Here’s a pop quiz! Name the country that has the most Grenache vines the world. What’s your guess? Could it be France, Australia or perhaps the USA? What about Italy? Before you answer, first consider that Grenache Noir, as its known under its more common French moniker, is the lynchpin of the great red wines of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas and Vacqueyras. Down Under in the Barossa Valley, it often makes up the lion’s share of the blend in Australia’s popular GSM bottlings. Closer to home it has established a bit of a cult following in places like Santa Barbara and Napa Valley.
However, Grenache is known in its ancestral home under a different alias: Garnacha Tinta.
Well, the rest should be easy then. It’s obviously Spain. But how do you explain why a grape that’s so famous in France didn’t originate there? If you’re a bit of a history buff, then it all goes back to the Crown of Aragon and the dawn of the Middle Ages. From the 12th Century to the early 1700’s, the Crown of Aragon was a composite kingdom that at its height stretched from Zaragoza through Catalonia and into the Roussillon in southern France. It also encompassed parts of Sardinia and Italy, which explains the Sardinian version of Grenache called Cannonau.
What’s the common thread in all of these places? That would be a warm, semi-arid climate. A late ripening variety, Grenache needs a long, dry growing season to be at its best. It also helps if the fruit comes from old vines. Fortunately for us, there’s much of the old gnarly stuff about in the world. I’ve personally walked through vineyards that are over 100 years old and still producing delicious fruit.
In the present day province of Zaragoza, the wine region of Calatayud is a reference point for old-vine Garnacha grown at elevation on friable slate and quartzite sub-soils. Bodegas Agustín Cubero produces a delicious Stylo Garnacha ($13) with violets on the nose and lush black raspberry fruit and a lively freshness on the palate. Perhaps the top wine cooperative in Calatayud, Bodegas y Viñedos del Jalón routinely excels with its many Garnacha offerings. Among their best is Las Pizarras del Jalon Garnacha Viñas Viejas ($15) sourced from 100-year-old vines planted above 3000 feet in elevation. It’s a generous, deep red, with wild thyme and rosemary whiffs, lovely lavender floral bouquet, black cherries, smoky Asian spices and a loamy mineral finish.
Both wines will pair nicely with anything grilled, especially beef or lamb. For a real treat however, try it with thin slices of Spain’s singular dry-cured ham, Jamón Ibérico de Bellota.
Jim Greeley, ABC Fine Wine & Spirits wine and spirits supervisor
Follow me on Twitter @ABCWineJimG