…you’ve probably had some. If you like and drink Rhone Valley wines, apart from the 100% Syrah classics of Northern Rhone appellations like St. Joseph and Cote Rotie and the ultimate, Hermitage, you’ve certainly tasted the effects of it in those hallmark Southern Rhone blends like Cotes du Rhone, Chateauneuf du Pape, Gigondas, and Vacqueyras.
Most people think of these grapes as being native to Southern France and, in fact, they are. But Southern France is separated from Northern Spain only by a chain of mountains, the Pyrenees…and by tastes and winemaking traditions and grape-growing practices and cellaring philosophy…and assumptions and pretentions and self-promotion and rationales and, frankly, a healthy leavening of bullshit.
France is all about “restraint and nuance and subtlety and Place and soil and climate and elegance“, all those in quotation marks because they are so frequently sold as a package; a litany of explanations for why French wines taste one way, while much of the rest of the planet’s taste entirely different. The knottier little issues of manipulation and vinification techniques that take their native fruit and steer it in ways that suit the winemaker’s inclinations, rather than always what the vineyard gives, are seldom mentioned. The next region over may take identical grapes and do nearly everything differently and produce radically different wines, even down to questions of taste and texture. It’s Old World versus New World, in effect, even though both regions may sit squarely in the Old World. It’s European Tradition, with all the pomp and circumstance that entails, versus the gauche excesses – but wild fun and flavors and fancy – that the rest of humanity has proven to prefer.
Nowhere is that French vs. The World dichotomy more pronounced that the stylistic chasm that divides France and it’s closest wine-intensive neighbor, Spain.
The two countries are geographically separated by the age-wrinkles of the Pyrenees…but also by centuries of divergent tastes, assumptions, vast cultural differences, prestige, and the purpose that each culture assigns to wine. And certain of the grapes that we routinely assign to French lineage also grew wild in Spain as well, back in the mists of time.
Grenache – or, as the Spainers say, “Garnacha” – is one of those. As the Rhone Valley and Provence are the French provinces closest to the Pyrenees, it figgers that the common grapes would be Rhone varietals, mainly the two lesser grapes in most red Rhones: Grenache and Mourvedre, both of which are also indigenous to Spain.
They are exactly the same grapes, whichever side of the border they’re harvested on. But that is where the commonality stops.
The brilliant Chateauneuf du Pape house, Domaine de la Janasse, makes a 100% Grenache wine called “Chaupin”, a single-vineyard wine that has become very much a cult favorite, over the decades it’s existed. It certainly became a favorite at my house, where you could find, back in the late 90s, as much as a case of it, lying there in calm repose, just waiting for for me to open it and bliss out. It is still a LOVELY wine; all red berry and minerals and woodsy earthiness and a silken finish that lasts for whole minutes.
But my lustful hanky-panky with what was then called “Le Chaupin” was before I became as widely conversant in Spanish wines as I am now and while I still love and revere Chaupin, I’m a notorious comparison shopper (translation: miser) who seeks out maximum QPR (Quality to Price Ratio) with ruthless focus. As I went deeper into Spain, names like Bodegas Atalaya “Alaya Tierra” and Alto Moncayo “Veraton” and Bodegas Aragonesas and Portal del Montsant and Scala Dei began to displace Chaupin on my shelves. And, today, with all due respect for the handful of Rhone and Provence producers who have had the stones to bottle Grenache as a stand-alone varietal (it’s nearly always blended with something)(Damnit) the Spanish versions have a life and verve and even terroir notes that frequently leave their northern cousins gasping for air – and at prices that are usually a mere fraction of the French stickers.
One of the very first Spanish Grenaches I fell in love with (Okay, lust, more accurately) was/is Bodegas Nekeas “El Chaparral de Vega Sindoa” Old Vines Garnacha. This jaw-dropping, nearly flaweless bottle of Garnacha was Grenache when Grenache Wasn’t Cool. Back in the late 90s, finding a 100% Grenache bottling, even from Spain, was like finding a hobbit in the NFL: not happenin’. In Spain, yeah, you couldn’t sling a throw rug (No cats were harmed in the making of this idiom) without hitting a good, dirt-cheap Grenache. But we were more resistent to importing these, at the time, than Patriots fans are to the term “post-Belechick”. I asked one buyer for a big Seattle importer why his company didn’t carry ANY of the top ten rated Spanish Grenaches, as ranked by Wine Spectator. His answer? “People don’t drink Grenache. Hell, my retail clients, most of ’em, don’t even know what the fuck it is.”
If you “don’t even know what the fuck it is“, you are seriously behind a huge curve in your Wine Journey. And if you’d like to unclench for a moment from your Cab/Merlot/Malbec Mania, I have two great and timely suggestions…
First…the aforementioned “El Chapparal”. I have to confess to not having tasted El Chap (as all us groovy Spainy insiders call it) for several years. Last time, as I recall, was maybe 2012.
Then, a few weeks back, this box shows up at my door. Inside is a slickly designed, elegant bottle labeled “Mimaò” (much more of that later) and, YES!!, a bottle of El Chapparal! It was exactly like going down to the train depot to pick up rail frieght and seeing your favorite cousin emerge from the club car. I wanted to open it and just dive in, right on the spot, but the day’s duties wouldn’t allow it, so I set it carefully, like handling an egg or a glass figurine, on my kitchen counter and left, abuzz with anticipation of coming home to good ol’ El Chap.
