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Grenache grapes, often uncredited in wines named for towns or châteaux, are the theme of a global wine summit this weekend.
Grenache grapes, often uncredited in wines named for towns or châteaux, are the theme of a global wine summit this weekend.

Beppi Crosariol's Decanter

Grenache: wine's stealthy underdog stepping out of the shadows Add to ...

It's the main ingredient in some of the world's finest wines. A-list critics go gaga for its juicy, fruity richness. Even affordable examples, at $8 to $15, can deliver more pocketbook punch than just about any other red grape. Yet few wine fans think of grenache when perusing the wine-store shelves.

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Call it the best grape you've never heard of.

That last line is respectfully taken from a headline in the May issue of Bon Appetit magazine. It's also the conceit behind a global summit of winemakers, critics and trade professionals taking place in southern France this weekend, designed to showcase the progress and growing commercial potential of wine's stealthy underdog. The symposium's chosen motto: "Grenache: unsung hero of the red wine world."

If you've ever been treated to a sumptuous and expensive Châteauneuf-du-Pape such as Château Rayas, marvelled at an inexpensive Côtes-du-Rhône or sipped a chilled Tavel rosé, you're probably a fan of the grape whether you know it or not.

One of the planet's most widely planted red varieties, grenache is rarely listed on the front label. That's because producers in the places where it tends to excel, notably France's Rhone Valley and the vine's homeland of Spain, are compelled by tradition to call their wines after regional regions or towns. In most cases, it's also just one key ingredient in a blend, typically mixed with syrah, mourvèdre and cinsault.

One notable exception is Australia, where the variety is often abbreviated to an initial in trendy blends known as GSM - for grenache, syrah, mourvèdre, Another exception, though not as helpful for uninitiated consumers, is the Italian island of Sardinia, where bottles carry the grape's local moniker, cannonau.

Almost always brimming with an opulent core of black cherry and raspberry-like fruit and lifted by savoury notes of herbs and black pepper, grenache is a fine foil - as the Bon Appetit article rightly notes - for hearty, well-seasoned meat dishes. I love grenache with lamb, braised beef or herb-roasted chicken. Heck, I love it, period. Am I betraying a bias?

"It's a wow wine," says Kelly McAuliffe, a U.S.-born sommelier based in Avignon, France, the grape's unofficial capital in the southern Rhone.

"[Yet]the movie lights have never shined on it. It's not in the dukes and kings houses," adds Mr. McAuliffe, a grenache groupie who worked for years as a beverage manager for French superstar chef Alain Ducasse.

Mr. McAuliffe, who now runs a wine-tour business, is trying to change that. He believes the connoisseur's rap against the grape is outmoded.

True, despite its global spread, the variety is tough to grow. Grenache craves sunshine and warmth to ensure ripeness during its long growing cycle. That's the main reason you'd be hard pressed to find a Canadian grenache (most experiments with the variety in Canada have failed). And it requires parsimonious, arid soils to help concentrate flavours in the fruit. Otherwise you get a plant with overgrown foliage and lots of big clusters, but not much flavour. Some of the best grenache wines, in fact, come from older vines - aged between 40 and 120 years. (Mature plants produce less, but more concentrated, fruit.)

Once picked, grenache presents its own challenge for the winemaker. It has a tendency to oxidize or bruise with exposure to oxygen because of the low level of protective tannins in the grape skins. In the past, many producers would ferment entire clusters to draw out tannins from the stems. But those harsh-tasting wines would often take years of cellaring to mellow out, a practice for which few of today's consumers have patience. Destemming machines have largely corrected that problem, Mr. McAuliffe says. "It's made the wines more approachable much quicker."

Evidence of that freshness abounds, perhaps most remarkably in the new, trendy reds of Spain's Priorat region. That region's star producer, Alvaro Palacios, who will be speaking at the French symposium, crafts a renowned red called l'Ermita that has been a darling of international critics since it was launched in the early 1990s. Today's price, when you can find it: $800. Exceptional, luxury examples also are made by such Australian grenache stars as Torbreck, Henschke and d'Arenberg.

But you don't have to blow cash like a rich collector to get in on today's grenache action. El Burro makes an eminently gulpable $12 brand called El Burro Kickass Garnacha.

And consumers in British Columbia and parts of Alberta can pick up Evohe Garnacha, an old-vines bargain from tiny producer Bodegas Leceranas, at $17.95, from Spain's Aragon region.

Many reds from southern France also represent good value, including the widely available La Vieille Ferme Côtes du Ventoux 2009 from the Perrin Family ($11.95 in Ontario).

One drawback of ripe grenache, with its sugar-saturated berries, is high alcohol, which frequently registers between 14 and 15 per cent. But in most good examples the alcohol is well integrated with the fruit, not at all conspicuously hot-tasting.

On yet another plus side, many grenache wines are aged in large, often old, wooden casks rather than small, new barrels, minimizing the vanilla-like and often astringently tannic influence of oak.

"Even white-wine lovers will love it because it's not like a cabernet, high in tannins," says Susan Doyle, manager of Lone Tree Cellars in Victoria, which imports the Evohe brand from Spain. "It really appeals to everybody."

If only they knew to look for it by name.

Good-value grenaches

D'Arenberg The Custodian Grenache 2007, Australia, $19.95 (All prices Ontario.)

A big, opulent Aussie with concentrated red berries and spice with a tangy liveliness.

La Vieille Ferme red 2007, France, 11.95

Medium-bodied and easy-drinking, with a seamless texture.

Ortas Tradition Rasteau, France, $15

A knockout value, this full-bodied blend of grenache, syrah and mourvèdre delivers a classic southern-French punch of herbs and black-olive tapenade.

El Burro Kickass Garnacha 2008, Spain, $11.95

Full-bodied, succulent and fruit-forward, with notes of leather and flowers. A crowd-pleaser.

Perrin & Fils Tavel rosé 2009, France, $19.95

A big, silky cherry-bomb blend of grenache, mourvèdre and cinsault with a dry, herbal finish.

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