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Serious Grape: Splurge-Worthy Grenache

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As our series on Grenache red wines winds to a close this week, we are venturing beyond budget finds and delicious options under $25 to check out what happens when you shell out for the pricey stuff.

In general, the extra bucks translate into fuller, richer Grenache flavors; these are powerful wines. The best of them are showstoppers: elegant and balanced, both mouthfilling and nuanced, showcasing the terroir and the signature blackberry/black cherry/herb notes of the grape through attentive winemaking. While some of these high-alcohol Grenache-based wines may seem overblown to those who prefer their wine on the delicate side, we found a few that we truly loved. (There were also a few that didn't impress us enough to justify the price—after all, if we've learned anything in the past few weeks, it's that bottom- and mid- shelf Grenache can be awfully good.)

The Greatest Grenache

Of all the Grenache that we tasted, the Domaine Giraud Les Grenaches de Pierre Chateauneuf-du-Pape (2006) was the most impressive. The grapes come from 100-year-old vines, yielding a well-structured, concentrated wine with a long, mouthwatering finish. This silky Grenache has a bit of clove on the nose and some delicately spicy flavors: we tasted lavender, cinnamon, and pepper, fennel seed, and licorice. At 15% alcohol, this is a big wine, but it's well integrated and balanced. As it opened up, we tasted cherries and blackberry pie, baked figs and balsamic reduction. Pair this compelling wine with a seared duck breast with blackberries and star anise, and you may lose track of where the wine ends and the duck begins. It's definitely pricey, but we'd far rather have one glass of this than a bottle (or three) of lesser stuff. ($70-80, find this wine here, imported by Eric Solomon Selections.)

Our second-place wine came from the Priorat region of Spain, which is about 100 miles south of Barcelona. The Morlanda Criança 2004 pours quite opaque, and has a rich scent of cherries and dates, with oaky vanilla notes. It's a slightly macho wine with silky-smooth texture and full body. We tasted blueberries baked in the sun, morello cherries, baked plums, cinnamon sticks, licorice, lavender, and red peppercorns. It's coherent and focused, delicious with hard cheeses (or save it for Thanksgiving—it would be stellar with turkey and sage stuffing.) (About $48, find this wine here, imported by Freixenet USA.)

We also were swept away by the 2005 Vacqueyras La Cantarelle Domaine la Garrigue from the southern Rhône: this wine, made from 85% Grenache and 15% Syrah, had great structure and focused blackberry/cassis flavors while still exhibiting delicate herbal and licorice notes. We tasted raisins and cracked pepper, bay leaf and a hint of slate. This beautifully balanced, elegant wine would be lovely served with lamb in a mint sauce, ratatouille, or grilled octopus. ($32-40, find this wine here, imported by Eric Solomon Selections.)

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Kangarilla Vineyard Grenache Vines. [Photograph: Clarendon Hills]

Awesome Australian Picks

We tried two excellent Grenache wines from Clarendon Hills winery near the coast of the Southern Ocean in South Australia. The Clarendon Hills 2006 Hickinbotham Grenache is mellow and open, with deep roasted plum and blueberry flavors, star anise and vanilla, dry cocoa and chocolate-covered cherry cordials. It's full-bodied without being sweet, with a nice balance of fruit and spice. This wine could stand up to a steak or even a ketchup-covered hamburger, and it was an immediate hit among our tasters. ($35-45, find this wine here. Imported by E&J Gallo.)

The Clarendon Hills 2006 Kangarilla Grenache is a bit more focused and less ripe than the Hickinbotham, with great structure. We tasted cranberries and clove-spiced plums, fennel and red pepper flakes. Let this polished, elegant wine open up awhile, and serve it with rich paté, eggplant dishes, or duck breast. ($50-70, find this wine here. Imported by E&J Gallo.)

Good Grenache From Spain

The Cellar Escoda-Sanahuja Les Paradetes (2006) was meaty and robust, with concentrated fruit and firm acidity. We tasted blueberry and star anise, along with a hint of clove. It's big and well structured enough to handle a beef roast or a burger with blue cheese. Some tasters found this biodynamic wine a little funky (and there was a hint of carbonation on the tongue) but other tasters loved it. (Around $33, find this wine here, imported by Vin de Terra Imports.)

More Finds from France

Deep and earthy, the Domaine Cabirau "La Bonté des Amis" (2007) was full-bodied, dark and rich with just enough acidity and tannins to balance. It's made from grapes from 60+ year old vines, and has rich flavors of cherry jam and ripe blackberries sitting out in the sun. We noticed a hint of mint and other herbs, as well as a hint of mushroom. It works well with charred steak, or pair it with a duck served with cherries or other berries. ($25-39, find this wine here or here, imported by Hand Picked Selections.)

The bold, concentrated flavors of the 2007 Le Plan-Vermeersch Grand Terroir Grenache may overwhelm some tasters: while there are hints of loamy earth that would make this a good wine to pair with lamb and porcini mushroom ragu, it's dominated by ripe, sunbaked fruit flavors and a bit heavy on the alcohol. The cassis flavors are vivid, accented with notes of black pepper, plum, and vanilla. Be sure to serve it a little cooler than room temperature. (about $27, find this wine here or here, imported by Hand Picked Selections)

20100526fiole.jpgWe were charmed by the unusually-shaped bottle holding the Pere Anselme La Fiole du Pape, but the wine was a bit disappointing. There were some nice roasted strawberry and graham cracker aromas, but the fruit flavors were much less giving than in the other wines we tried. Slate and dry wood notes dominated, hints of cumin, pepper, cherries, and blackberry seeds. We recommend decanting to smooth some of the harsh edges. ($26-38, find this wine here, imported by Opici Imports.)

Oregon and California Options

Not much Grenache is grown in Oregon, but we were lucky enough to get to sample the 2007 Francis Tannahill Rogue Valley Grenache, a spicy, well integrated wine with notes of dried blueberries, juicy olives, plum, black cherries, and herbs. We recommend pairing it with braised lamb shanks. (About $28, find this wine here)

Our favorite of the California Grenache we tried was Beckman Vineyards 2008 Estate Grenache. With a smooth mouthfeel and sturdy tannins, red berry notes and tart acidity, this wine is medium-bodied and food-friendly. Aging for 15 months in older French oak adds a hint of vanilla bean flavor; it all comes together to taste a bit like a raspberry linzer tart. There's a hint of dustiness that balances the spring strawberry flavor; it's a well made, tasty wine (though it didn't rival the more expensive examples from Spain and France.) (About $30, find this wine here or here)

The jammier Villa Creek Paso Robles 2008 Denner Vineyard Garnacha reminded some tasters of sweet strawberry shortcake. It's rich with fresh berry flavor and a touch of oak to ground it. (This wine is aged in puncheons that are about twice the size of a regular barrel, which limits the contact that the wine has with the wood.) If you like your wine sunny with a hint of sweetness, you should seek this one out. (About $35, find this wine here or here)

Not all wine stores put their inventory online; bring this list to your local merchant and they may be able to find these wines or recommend similar options.

Disclosure: All wines listed here were provided as review samples.

About the author: Maggie Hoffman writes about beer, wine, and vegetarian food for Serious Eats. She also writes about cooking in a tiny New York kitchen for Pithy and Cleaver.

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