I was not disappointed.
Bodegas Nekeas “El Chapparal de Vega Sindoa” Old Vines Garnacha is its full name on the birth certificate and it is practically the Grenache template for many American wine fans. It was, for thousands of us, the bottle that confronted us with Spain Beyond Tempranillo and was shockingly available, in an era which can be most accurately described as “pre-Spanish wine“. This was the mid-to-late 90s, remember, a time in which most of the imported wines any of us could easily find were either French or Italian, in reds, or German in whites. To see anything much beyond El Chapparal, in Spanish Grenache, you had to have a truly great, dedicated shop near you that specialized in Spanish wines. Mine was Seattle’s The Spanish Table, whose owner, Steve Winston, traveled regularly to Spain and wheedled established distributors into importing many wines we would never have seen otherwise. I was in there so freakin’ much that his door bell would ring, he’d look up and see me, and hold up his index finger, his signal for “I have something you’re going to lose your shit over!”
One of the first wines he poured for me was El Chapparal. I remember it vividly: waves of red berries, sweet minerals, woodsy notes but not the slick, vanilla-drenched luxury of new oak barrels but more like chewing on a twig broken off a lone tree. It had lurking grace notes of candied fruit, expressed as a lovely intimation, just a hint, of sweetness, of the sort that would get a French winemaker stoned in the village square. It showed pink peppercorns and wildflowers and honey and red currants and subtle cocoa and rhubarb. My weird-ass memory (which often won’t retain my home phone number) booted that flavor profile up in technicolor, within a Google-like .285 seconds of just thinking the name. It was opening a new door onto a wine paradigm and, even with the vastly larger range of flavor expressions available to all of us today, it still remains a revelatory experience in both the tiny universe of Grenache and that larger aerial circus that is Spanish wine. It finishes lazily and with passionate sweetness and is as expressive and hearts-on-sleeves as teenage love poetry. It is, for me, one of the wines that I value most as a genuine milestone along my never-ending Wine Journey and I have to feel that it could well be the same for you, too. And, oh yeah…it’s about FIFTEEN BUCKS! 97 Points
Also in that box was a bottle I had never seen or heard of; something in a very classy – dare I say it – sexy package, from a winery that I had heard of but had only sketchy contact with, Bodegas Inurietta. Quite honestly, at the risk of puncturing my own pomp, I got interested in Inurrieta mostly because I saw the name and my crazy teen-age Spanish courses burped up the recollection that “inurrieta” means…”anthill”. I wrote a play, in my early college years, with a character in it that I called Senor Inurrieta, translation “Mister Anthill”, and laughed about it for as solid year. Later, I read about Bodega Inurrieta, which was making some waves in Spanish wine circles and made a mental note to seek it out. (That mental note-taking is, at my age, like writing yourself as note in beach sand, at low tide) When I pulled the bottle of Mimaò out of the box and read the name, that lone brain cell went “Aha!” and I laughed for a good two minutes. “Anthill Winery”…just too good.
Then I tasted it and the laughter took on a fiercely pleasurable, mildly shocked character.
Where did this stuff come from? Navarra, certainly, but also absolutely from a wickedly creative, liberated mind that is not at all concerned with all that Frenchy subtlety and nuance crap and entirely with all with “Oooh, baby, kiss me again!”
Bodega Inurrieta “Mimaò” is hedonistic, visceral, full-frontal wine pleasure; Grenache for people who want to sip wine before and after sweaty sex. It is…voluptuous, rich, and yet not at all ponderous in the way we’d use “voluptuous, rich” to describe a Napa Cabernet. It retains that classic Grenache light-to-medium bodied texture but crams in so much flavor that it seems to burst in your mouth like a ripe cherry or a fat peach. The flavors aren’t ground-breaking but they scarcely need to be. Grenache is a roller-coaster of tastes, anyway, even many wimpy ones. It shoves sweet spices to the middle of the stage and yells, “Dance!” and they do. Cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, sumac, intimations of ginger and jasmine illuminate the first sips. Then comes the berries: blackberry jam, ripe raspberries, blueberries, hints of strawberry, tayberry, goji…the list goes on. Then comes minerals, treacle, vanilla, pencil shavings, a dash of tar, and mild coffee, all framed by a finish of plums and teaberry. The texture was luxurious and the acidity was as near-perfect as any big wine in recent menory.
I was dazzled by this wine. It was as fascinating in its own way as quantum computing is to my tiny, frustrated faux-scientist brain and I nursed the bottle on for four full days, pouring tiny sips into a small port glass and just appreciating the changes as time and oxygen gradually ate its heart. Mimaò is my primary wine reveletion of 2019, so far, and I expect to be able to put it in my top five for the entire year, unless this year’s fall release unleashes a tsunami of wonders the likes of which we’ve not seen since the mid-Oughties. And the sticker price for this little miracle…about $17. 98 Points
Now that you have some idea of “what the fuck it is“…try some Spanish, indeed some Navarra, Grenache. Your mouth and your pocketbook will be eternally grateful.