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Grenache

The great grape of the Southern Rhône, grenache also has many other compelling homes around the world, from its birthplace of Spain, to Italy, to California, to Australia – which just happens to have the world’s oldest productive grenache vines, planted in 1848. Today, a renaissance is seeing the grape championed, with makers in McLaren Vale arguably turning out the most compelling examples.

Also known as

In Spain – and sometimes here when makers want to express that they’re making wine with an Iberian sensibility – the synonym garnacha is used. In Italy, or specifically Sardinia, cannonau will appear on labels, while the names alicante (not to be confused with alicante bouschet), vernaccia nera and tai rosso are used in mainland Italy.

What grenache tastes like

Raspberry is perhaps the most common descriptor for grenache, though the way it displays can range from wild, sour-edged fruit to lolly-like confected characters. At lower ripeness, characters like strawberry and redcurrant often feature, with many more modern examples emphasising this side of the grape, with accents of rose petals, rosehip, pomegranate and the like. As it becomes riper, red plums and some darker berry notes enter the picture, often accompanied by savoury, earthy and leathery characters. The wines can range from almost pinot like in weight to rich and full, accompanied with high alcohol.

Vineyard & winemaking

Grenache has quite large berries with relatively thin skins, and given the warm areas it is grown in, it often reaches ripeness quite readily, meaning the wines can be pale in colour, with high alcohol and lowish tannin. It’s easy to see why grenache was often used for blending, with the wine made from grenache flavourful and adding body, but sometimes in need of a bit of structure and spice from grapes like mourvèdre or shiraz. That’s not to say that grenache doesn’t perform well on its own, though, with careful growing and making resulting in pure grenache wines of real stature. Whole bunch fermentation is often used to build tannin, but grenache rarely pairs well with a big oak influence, faring better in larger more neutral vessels. Grenache is also a prime rosé variety, expressing pretty berry notes, while also being able to offer an open, textural palate.

Where is grenache grown?

Grenache’s home territory is split between France and Spain, with the former perhaps having the most international recognition, but the latter being its rightful birthplace. It is thought to have emerged from Aragon in Catalonia, in Spain’s north-east corner, and served as a reliable workhorse grape across the country, often being blended with tempranillo. It wasn’t until the resurgence of Priorat that old vine garnacha was given its proper due in the 1990s. Historically, grenache/garnacha spread into France, radiating up through the country’s warm southern Languedoc-Roussillon region to the Southern Rhône, where it found its most recognised home. Grenache is the main driver of the wines of Côtes du Rhône and its named Villages, like Gigondas, and arguably reaches its height in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, where it is sometimes used solo (most famously for Château Rayas), but is typically blended, principally with mourvèdre, cinsault, syrah and counoise. Aside from often powerful blended wine from the South, grenache is the main grape for French rosé, both in Provence and the Rhône.

Grenache around the world

Italy perhaps has the most recognised plantings of grenache outside of Spain and France, Sardinia’s cannonau (a synonym) being the most famous example, with it occupying some 5,400 hectares. It also pops up in Tuscany, Le Marche, Puglia, Veneto, Campania and Sicily, though having evolved for centuries in isolation and very different zones, the expressions can be wildly different, as are the names given to it. Grenache was planted heavily in the hotter viticultural zones of California, typically to make budget wine, but makers like Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon have helped lift its profile considerably.

Grenache in Australia

Australia is thought to be home to the oldest producing grenache vines in the world, with Barossa’s Cirillo making their marquee bottling from vines planted in 1848. Grenache came to this country via various routes, both directly from France and to Western Australia’s Swan Valley via South Africa (with chenin blanc, too). It was a good workhorse variety when fortified wines were big business – almost the only business – in the early part of the 20th century and though many vines were destroyed in the infamous “vine pull” scheme of the 1980s (where growers were paid by the government to remove often historic vines in response to a wine glut), the grape persisted, if it never received the adulation of shiraz. That is changing slowly, with McLaren Vale – arguably the finest Australian territory for the grape – now leading the charge for making grenache in a considered way, with many of the wines of the past – which were often dry and rustic or were dominated by confected raspberry notes – being replaced with wines that can be earthy and savoury, as well as fragrantly pretty. Grenache is largely grown in the Barossa, McLaren Vale and Swan Valley, but there is considerable promise being shown in Heathcote and the Great Southern, as well as some early, but exciting forays, into Great Western.

Photo of grenache grapes seen here, courtesy of Adelina vineyard.

Some of the best Australian grenache

Some of the icons

Adelina
Bethany
Cirillo
Clarendon Hills
d’Arenberg
Kay Brothers
S.C. Pannell
Wirra Wirra
Yangarra

Some of the new wave

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Ochota Barrels
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Schwarz Wine Co.
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