Our dear Grenache grape has shown us many sides. It can be full and velvety, or fresh and bright. It can taste like roasted tomatoes or plums, blackberries and black licorice, and sometimes there's a hint of mint and lavender. There are plenty of good ones for under ten bucks, but we've really noticed a sweet spot at $15-20. In this range, Spanish Garnacha and Sardinian Cannonau offerings get rich and silky. When you move beyond the generic level of Côtes du Rhône to wines from the 18 villages that are authorized to put their name on the label, the wines get more focused and truly elegant. These are wines to pair with seared duck breasts and lamb chops, grilled eggplant and rich pâté. Whatever you do, don't drink them unaccompanied: Grenache wines are food wines.
We tried two Las Rocas wines from Bodega San Alejandro in the Calatayud region in Spain. The Vinas Viejas (2007) uses grapes from 50-100 years old vines. It's elegant and smooth, with notes of toasted walnuts, dried currants, licorice, and roasted red pepper. It's rich and mellow, with a touch of black-tea and dry cocoa. All of our tasters agreed that this wine is worth the $16-18 price. (Find this wine here.) The other version is cheaper by a few dollars, but we weren't quite as wowed. It's slightly more rustic, with notes of blackberry jam and tar. It's good paired with spicy chorizo or hearty chili, but consider springing for the Vinas Viejas.
Our other favorite from Spain is from the high-altitude village of Porrera. The Black Slate Porrera Priorat (2007) is rich, dusty and deep, with concentrated dark fruit—this is a full wine, with herbal notes of thyme and sage, and dry blueberry and black licorice notes. It's velvety, well integrated, and mellow. While some tasters wished for a bit more acidity, most were too lost in its delicious silkiness to comment. (Find this wine for about $20 here)
Let the Sélection Laurence Feraud Côtes du Rhône Villages Séguret (2007) open up for 20 minutes or so, and it will reward you with concentrated and focused fruit, nice acidity and plush currant jam flavors. It's made from 90 percent Grenache and 10 percent Syrah, and retails for $15-19. This wine is an delicious example of the style, with notes of prune and tart strawberries, leather, spice, and charred red peppers. Bring this food-friendly Côtes du Rhône to a dinner party and pair with seared tuna and ratatouille. After trying this wine along with a more expensive one, one of our tasters determined this her favorite and decided to buy a case. If I had more storage space, I'd follow her lead. (Find this wine here or here)
Another excellent wine at this level is the Domaine Rabasse Charavin Côtes du Rhône Villages Cairanne (2005). It's everything we're looking for in a Côtes du Rhône: mouthwatering tartness, notes of herbes de provence, red and black licorice, mushroomy earthiness, medium body. It's focused and restrained, with a hint of cinnamon and spice (and Ben and Jerry's Cherry Garcia ice cream in the scent!) With its pepper and tart blackberry flavors, we'd pair it with duck, or a lamb burger stuffed into a pita with some feta, tomato and mint. Delicious! (Find this wine for $16-20 here)
While it's a bit more expensive than our everyday wine, we loved the Perrin & Fils Côtes du Rhône Villages Rasteau L'Andeol (2007). It's rich and silky, full bodied, and well balanced. It has lovely notes of black cherry and violet. We'd spring for this wine when you're looking for something a little elegant: it's more concentrated and focused than its slightly rustic, less expensive sibling (the Perrin Reserve Cotes du Rhone Rouge). We also gave the organic Perrin Nature Côtes du Rhône (2007) a try; it's slightly less berried and little spartan, with hints of tobacco, cherry, and leather. (Find the Rasteau L'Andeol here for around $20)
One of the best values we tried was the peppery Evodia Garnacha (2008). This well balanced and mellow wine has notes of slate and black tea, dried blueberries, sweet cherry tomato, and a streak of fresh acidity. Give it a little chill and you'll be happy to drink this by the grill all summer long. It sells for around $10, and sometimes less. (Find this wine here and here)
The earthy scent of the Sella & Mosca Cannonau di Sardegna (2006) drew us in. Its full body and sturdy tannins hold up notes of licorice, lavender, rosemary, and mint. This wine is aged in oak before release, but it adds structure without overpowering the wine. We were reminded of black cherry skins and thought this would be the perfect wine for pairing with duck (or Thanksgiving turkey and stuffing!) This is a great deal for $11-14 (Find this wine here)
More Spanish Garnacha
In addition to the favorites above, we tried the Artazuri Garnacha (2008) With concentrated fruit and spice, this wine is a juicy mouthful. Some tasters loved the roasted blueberry and strawberry flavors, but some found the alcohol a little over the top. It sells for $10-12. (Find this wine here)
Grenache from France
Importers often care passionately about the wines they find, but importer Dan Kravitz of Hand Picked Selections took it a step further and purchased the vineyard where Domaine Cabirau Serge & Tony (2007) is grown. This unoaked wine has a musky scent and jammy fruit notes followed by pepper, slate, and dry cocoa powder. We tasted baked figs and dates with a hint of smoke. (About $17, find this wine here and here)
With a scent of violets, slate, and black currants, the Domaine de Pesquier Côtes du Rhône (2007) would be a nice wine to serve with olives, grilled steak, or anything in mole sauce. Minerals, grilled green pepper, oak, dried fig, and dark plums come through in this 70 percent Grenache blend. It's not our favorite Côtes du Rhône, but it's a solid option. ($12-14, find this wine here or here)
The Les Vignerons d'Estezargues Andezon Côtes du Rhône Villages Signargues La Granacha (2009) is meatier than many Côtes du Rhônes, with a hint of smoky gaminess that makes it a great wine to pair with cheese. It has concentrated pomegranate and tart raspberry notes, with a hint of red bell pepper, licorice, and sundried tomato. (Around $14, find this wine here)
With notes of slate and licorice, the Argiolas Costera Cannonau di Sardegna (2007) is the perfect pairing for calamata olives and pepper-encrusted steak. It's dry and spicy, with hints of prune and gravel, rich cherry and raisins. A smooth, silky wine and good value for around $14. (Find this wine here)
Dried black cherry notes add richness to the Vigne Deriu Cannonau (2006); the silky fruit lingers with earthiness and smoke. We'd pair it with caramelized onions and a rare lamb chop. Some tasters found this wine a bit boozy—this is a smooth, concentrated wine, but it's a little hot from the alcohol. It sells for around $23 (Imported by Jan D'Amore, find this wine here, here, and here)
We didn't fall in love with any of the California Grenache we tried this time around, but we're not writing it off. If you're looking for berrylicious wine, try the Holly's Hill Grenache Noir (2008, about $20) which pours bright and light in color. It's quite full bodied, and tastes like homemade strawberry jam (or strawberry-flavored yogurt) and ripe figs. There's a hint of pepper, but the impression of sweetness was just a bit too much for us. Acidity, please! Serve slightly chilled with a goat-cheese topped salad. We also had mixed feelings about the Quivira Grenache (2008) which had a hint of coconut, vanilla, and cream. It could be the wine for you, but we'll stick with their excellent Sauvignon Blanc.
Not all wine stores are cataloged online; take this list to your nearby wine merchant and tell them what you're looking for!
Disclosure: All wines in this article were review samples.