Everybody is always talking about, and looking for, the next big thing in the wine world so let the questions rage: Will it be a country? Will it be a grape? Will it be a style? Will it be a winemaker? There are truly no shortage of possible answers – but let’s slow things down a bit and enjoy what’s here and now, but seems as completely new as anything I could suggest. Let me introduce, or maybe re-introduce you to Garnacha (a.k.a. Grenache) wines from Europe.
The Garnacha grape has its roots dug in Europe and; if you have had a Spanish red in the past 10 years or been lucky enough to try something from Southern France, say the Roussillon area – then Garnacha has passed your lips; and you never even knew it – be it in a straight varietal wine or a Grenache/Syrah/Mourvedre (GSM blend).
The European Garnacha found in France and Spain have the fruit of an Australian Shiraz, the drinkability of a California Merlot, the complexity of a Rhone Red, the life changing effect of a Burgundian Pinot. Many times in my wine-life I have been stopped dead in my tracks by a Grenache-based wine; to re-evaluate, to re-taste or even to take a few extra minutes to enjoy it’s depth of flavor – I’d say over the years I have become somewhat of a tough marker when it comes to wines, but Garnacha-based wines continue to impress me with each passing year; and a well-made version can easily top my recommendation lists. A quick look into my cellar inventory showed me that almost 10% of my wines have Garnacha in them – be it a blend or straight up – so I am definitely a convert to the grapes potential for drinkability, dependability and even age-ability.
The next and more important question you should be asking yourself is where should I, as a consumer, be looking to find these great wines?
Quite simply fine wine stores – but more importantly it’s what you should be looking for on the label – I’ll try to make it easy, but sometimes European wines can be a little tricky to decipher, especially if you are used to the simplicity of New World wine labels. Terms like Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) or Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) can appear on labels – PDOs are wines “produced, processed and prepared in a given geographical area, using recognized know-how”, while PGIs have another acronym you may have seen or heard of IGP. This designation can go by another acronyms in other countries like Spain (VT – Vino de la Tierra) or France (VDP – Vins de Pays) or probably the most famous one (GT in Italy) …it simple meaning boils down to this: the wines have a specific quality attributed to the area, but may not be made with traditional varieties of the area. More info by the European Commission at https://ec.europa.eu/info/food-farming-fisheries/food-safety-and-quality/certification/quality-labels/quality-schemes-explained_en
Now Garnacha grows in many places these days, it is actually the 7th most widely planted varietal in the world. You can find it in the US and Mexico, South Africa, Australia (especially in those GSM blends – also known as a Rhone blend) – there’s also some in Italy, Croatia, Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia (but all that equals less than about 12% of the all the Garnacha plantings in the world); it’s traditional home is Europe, namely Northeastern Spain and Southern France. It’s a grape that digs the Mediterranean climate and grows in hot places (you didn’t see the likes of Canada, New Zealand or Germany on this list for a reason). Garnacha is a dry heat seeker grape and enjoys those long hot days and cool nights, which allows it to come to maturity slowly and fully.
The most prolific and oldest regions for quality Grenache in Spain is PDO Cariñena, establishing itself for quality Garnacha as far back as 1932, it continues to lead Spain’s Grenache revolution. The primary industry in Cariñena is wine, so you know it’s not only important but has to be good and they rank 6th in export volume for all Spanish regions. Looking for the Cariñena label designation on the back of the bottle is a giant step in making sure you have some of the best of Spain on your table.
Another Spanish appellation leading the charge for the revitalization of Garnacha is PDO Calatayud, and yet it is one of the newest regions (est. 1990) but with a long history of growing quality grapes; the vines there average 50 years of age and the high altitude mountain vineyards give the Garnacha grapes the great diurnal temperature swing to allow the grapes to achieve their maximum potential. Other Spanish regions creating hype with Garnacha have less around-the-table recognition, but plenty of “curb appeal” once they get into the glass: PDO Campo de Borja (est. 1990) with its 30-50 year old vines, PDO Somontano (est. 1984) because of its 3 growing areas: mountains, foothills and plains allows it to grow cooler climate varietals as well; and finally, there’s PDO Terra Alta (est.1984) producing a whopping 70% of worldwide white Garnacha. Look for these designations on the back of European wine bottles and impress your friends and family with your new found knowledge of European wines – so little is known about you’ll immediately become the expert in the room.
The Roussillon region of France lies just north of the Spanish border, and Grenache grape dominates the range of wines produced in this southernmost region. Winemaking families that have been in the business for generations, some 25 cooperatives and 350 private cellars—Roussillon offers something for everyone. As the sunniest part of France, it’s no wonder 683,100 hl of wine was produced there in 2017, or an average of 32 hl/ha. Thanks to its unique mosaic of micro-terroirs, the region offers a diverse selection of wines of all colours, specifically 15 PDOs and 3 IGPs for still wine. The dry wines include Collioure, Côtes du Roussillon, Côtes du Roussillon Villages, Côtes du Roussillon Villages les Aspres, Côtes du Roussillon Villages Camarany, Côtes du Roussillon Villages Latour de France, Côtes du Roussillon Villages Lesquerde, Côtes du Roussillon Villages Tautavel and Maury Sec PDOs and IGP Côtes Catalanes and IGP Côte Vermeille (some Languedoc and IGP d’Oc). There are also vins doux naturels: Rivesaltes, Maury, Banyuls, Banyuls Grand Cru and Muscat de Rivesaltes (which alone does not have Grenache grapes).
Being that Grenache is so versatile and so available it’s time to get it onto your table, share it with friends and get the word out: European Garnacha is great for any and all occasions – and deserves to be the next “in” wine you buy and share … because as the old saying goes everything old is new again.
So the next time you need a generous wine to pair with meat, fish or even fresh salads, think of Grenache, as you will find your perfect match in Garnacha red, white, rosé, sparkling and sweet (VDN or fortified) quality wines from Europe!