As a wine lover, I am always on the lookout for something different, something a little off my wine radar. Fortunately, in these halcyon days of wine production, there is almost always a new group of wines to try, often at remarkably affordable price points and loaded with tons of varietal character.
This year, I’ve discovered or, more accurately, rediscovered three wines that fit that bill to a tee: Vinho Verde, Garnacha Blanca, and Garnacha Tinto. I say rediscovered because I’ve traveled the Vinho Verde and Garnacha paths before, but being the squirrel chaser I am, I was distracted and changed routes and wine directions.
But today I am back to praise the virtues of these interesting and historic grape varieties and styles and provide you a nice end option to high alcohol, high tannin Cabernet Sauvignons, oaky Chardonnays, and grassy Sauvignon Blancs. Don’t get me wrong, I love all three of those grapes and the wines they make. It’s just that they give me palate fatigue sometimes.
Let me start with the lightest of the bunch, Vinho Verde, native to the northwest area of Portugal. Vinho Verde means “green wine” or “young wine,” and it often fits both of those descriptions.
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Vinho Verdes are low in alcohol, high in acid, and usually come with a slight bit of carbonation or fizz. That unique characteristic was once a product of remaining carbon dioxide let in the bottle, but it is now often added to the wine when it’s bottled.
Unlike Garnacha, Vinho Verde is not a grape, but a wine designation or classification. They are most commonly made from numerous grape varieties blended together. I find most Vinho Verdes to be dry, but some can have just a hint of sweetness from residual sugar. You can find several Vinho Verdes on the market. I particularly like the style of Aveleda, which produces a classic Vinho Verde; light, crisp, and refreshing with a delightfully dry finish. I would buy this by the case for a summer’s worth of enjoyment.
On to Garnacha, or Grenache as it’s known in the United States and France, which can be either red or white. Red Grenache reaches its zenith in the wines of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, where it is most commonly blended with Syrah and Mourvedre to make the velvety, complex, long-lived wines of the Southern Rhone Valley.
The style is much different in Spain, where it is called Garnacha and is frequently bottled as a single variety. I find the Garnacha wines emanating from Spain, often from “old vine” plantings, to be more straightforward than their brethren from around the world; less complex but brimming with fruit and generally lower in tannin. That combination makes them perfect for summertime grilling and smoking, especially for those of us who can’t or won’t give up red wine just because the heat index hits triple digits.
A good entry point for red Garnacha is Las Rocas, which offers several versions, all delicious and affordable. I also tried one from Menguante that I enjoyed as well as a Grenache, Carignan, Syrah blend from Penya, a cooperative in the Roussillon region of France. Penya’s blend was more reminiscent of a well-made red Cotes-du-Rhone.
I was much less familiar with Garnacha Blancas. I have had them here and there through the years, but never with the frequency of their red wine brothers. I find Garnacha Blancas to be in the style of unoaked Chardonnays, a bit more viscous, perhaps, but still packed with fruit and balanced by bracing acidity.
I tasted two recently — one each from La Miranda de Secastilla and Las Pizarras. I enjoyed them both but thought the Las Pizarras had a bit more stuffing to it. Both would have been great with smoked chicken or some spicy shrimp hot off the grill, and who can ask for more than that?
I look forward to Vinho Verde and Garnacha consumption all the way through Thanksgiving, and I’ll check back with some new producers next year.
Dave Eckert is a partner with Flavor Trade, a Kansas City-based gourmet food incubator and co-packer. Before that, Eckert was the producer and host of “Culinary Travels With Dave Eckert,” which aired on PBS and AWE for 12 seasons.