Wine: Spanish Grenache is Exciting Red Alternative

REDUNDANT REDS: Spanish grenache offers a welcome change from some ‘ho-hum’ wines

I’m sure I’m not the only one bemoaning the homogeneity that’s crept into red wine — California reds, in particular.

The state that used to produce the most exciting reds (it still has many, but on a much smaller scale) now produces wines that are often so indistinct, you can’t even be sure what grape you’re tasting.

Cabernet sauvignon tastes like syrah. Merlots that could be syrah, too. Pinot noirs taste like anything but pinot noir. Petite syrah that taste like malbec or zinfandel. And on it goes.

And, it’s not just California.

You can find a similar but less common problem with Italian wine made from sangiovese, merlot, and cabernet sauvignon, which taste like they must have been made somewhere else — in California. Even a Super Tuscan that I had recently — those distinct powerful reds from Tuscany — was indistinguishable as Italian or Tuscan.

The French are in on the act, too, producing homogeneous reds, particularly from sub regions around Bordeaux — wines that seem to have very little to do with the famed “terroir” from which they came.

If there’s a common issue to all these clunky wines, it’s that they’re made from overly ripened grapes that have produced far more sugar than necessary, and, thus, more alcohol. Over-ripening of most of these grape varieties smothers the acidity in the wine, alters the texture, and creates an imbalance. Thus, they’ve given birth to de-alcoholizing centrifuges, used most often in zinfandel production, but increasingly now for all wines.

If you can visualize these problems for what they do to the wine, imagine a three-legged stool with each leg a different length. You certainly couldn’t sit on it. And it’s not particularly fun to drink, either.

All this is to say that I’ve been finding better winemaking and more balanced wines — at half the price — from northern Spain.

I’ve grown enamored of what the Catalonians do with a grape they call garnacha, which we’ve known here in the Americas for generations as a blending grape for cheap wine: grenache. And most of what I’ve been buying is well under $15; one or two are less than $10.

These are very balanced, charming, and often very different grenaches. So as to not totally dis California on this, there are several wineries there that take grenache very seriously and make very nice, but quite expensive wines. Quivira makes a Dry Creek Valley Grenache for $26; Qupé, a longtime leader in Rhone Valley style wines, has a Santa Ynez Valley Grenache for $35; and Ventana Estate has an Arroyo Seco Grenache for $28. These are all rather big, ponderous wines.

By contrast, most of the Spanish grenaches that I’ve been picking up are a lighter style that I find more pleasant. On several occasions, I’ve opened a bottle at dinner and tried the remains two or three days later to find the wine still drinkable, and, in a couple of cases, even better.

These are wines that generally like to breathe a lot. Don’t be afraid to toss them into a decanter or a pitcher to help them open up, and then back into the bottle if there’s some left over. Here are a few suggestions:

2009 Tres Ojos Old Vines Garnacha ($10): From Calatayud, a town near Zaragoza. Rich, bright strawberry aromas and tart cherry notes in the mid-palate. The wine has good heft and a pleasant finish.
2009 Las Rocas de San Alejandro ($10): Also from Calatayud. Aggressive fruit, gentle oak aging, spicy, ripe, succulent, and very good value.
2009 Capcanes Mas Donis ($12): Wild berry flavors, cherry, spices and herbs, ripe and full, and concentrated but with great acidity. Superb use of fruit and oak to achieve a very subtle and elegant wine.

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