Garnacha/Grenache

Port’s Unhearalded Brother

13 March 2013

Bin 152Even if they’ve never sampled it, most everyone has heard of Port. This fortified wine from Porto, Portugal, deserves its fame — a glass of fine caramelly tawny Port or deeply flavored vintage Port always makes a deliciously relaxing end to a meal. But the Portuguese don’t have a monopoly on these sorts of wines. The farthest southern corner of France can give northern Portugal some serious competition.

I once had the fortune to visit the spectacular vineyards here, around the town of Banyuls. I was about 24 years old, and really beginning to appreciate the joys of wine tasting. Around every bend it seemed, a shop or house or even just a roadside stand offered “Degustation,” and to my parents’ eventual annoyance, I wanted to stop at every one. But what could I do? After tasting some Banyuls paired with a Banyuls-poached pear covered in melted chocolate and cinnamon, I was hooked.

Clinging to the Roussillon coast, the narrow roads winding through the vertiginous vineyards of Banyuls make for hair-raising driving, and tending to the vines requires hard labor. Because the terrain makes machinery all but impossible to use, the very ripe grapes — often picked when halfway to raisinhood – must be harvested by hand. Yields are very low. Hell for winemakers perhaps, but ideal for drinkers.

Red Banyuls must contain at least 50% Grenache, and because the wine is fortified with alcohol, the result tastes remarkably like Port. Or perhaps more accurately, in the inimitable words of The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, “[Banyuls] lacks the fire of a great Port, but it has its own immense charm.”

I happened to have an immensely charming Banyuls about a week ago in Charleston. Bin 152, a stylish wine bar run by an engaging French couple, had one on its by-the-glass menu, and goodness knows after my tireless explorations of Lowcountry cuisine, I was in need of a serious digestif.

Fanny, who hails originally from Nice, poured me a glass of 2008 Domaine la Tour Vieille Banyuls, before refilling Brooke Shields’ glass of white Burgundy (she looked great). The wine proved to be even more exciting than the celebrity sighting, however. It had the big, round, raisiny fruit I was expecting, but what surprised me was its steady, driving force. It had power, this wine, but its development from fruity to spicy to tannic was so slow and so rhythmic, I could only but marvel at its self-control.

This Banyuls demanded attention, and it made me forget all about my distended stomach. Not all of them rise to these heights, but every Banyuls I’ve sampled has been at the very least quite good. It pairs wonderfully with chocolate, berries and celebrities, and it tends to cost less than Port of similar quality, because Banyuls lacks Port’s famous name. If you see one in a wine shop or on a wine list, don’t hesitate to give it a try.

Philadelphia Degustation – Part 3

1 August 2012

COURSE 5: Tinto Fino

I’d read a few reviews touting the “Pulpo” at Tinto, a tapas restaurant owned by Iron Chef Jose Garces, and I couldn’t resist popping in for a quick snack. Unfortunately, I accidentally popped into Village Whiskey instead. Their doors are right next to each other, and, well, it had been a long day. I didn’t realize my mistake until I checked in with the hostess, sat down at the bar and requested a menu from the bartender.

“Wow, this menu doesn’t look like tapas,” I thought to myself. Finally, finally, my befogged brain apprehended the situation. I decided the most graceful way to make an exit would be to feign an important phone call. “Oh hi, Sweetie. How are you? What? What’s the matter? Oh dear! Oh dear oh dear. Are you serious? No! Now, calm down.” I gestured helplessly to the hostess as I walked past. “Alright, now everything is going to be fine. Just slow down so I can” get myself into the right frickin’ restaurant.

I managed to find my way into Tinto, plunked myself into an equally comfortable bar stool and perused the wine list. I needed something a little hefty with the Pulpo (grilled octopus) that was coming, and I spotted a 2009 Bodegas y Viñedos Valderiz “Valdehermoso” Tinto Fino Joven from Ribera del Duero, Rioja’s lesser-known (but nevertheless formidable) competitor. Not unlike Arizona’s Page Springs, this region stretching along the Duero River north of Madrid regularly brushes almost 100° during the day before plunging into the 50′s at night. According to The World Atlas of Wine, “The light and air here have a high-altitude dryness and brightness about them, as do the wines, which have particularly lively acidity thanks to those cool nights.”

And Tinto Fino? I discovered that this variety, also known as Tinto del País, is simply a local variant of Tempranillo, albeit a variant particularly well-adapted to the rather extreme climate of Ribera del Duero. This Joven (young) Tinto Fino had dark, dark fruit on the nose and palate, expansive spice and attention-grabbing tannins. It really brought out the savory flavors in the snack of Mahon cheese crisps. With the slightly charred, moderately spicy octopus, the spice in the wine became almost too much. But paired with non-spicy red meats or even pork, a Tinto Fino should keep its cool deliciously. I recommend keeping an eye out for them.

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One Of The Greatest Hopes

7 July 2011

When a colleague at work gave me a bottle of Garnacha Tinta (Grenache) from Spain, I didn’t think it would be suitable to discuss on this blog. After all, this varietal grows all over the country. According to The Oxford Companion to Wine, Garnacha Tinta is “Spain’s second most planted red wine grape after Tempranillo in 2004,” covering no fewer than 203,300 acres.

But I looked a little closer at the label of this 2006 Via Terra Garnacha, and noticed it came from a Denominación de Origen (DO) I had never heard of: Terra Alta. I located this large, Catalan wine region on a map in The World Atlas of Wine, lying just west of much more famous Priorat, near the city of Tarragona.

Neither the atlas nor the Oxford Companion had very much to say about this mountainous “high land,” other than to note that it’s scenic and up-and-coming, but not yet fully developed. Wikipedia agrees, adding that Terra Alta wines were consumed almost exclusively locally until just recently.

André Dominé’s Wine goes into further detail, describing how “the red wines here were considered to be as rough as the climate,” but thanks to more modern wine-making techniques, “these wines have now become softer and more complex.” Indeed, the best examples have led “Spain’s top enologists [to] consider Terra Alta to be one of the greatest hopes.”

It seemed this Garnacha could be worth writing about after all! (more…)