Writers on wine often assign personalities to wine grapes and to the wines made from them. Cabernet sauvignon, for example, I think of as Rex Harrison: high-toned and austere but you quite know when he's around. Zinfandel is Harrison Ford, all-American, rough-and-tumble.
The red wine grape grenache, or garnacha tinta as it is known in Spain, its birthplace, makes wine that the writer Jon Bonne calls "smooth, perhaps a touch glib, but also confident and dashing — and not without the occasional show of temper." He calls grenache "Captain Kirk" to pinot noir's "Spock."
That image works for me. As a wine, its straightaway deliciousness — and high alcohol — have propelled grenache plantings to half a million acres worldwide. (Only cabernet sauvignon and merlot out-plant it.)
Grenache is a rhubarb of a grapevine. "You can't kill it," says Chester Osborn, winemaker at d'Arenberg in South Australia. France's mistral doesn't budge it. Australians plant it where nothing else will grow. It loves poorly drained, meager, hot and dry soils (in Chateauneuf-du-Pape, it is blanketed meter-deep in galets roules, the southern Rhone's famous round, heat-retaining stones).
Because it oxidizes easily and because it has a singular voice, garnacha's juicy purity tends to blur in new oak barrels. If at all, it spends time softening up a bit before bottling in large, older wood.
Garnacha isn't an age-worthy wine, and so winemakers pair it up with other grapes such as tempranillo in Spain or blend it with mourvedre and syrah in both the southern Rhone and Australia. These ancillary grapes give grenache backbone, but in the same measure that it gives them pizazz.
When the letters "GSM" appear on a label of Australian red wine, they stand for that blend of grenache, syrah and mourvedre, a trio only slightly less enticing to an Aussie than sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll.
"Grenache is the blood of a wine," says Osborn, "its sweetness, not so much its structure. The rich tannins of syrah are the flesh; the bones are mourvedre."
In Spain's Priorat, garnacha makes fabulously rich, inky, high alcohol, blackberry-tasting reds that have vaulted to worldwide cachet. North of Rioja in Spain, Navarra's pink (or rosado) wines, all based in garnacha, remain some of the best in the world: juicy, fruity, dry.
While grenache noir's traditional starring role in France is in Chateauneuf, where it forms the bulk of most blends, several villages surrounding Chateauneuf (such as Gigondas and Vacqueyras) unveil grenache's great power. From them you will find red wines of almost pure grenache that are heady, brash, terrifically flavorful and downright chewy.
Tavel's famed dry rosés are chiefly (or all) grenache and delicious for it. And what zest is in many a Cotes du Rhone and Cotes du Rhone Villages well may be due to its grenache.
Plantings of grenache in the United States are scattered, but more producers — especially in California's Central Coast — realize the potential of low-yield grenache. Sardinia calls garnacha by the ancient name cannonau and makes from it some deliciously earthy, darkly pigmented reds.
In perhaps the wine world's greatest fillip, red grenache has mutated into a white grape known as grenache blanc, for some of the globe's most seductively unctuous white wine. Don't miss it.
2010 Highflyer Grenache Blanc Napa Valley California: Come-hither perfume of citrus and minerals, with an NC-rated body, all pillowy plush. $20
2007 Vinas del Vero "Secastilla" Somontano Spain: Vines in their 80s render huge fruit, earthy scents, never-ending finish. $32
2010 Famille Perrin Chateauneuf-du-Pape "Les Sinards" Rhone France: A fine-grained Chateauneuf with much spice and dark cherry character, finishing quietly but with "cut." $40
2010 Paul Jaboulet Aine Chateauneuf-du-Pape "Domaine de Terre Ferme" Rhone France: The price is justified by the wine's heft, weight and staying power; for the cellar. $100
2011 Quivira Vineyards Grenache "Wild Creek Ranch" Dry Creek Valley Sonoma California: True to its nickname as "a grenache for pinot noir lovers"; finely etched acidity, great perfume, silky texture; super-delicious and juicy. $30
2010 Austin Hope Grenache "Hope Family Vineyards" Paso Robles California: Lees contact plumps it up, becomes bed for aromas of dark cherries, spice and leather; a major chew. $42
2011 Vin de Pays des Cotes Catalanes Rouge "Shatter" France: On the enormous side but still succulent and layered; from old vines, made by New Worlders near Maury in southwestern France. $34
2011 Yangarra Grenache "Old Vine" McLaren Vale South Australia: Polished and fine, even elegant and withdrawn, but pretty for all that. $32
2011 Two Hands Grenache "Brave Faces" Barossa Valley Australia: You're thinking it's holding back on you at first sip, then the flavors explode, shot in on fine-grained tannins; super-exciting. $45
2007 Kilikanoon Grenache "The Duke" Clare Valley South Australia: Dark red fruits in abundance, magnificently aromatic; juicy, lengthy, brash but not blaring. $49
2009 d'Arenberg Grenache "The Beautiful View" McLaren Vale South Australia: From vines dating to 19th century; "sweet," with blue and black-red fruit aromas and flavors, and buckets of spice, minerals and richly-turned-out tannin; the death-bed grenache, find it. $85
If your wine store does not carry these wines, ask for one similar in style and price.
Bill St. John has been writing and teaching about wine for more than 40 years.