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The Rhône Grape from Spain - A Brief History of Grenache (aka Garnacha)

Updated: Dec 16, 2023

The Grenache wine grape, known as Garnacha in it’s native homeland of Spain, has a history as vibrant and diverse as the flavors it imparts to the wines it produces. Believed to have originated in the region of Aragon in northern Spain, the Garnacha grape has traveled the world, leaving its mark on some of the finest wines.

The roots of Garnacha can be traced back to 156 BCE in the region of Aragon, where it is said to have originated. By the 12th century, Garnacha had become a widely planted grape in this rugged and arid region that proved to be the ideal conditions for this hardy grape to thrive. Its ability to withstand harsh conditions and produce generous yields made it a favorite among winemakers. Garnacha quickly spread throughout Spain, becoming one of the most widely planted grape varieties in the country.

The journey of Garnacha wasn’t restricted to Spain. In the 14th century, it made its way across the Pyrenees into southern France, particularly in regions like modern day Roussillon and the Languedoc, which were under Aragon rule at the time. Here, the grape found a new home and adapted to the diverse terroirs and proved to be stalwart against the strong Mistral winds of the Rhône valley and Provence, resulting in wines that showcased the grape's versatility from rich reds to delicate rosés. French winemakers embraced Garnacha, naming it Grenache locally, and it became a key component in many iconic blends, including the famous Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines.

Garnacha continued its global journey during the era of European exploration and colonization. It is believed the Spanish also brought Garnacha to the Italian island of Sardinia (also under the rule of Aragon), where it became known as Cannonau. In the 1830’s James Busby, the father of Australian wine growing, introduced Grenache as a quality wine grape to the country (although it is said to have been originally introduced to Australia in the 1700’s) where it became the most widely planted wine grape in the country until Syrah surpassed it in the 1960’s.

Similarly, Italian immigrants brought Grenache to America in the 1880’s where it was planted in eastern Washington State and widely in California. But it wasn’t until after prohibition that Grenache gained popular recognition in America when a group of Rhône-enthusiast winemakers took a deep interest in the grape in the 1980’s and established it as a cornerstone variety in California’s Central Coast where it has found it’s second home.

While Garnacha was gaining in popularity around the world, its popularity in Spain had faded in the shadow of Tempranillo. However, since the late 1980’s through today, it has experienced a resurgence in its home country as Spanish winemakers began to re-discover old-vine Garnacha plantings, particularly in regions like Priorat and Calatayud that had been long overlooked. Under renewed attention, the grape's ability to express the unique characteristics of the terroir and produce wines of exceptional quality has generated newfound acclaim.

Garnacha is celebrated for its ability to produce wines with a wide range of flavors, aromas, and textures. The grape is known for its red fruit profile, including notes of cherry, raspberry, and strawberry. Depending on the terroir and winemaking techniques, Garnacha wines can vary from light and fruity to full-bodied and complex. The grape's inherent spiciness and subtle herbal notes add further layers of complexity to the wines it produces. In some regions, such as Santa Ynez Valley and cooler sites in Paso Robles, Grenache is sometimes known to even express characteristics similar to Pinot Noir!

From its humble beginnings in the arid landscapes of Aragon to its journey across continents, Garnacha has left an indelible mark on the world of wine. Today, as winemakers continue to explore the potential of this versatile grape, the legacy of Garnacha lives on in the glasses of wine enthusiasts around the globe, showcasing the rich history and enduring appeal of this remarkable varietal.


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