit of these conditions is that it’s relatively easy to work organically and so you have producers like Bodegas Altolandon making a very pure, fruit-driven style of naturally-fermented Garnacha with lively acidity and gentle leathery tannins. It’s also worth pointing out that comparative value here is excellent.
From a Land Down Under
The final story of Garnacha worthy of discussion is that of Australia’s because it’s currently undergoing something of a renaissance after years of neglect. Following the rapid decline of their fortified wine production in the early 1950’s, as Australian consumers gravitated towards the newly emerging table wines in favour of these alcoholic heavy-weights, Grenache went from being the most planted red variety to representing just 1.7% of total red plantings in 2019 and has been steadily declining since 2002. In surface area terms, that’s just 1,500 hectares, nearly half of which is in South Australia’s Riverland region. The rest is fragmented across other parts of South Australia (Barossa Valley, McLaren Vale, Clare Valley and Langhorne Creek) and a little in New South Wales (Hunter Valley). Many of the remaining vines are extremely old and in fact the world’s oldest producing Grenache, dating back to 1850, can be found in the Barossa.
Over the past decade, a small band of passionate, wilful, forward-thinking winemakers have recognised the potential of these ancient vines and are crafting elegant, sensuous and energetic wines that are a perfect juxtaposition to the powerful, masculine structured Shiraz’s and Garnacha that traditional drinkers have become accustomed to. These lighter wines have found a cult following amongst younger drinkers in particular and are now highly sought-after by hip wine bars and restaurateurs within the burgeoning casual-dining scene that’s been evolving simultaneously. This trend has now also spread to the UK, the US, Europe and the Far East and demand is slowly starting to outstrip supply.
A Bright Future
It’s safe to say that the future for Grenache now looks somewhat brighter and the mild obsession amongst a small but growing band of winemakers is set to continue apace. This is definitely one to watch as there’s a lot more to come!