A Six-Bottle Master Class to Grenache Noir | Wine Enthusiast
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A Six-Bottle Master Class to Grenache Noir

“Perfumed,” “transparent” and “elegant” are common descriptors for Pinot Noir, but these adjectives frequently apply to Grenache Noir as well. Thin-skinned Grenache is often compared to Pinot Noir for its ability to transmit a sense of place from wherever it grows. Yet Grenache hasn’t achieved the same acclaim in America as its lighter-bodied counterpart, largely because it was long used as a blending grape and not necessarily a stand-alone star.  

In recent decades, winemakers have rediscovered the appeal of Grenache as a varietal wine, especially in countries with old vines like Spain, France and Australia. Grenache can take many forms, from light, bright and fruity to inky and savory, with rosé and fortified-style wines common, too.  

Flavors range from red fruits like strawberry, cherry and plum, to earthier tastes of licorice, spice, and dried herbs and lavender, with hints of tar and leather that become more pronounced with maturity.  

With widespread plantings across Spain and Southern France, experts have debated the origin of Grenache. Some trace its journey to the Italian island of Sardinia, where it’s called Cannonau, arguing it arrived in Spain via Sardinia’s 14th-century Aragonese rulers.  

In Spain, Grenache, known as Garnacha, is the second most-planted red variety after Tempranillo. The grape is credited for reviving vineyards around the country after phylloxera devastated acre after acre of native vines.  

Garnacha’s most famous iteration can be found in Priorat, where it produces bold, expressive wines either on its own or blended with Carignan. It’s also the most important grape in Cariñena, as well as Navarra, where it’s become the flagship red wine. In Rioja, it’s mostly blended with Tempranillo. 

In France’s Southern Rhône, Grenache comprises an important component of the famous blends of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas and Vacqueyras.  

In Languedoc, Roussillon and Provence, Grenache may stand on its own or partner with Syrah and Mourvèdre to complete the famous trio known by its abbreviation, GSM. GSM-style wines have spread around the world and are particularly successful in California’s Central Coast, Paso Robles and South Australia.  

The common thread across all these regions: a Mediterranean-like climate. Grenache ripens late and thrives in arid, hot conditions and poor, rocky soils where other vines struggle. However, it has a propensity towards high alcohol, often climbing above 15% abv, as well as jammy, baked flavors. Winemakers looking to retain freshness and delicacy must exercise care in the vineyards, especially around the picking date.  

Grenache also oxidizes easily, its ruby hue turning rusty—called bricking—with age or oxygen exposure. This trait may factor into a winemaker’s decisions on fermentation methods and aging vessels which affect the final wine style. 

If you’re curious to understand the grape’s range of expressions, explore these matchups: unoaked versus oaked Grenache; Old World versus New World Grenache; and Grenache from stony versus sandy soils.  

Don’t worry if you can’t find the exact bottles we suggest. Your local wine retailer should be able to direct you to something similar. 

Unoaked vs. Oak-Aged Grenache Noir  

By now, you’ve probably seen the terms “oaked” or “oak-aged” and “unoaked” to describe white wines like Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc. These adjectives cue consumers to the wine’s style based on the winemaker’s choice of fermentation and aging vessel. Unoaked whites are typically bright and crisp; oaked usually indicates a fuller-bodied, textured wine. 

However, these adjectives don’t appear with the same frequency to describe red wines simply because most red wines touch some type of oak. Only a few red grapes, like Grenache Noir, have the versatility to taste delicious either way.  

Before the 1950s, almost all wines spent time in oak since temperature-controlled stainless steel was not yet widely adopted. Traditional oak vessels that weren’t meant to impart flavor were reused and crafted in larger sizes than the popular Burgundy barrel (228 liters) or Bordeaux barrique (225 liters). A French foudre or Italian botti could range from 1,000 to 20,000 liters. These are still in use today.  

A vineyard of grenache grapes at Zaca Mesa Winery, located along Foxen Canyon Road, is viewed on August 16, 2018, near Los Olivos, California.  Because of its close proximity to Southern California and Los Angeles population centers, and its mild Mediterranean climate, the inland wine region of Santa Barbara County have become a popular weekend getaway destination for millions of tourists each year.
A Grenache vineyard at Zaca Mesa Winery near Los Olivos in Santa Barbara County, California. / Photo by George Rose/Getty Images

Modern winemakers have more options than their predecessors with stainless steel, concrete eggs, clay and different types of wood barrels to choose from, including French, American and Hungarian oak.  

For Grenache, the decision comes down to style and budget. Stainless steel is durable and easy to maintain. Oak is expensive to purchase and maintain, especially new toasted barrels.  

