Liquids: Grenache

With the 76th annual Academy Awards airing this year on the evening of Leap Day, I take pleasure in knowing that I have 24 extra hours to ignore the hype, hilarity, and humiliation of one of the most ridiculous spectacles on TV (second to the Super Bowl halftime show). Of course, I plan to watch it—for Halle Berry, if nothing else—but on mute, and with other berries (a.k.a. grapes) stealing the show. In fact, to appease my pop-culture-junkie wife, I’m hosting a smallish Oscar party, but the theme is “best supporting grape,” and the star of the show will be grenache.

Yes, grenache, the Lauren Bacall of the wine world: Everyone knows her name, but few can remember how or why.

Do you know her—grenache, that is? Perhaps you’ve sipped the sweet, peach-colored Ernest & Julio Gallo white grenache at your Aunt Mildred’s. Technically, that is grenache, but it’s about as legitimate as white zinfandel in the theater of real wine. That’s because real grenache is red—a big, gutsy, perfumy red at that—and for most of its life it has been used as a blending grape, the one behind the scenes making other grapes look (and taste) better. That’s still pretty much the case in classic (read: rigid) Europe, but thanks to the New World tradition of naming grapes, she’s gearing up for starring roles with top billing on labels. This means if you don’t know her name, and you drink red wine, you surely will soon.

Ready for a taste? First, let’s tune in to a little preshow biography of grenache. It makes for great melodrama. Poor grenache has an identity crisis. Her roots (literally) are highly contested, though she is known to be of European origin.

We identify her by her French name, but her birthplace is thought to be either in Italy or Spain. (Many a Frenchman would challenge that notion with the question “Then why is her name French?” Probably for the same reason that we call an afternoon film a matinee—which, in French, means morning: It doesn’t make sense, but we use the French word because it sounds fancier.)

According to The Oxford Companion to Wine, it’s pretty widely accepted that grenache (known then as garnacha) originated in Spain’s Aragon province, then spread to the regions of Rioja and Navarre and south of the Pyrenees into the French region of Roussillon, at the time ruled by Spain. It then stretched east into the southern Rhone Valley, where grenache plays a major part in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, though she gets no credit for her role there on wine labels.

The Italians have their own theory: Sardinia’s cannonau grape, which Oxford says is “undoubtedly” the same grape variety as grenache, is believed to be native to Italy. The Italians say that cannonau made its way from Italy to Spain when Sardinia was under, yes, Spanish rule, from 1297 until 1713. All of which begs the question: What do we call it—grenache, garnacha, or cannonau?

All three names are correct, but garnacha is the least used because in typically European fashion, the region matters more than the grape. For wine Oscar trivia, however, just remember that garnacha plays a prominent role in red wines from Spain’s Navarre, Costers del Segre, Penedès, Somontano, and Tarragona regions. When blended with the tempranillo grape, it forms the backbone of lean, luscious Rioja wines, and it is the base grape behind the heady, juicy wines from the red-hot region of Priorato.

In France, you’ll find grenache throughout the Côtes-du-Rhône, especially in the southern areas (à la the aforementioned Châteauneuf-du-Pape). But it’s also the foundation grape for many of southern France’s rosé wines, most notably from the district of Tavel, where it produces a gorgeous wine that is delicious with oysters and a perfectly suggestive gift for friends who think pink wine comes in a box. And if you’re drinking a red from Sardinia (or Sardegna, as it’s written on labels in Italiano), it’s a safe bet that there’s cannonau in the glass—if not 100 percent, then at least some.

In the New World, grenache is grown with varying degrees of success in California and Australia. Though for a long time it was used for bulk wines, grenache is appearing on more and more labels as a spicier alternative to merlot and a great blending partner.

It’s also terrific with food, thanks to its formidable fruit and pronounced acidity, which we wine geeks like to refer to as the Zamboni of the palate, mopping it clean between bites. Levant Bozkurt, co-owner and wine director at Silks at the Stonehedge Inn in Tyngsboro, agrees. “Grenache is great because of those beautiful candied flavors,” Bozkurt says. “It has soft tannins, good acid and balance, and it’s great with food.” On his list of 2,004 wines you’ll find an earthy Domaine du Pegau Châteauneuf-du-Pape 1995 ($50) from France, and a lush Bodegas Martinez Bujanda Garnacha Reserva 1987 ($76) from Spain.

At tiny Taberna de Haro in Brookline, co-owner and chef Deborah Hansen de Haro pours 12 wines by the glass, three of which are Riojas made with garnacha (all $7). “I like that in Rioja garnacha is blended into wines to lend softness and that rose-cherry aroma that we look for, and it lends acidity and nerve to reds,” de Haro says. Pop in for a glass of Marques de Murrieta Neonato 2000, Heredad Ugarte Rioja 2000, or Antaño Crianza 1998. By the bottle de Haro enjoys Bodegas Nekeas Vega Sindoa Old Vines Garnacha “El Chaparral” 2000 ($25). “In my opinion that’s what Beaujolais wishes it was: lush grapiness, no wood, a little blackberry and strawberry—a nice wine and a great value,” she says.

Erik Johnson, sommelier at L’Espalier and Sel de la Terre, buys grenache, garnacha, and cannonau—however it’s made. “Grenache plays a big role for our list here and at Sel de la Terre because it’s delicious as a grape variety by itself, in addition to blending very well,” Johnson says. “It always has a beautiful aroma and a spicy floral nose. When you taste it, it leads to dark, plummy flavors, and that spiciness really intensifies in the mouth.”

At L’Espalier, Johnson focuses on Rhône-style blends, such as Torbreck the Steading 2001 ($85), a blend of grenache, mourvèdre, and syrah from Australia. At Sel de La Terre you can sip a fabulous Penfolds Bin 138 Old Vine 1999, a grenache-mourvèdre-shiraz blend ($12). Anything from Sardinia? Of course: Sella e Mosca Tanca Farrà 1999, a 50/50 blend of cannonau and cabernet sauvignon ($60). Obviously, they’re all different, explains Johnson, but they share a common profile. “My opinion is that when grenache is done well, that depth of flavor is balanced, not heavy in the mouth,” he says. “That means it pairs extremely well with food without overpowering it.”

Sounds like the perfect supporting role to me.

And the Wine Oscar goes to: grenache!