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French vineyards near Châteauneuf-du-Pape, an appellation noted for its use of the grenache grape in its world-famous wines.

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The Grape Glossary: A guide to hip varietals

It's among the planet's oldest and most widely cultivated grapes, yet grenache used to be the Boeing 747 that managed to fly under the radar. Few people thought to search for it by name, which is just as well, because until recently one could scarcely find the word on a label. Now grenache is basking in the bright searchlights.

Found extensively across Spain and southern France in particular, the red variety – or at least its anonymity – was partly the victim of European tradition that tends to place precedence on geographical rather than botanical monikers. That fancy bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape on the shelf? Chances are it contains plenty of grenache. Ditto that Côtes du Rhône and the pricy, chichi reds of Spain's Priorat region.

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The grape's profile also was hobbled by its role as a consummate team player, mainly found in blends with other varieties. That's usually the case with Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Côtes du Rhône, where syrah and mourvèdre also feature strongly. And you can often count on tasting some grenache in Rioja, where it plays Chris Kunitz on left wing to tempranillo's Sidney Crosby.

Usually full-bodied yet supple and moderate in astringent tannins, grenache comes across with instantly lovable cherry-raspberry characters and deliciously herbal notes. It's a perfect partner for rich red meats and can be spectacular with herb-roasted leg of lamb. The grape also accounts for some of the world's best rosés when fermented in brief contact with the pigment-bearing skins – from affordable Spanish styles to the regal and potent pink wines of Tavel in the southern Rhône Valley.

Likely born in Spain, where grenache is usually called garnacha, the grape has long been the subject of a paternity dispute with Italian islanders on Sardinia, where it goes by the name cannonau. The historical record sadly offers no clear verdict; "garnacha" and "cannonau" first appeared in writing around the same time, in the 1500s. But the general consensus, based on new DNA profiling, gives the nod to Spain on the basis that the country boasts a greater number of grenache mutations, a genetic hallmark of a plant's most likely origin.

Recently it's become much easier to find the words grenache or garnacha displayed prominently on labels, particularly the often very good bargain reds coming out of Spain. And Australia, a big outpost of the variety, has been turning out impressively concentrated, jammy Rhône-styled grenache-syrah-mourvèdre blends, often labelled GSM. The variety that dared not speak its name is finally out of the closet.

The Flavour Principle by Lucy Waverman and Beppi Crosariol recently took home top prize for best general English cookbook at the Taste Canada Food Writing Awards. Published by HarperCollins.

E-mail your wine and spirits questions to Beppi Crosariol. Look for answers to select questions to appear in the Wine & Spirits newsletter and on The Globe and Mail website.

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