When a wine is labeled as unoaked, the wine has spent no time in oak. The default vessel used for production in unoaked wines is stainless steel, but it could also be concrete, whether the traditional square tank or trendy egg.  

Without oxygen ingress, Grenache fermented and aged in stainless steel retains its vivid red hue, fruity aromas and flavors, and youthful character. These wines have a clean, pure profile. In concrete, winemakers retain that purity but add subtle textural qualities.  

Alternatively, barrel fermentation imparts flavors like baking spice and vanilla. The newer, smaller barrels with high toast levels have the most impact. Barrels also change the structure of a red wine. They may leach wood tannin into the wine, while softening astringent tannins through slow exposure to oxygen. 

Unoaked vs. Oak Aged Grenache Noir 
Wine 1: Look for a wine labeled unoaked or amphora aged or concrete aged. 
Wine 2: Ideally from the same region or country as the first, seek out a Grenache that lists its oak regimen on the back label. 

New World vs. Old World Grenache 

Distinctions between New and Old World wines have diminished due to climate change and overlapping global styles. However, soils, climate and traditional versus modern techniques still present endless opportunities for comparison.   

The Old World encompasses Europe and the Caucasus, the origin of classic wine-grape varieties where winemaking tradition and culture extends thousands of years.  

Notable regions for Old World Grenache are Priorat in Spain, Sardinia in Italy, and Châteauneuf-du-Pape in France. 

The New World entails pretty much everywhere else. These regions typically feature modern winemaking styles and climatic differences like hotter weather and drier summers. Classic New World regions for Grenache are California, Washington, and Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale in South Australia.  

Old World Grenache typically has more freshness and restraint, with lighter, earthier flavors. The grape’s ability to transmit place is acute in Priorat, where wines show structure and a stony minerality some attribute to the region’s unique slate-based soils, called llicorella. 

In contrast, New World Grenache tends to be richer, riper and fruit-forward, tasting of sun-kissed fruits and boasting higher alcohol levels.  

New World vs. Old World Grenache
Wine 1: For a bold New World Grenache, look to options from Australia’s Barossa Valley. 
Wine 2: Try a Garnacha from Priorat for an Old World style. 

Grenache from Stony vs. Sandy or Chalky Soils 

Some of the world’s most famous and expensive Grenache comes from Châteauneuf-du-Pape in France’s Southern Rhône. Château Rayas produces a limited lot of 100% Grenache Châteaneuf-du-Pape that is considered by many as the pinnacle expression of the grape and generally fetches a small fortune per bottle. 

Chateauneuf-du-Pape is a commune in the Vaucluse department in the Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur region in south-eastern France. The village lies about 3 kilometres (1.9 mi) to the east of the Rhone and 12 kilometres (7.5 mi) north of the town of Avignon. In the 2012 census the commune had a population of 2, 179. Almost all the cultivable land is planted with grapevines. The commune is famous for the production of red wine classified as Chateauneuf-du-Pape Appellation d'origine controlee which is produced from grapes grown in the commune of Chateauneuf-du-Pape and in portions of four adjoining communes.
Rows of vines planted in the famous stony soils of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Rhône Valley, France / Getty

Though Châteauneuf-du-Pape lies in the Old World, intense sunshine and heat trigger rapid sugar accumulation by late summer. Grenache-based wines can climb the alcohol ladder quickly, hitting 15–16% alcohol-by-volume if producers aren’t careful.  

The area’s most famous soils are based on galets roulés, or large round pebbles contoured and smoothed by the Rhône River. These stones accumulate heat during the day and keep the vineyard warm at night. This lends Grenache a round, full-bodied character with ripe fruit and spice flavors. Wines from galet tend to trade acidity for richness. 

Other lesser-known soils like safres, or sand, and eclats calcaires, a chalky limestone, contribute different qualities to Grenache. Sandy soils enhance the grape’s red berry fruitiness, lending it a floral lift that’s balanced by freshness, transparency and tannins that are softer than wines from stones. Limestone soils stay cooler in the heat, which translates to higher acidity and brighter flavors. These traits may convey a sense of minerality in the wine, with an elegant framework of firm tannins. 

Tasting single-site wines is a fun exercise to better understand soil impact. 

Grenache from Stony vs. Sandy Soils 
Wine 1: The stony galet roulés soils are widespread in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, so unless noted the Grenache is likely from these soils. 
Wine 2: Seek out Domaine de la Janasse’s Chaupin, Domaine le Clos du Caillou’s Les Safres or any other wine from “safres” listed for Grenache from sandy soils.