Another Thanksgiving is upon us: Whatever will we drink? Even if that question isn’t boring a hole in the back of your head, it behooves you to have a strategy to come at this wildly ungainly meal.
When it comes to marrying the meal with wine, Thanksgiving is never easy. A mashup of bitter and sweet, sour and salty, rich and richer, dishes of varying weights and textures are thrown together like the gaudiest of holiday wardrobes, leaving attempts at pairing, as I wrote here last year, feeble or palliative, “an omnivorous varnish heaved upon the meal like so much paint upon a Jackson Pollock canvas.” I can’t think of a single wine that can get you from start to finish. But there is, I think, a single variety, which, in all its global variants, might be up to the task. A grape so versatile that it may serve as your go-to variety for the meal of all meals.
I’m talking about grenache, one of the world’s most ubiquitous varieties, inhabiting everything from the world’s humblest peasant wines to some of its most profound, a wine that has not only several shades of red but also shines as a pink and a white (if you grant me that Grenache Blanc, an isolated mutation, is roughly its twin).
Best of all, Grenache is quite literally a global phenomenon, a grape grown wherever enough sunshine and warmth allow full ripeness, which means not only it is ubiquitous, but it bears a range of flavors that can meet the mashup head-on.
Let us start with Rosé. Of all the red grapes employed to go pink, perhaps the most effortless conversion comes from Grenache. The variety produces Rosé wines that are fruity but not overbearing, bright and vivid, with an energy and charm that few other pink wines can match, and are sturdy enough to serve at the holiday feast.
Many of Spain’s Rosados are made of all or part Grenache. An entire appellation in the southern Rhône, Tavel, devotes itself to Rosés made largely with Grenache, wines of a piercing maraschino red with bold, intense flavors that can make for an ideal accompaniment to a turkey leg. Closer to home, look for pink wines from Verdad and Beckmen, both Rosé specialists.
In the last decade, California had devoted hundreds of acres Grenache’s white sibling, Grenache Blanc, owing in part to Tablas Creek’s efforts in propagating Rhône varieties. It has adapted well, and may even be more expressive here than in France; here it retains more acidity than most other white Rhône varieties, gives lift to white blends and carries a lemony scent in the glass — an ideal Thanksgiving aperitif. The Central Coast winery Tangent, I believe, produces the most in the state; Tercero winemaker Larry Schaffer may have the surest hand in the state with the variety.
At its best, red Grenache is nothing if not exuberant: alive with vibrant red flavors of cherries, red plums, strawberries. What it lacks in gravitas it often makes up for with a kind of frisky, almost frivolous energy. That is often how they play out in Australia, where the best stocks of old vine grenache are in the McLaren Vale (seek out bottlings from D’Arenberg and Yangarra). Among domestic producers, Stolpman and Unti are making some of the more exciting monovarietal bottlings in the state.
Winemakers usually ground that friskiness by blending in more structured varietal components, most often Syrah, Mourvèdre and Carignane, to provide some depth to the flavors and frame the heady vitality that Grenache frequently brings to a wine.
This is a global practice; in Rioja, Spain, Garnacha provides lift and spice to the otherwise dour Tempranillo. In Priorat, wines of unvanquished power are given a core plumminess with Carignane. A similar formula is followed in Roussillon, on the French slopes of the Pyrenees, wines with a succulent core of dark red fruit flavors, and lingering impressions of licorice, olive and bay.
In Australia the blends are known as GSMs, for their component parts, Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre. The red raspberry scents of Grenache are anchored by darker blue hues of the latter two varieties. The same practice is increasingly common in California and Washington, where those three varieties are used in different percentages to produce wines of charm and depth, in wines such as Z Cuvee from Zaca Mesa, Bonny Doon’s Le Cigare Volant, Villa Creek’s Avenger, Tablas Creek’s Patelin and Gramercy Cellars’ Columbia Valley blend, “The Third Man.”
The pinnacle of blended Grenache-based wines is in the southern Rhône and is centered in three appellations: Vacqueyras, Gigondas and Châteauneuf du Pape. Here is Grenache in all its glory, showcasing the power, headiness and complexity that the variety is capable of. While more than a half-dozen varieties can be employed in blends from these places, it is most often paired with Mourvèdre, Syrah and Cinsault. Despite rich, vibrant fruit, the wines tend to act as vectors of minerality reflecting the complex soils of each region; it is a place where a single producer might make a wine from one or all of the subregions; for Gigondas and Vacqueyras, explore the wines of Montirius, Paul Jaboulet and St. Cosme; in Châteauneuf du Pape, splurge on the wines of Ogier, Beaucastel, La Nerthe and Vieux Telegraphe.
Grenache is even helpful when it comes to the dessert course: Roussillon is home to one of France’s most distinctive sweet red wines, the portlike, Grenache-based Banyuls. Ideal for the savory pie course — one of the better known is from Domaine du Mas Blanc — or if you can find it, seek out the haunting Banyuls from Jacques Laverriere, “Clos Chatart.”
Pecan pie and other caramelly creations are best accompanied by an Australian Tawny, a grenache blend harvested late and aged in barrels to render a toffee’d sweetness in the wines, smooth, rich and satisfying, like Yalumba’s celebrated Museum Reserve.
Zester Daily contributor Patrick Comiskey is a senior contributor for Wine & Spirits Magazine, where he serves as chief critic for non-California domestic wines and contributes articles on the wines of California, Oregon and Washington.
Photo: St. Cosme in Gigondas. Credit: Patrick Comiskey