It's one of the world's most widely planted grapes, but grenache tends to lurk in fame's shadow. A major component in southern French blends, it rarely gets marquee treatment on labels. Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Côtes du Rhône and the famous rosés of Tavel, among others, all tend to be sculpted around its seductively soft, succulent berry essence, a fact that no doubt would be news to some fans of those wines.
Even in Australia, where the convention of naming wines after grapes prevails, it's rarely a solo player. You'll find it there as in the Rhône, frequently in combination with classic sidekicks syrah and mourvèdre in so-called GSM blends.
The reason for its team-player status has as much to do with colour and cellar endurance as with flavour. Unlike syrah and mourvèdre, the grape is thin-skinned, so the wines can be deceptively transparent, a liability in a world that associates rich flavour with the colour purple.
Those skins also lack substantial tannins, astringent compounds that protect red wines from bruising like a peeled apple. If vinified without proper care, a pure grenache wine can oxidize prematurely, leading to a desiccated quality that suggests prunes rather than fresh raspberries, cherries or currants.
Most people familiar with grenache associate it with southern France, the world's top source. But that's not its home. Spain is. The likely birthplace was Aragon, a tiny region in the northeast best known to monarchy buffs as the home of Catherine of Aragon, King Henry VIII's first wife, whose failure to bear a son provoked that famous annulment and England's divorce from the Roman Catholic Church.
In that context, it might be construed as slightly ironic that Aragon's queen of grapes, known in Spanish as garnacha, found its highest calling in a wine named after the 14th-century papal castle in southern France. Yet one can find an uncanny similarity between fine Châteauneuf-du-Pape and a much less expensive wine from Aragon released this week in Ontario. It's called Langa Tradicion Centenaria Garnacha, a glorious red made from 80-year-old, organically grown vines. That advanced age can be especially beneficial to grenache. Old vines yield fewer but more concentrated — and tannic — grapes. When you've got old-vines grenache, you don't need sidekicks; the grape can carry the show all by itself.
Langa Tradicion Centenaria Garnacha 2008 (Spain)
Full-bodied and remarkably dark for a grenache, it's cuddly soft and a little bit dusty, with luxurious wild berries and spice. Tastes like decent Châteauneuf at a third of the price. Try it with roast lamb.
Ridge Estate Chardonnay 2010 (California)
This superb white from California's red-zinfandel king is full-bodied and creamy, with rich tropical fruit and butter, finishing toasty and crisp. Lobster would be a sublime accompaniment. $54.99 in B.C.
Penfolds Bin 389 Cabernet Shiraz 2008 (Australia)
An elegant Australian, this bottle has the uncommonly Australian nuance of graphite running through the concentrated cassis, mocha and spice. Fine, dusty tannins add structure. Try it with medium-rare steak or let it improve with up to 15 years in the cellar. $69.99 in B.C., $39.99 in Man., $37.75 in Que., $44.29 in N.S.
Fontalpino Chianti Classico 2009 (Italy)
An awesome Chianti value, it's medium-full-bodied and lightly dusty with tannins, showing good concentration, with a flavour profile that suggests cherries seasoned with salt and pepper. Ideal for veal chops or four to six years in the cellar.
Petit Rimauresq Grenache Cinsault Syrah Rosé 2011 (France)
What a fine, affordable rosé for summer. It's from sunny Provence, where warmth-loving grenache does beautifully. Pretty salmon-pink in colour, it tastes like strawberries and oranges dusted with herbs, finishing crisp and satisfyingly bitter. Great on its own or with lightly seasoned seafood of all kinds.
Seifried Riesling 2011 (New Zealand)
Riesling thrives in New Zealand, though it's forced to fight for shelf space next to the country's far more popular signature, sauvignon blanc. This one delivers impressive complexity for the money. Dry and slightly fleshy, it shows smooth tropical fruit, citrus and hints of smoke and mineral. Citrus-marinated shellfish on the grill would match well.
Cambria Katherine's Vineyard Chardonnay 2008 (California)
There's lots of oak here, but there's good peach and tropical fruit below. A little bit silky, a little bit nutty and toasty, with sweet caramel in the centre. Try it with fish or chicken in cream sauce or amply buttered lobster. $33.79 in N.B.
Ernie Els Big Easy 2010 …(South Africa)
Ernie Els, the famous golfer, put a lot into this chunky red, grape-wise. It's a blend of shiraz, cabernet sauvignon, cinsault, mourvèdre, grenache and white viognier. Full-bodied and rich with dark fruit and spice, it also comes across with typical South African hot rubber and a nuance of smoky bacon. It really needs a chunk of beef or grilled lamb chops.
Tinhorn Creek Oldfield Series 2 Bench White 2011 (British Columbia)
in B.C.An inspired, unoaked blend of chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, viognier, sémillon and muscat, it's on the drier side of off-dry, with medium body, a plump,peachy core and whiff of ginger. Ideal for light curries, even sushi. Through www.tinhorn.com.