In 2011 I worked with a writer called Elif Batuman on her book The Possessed. (Perhaps my proudest moment as a publicist was having a cameo role in a Guardian article she wrote at the time which has oddly been taken down from their website so here’s a link to something else.) Most of the time we were together she was being plagued by fact checkers from the New Yorker magazine asking her how many pins Russian plugs have or some such. The constant questions were driving her mad but I just thought how cool would it be to have the New Yorker bothering you about things. British papers famously aren’t such sticklers for accuracy, except it would seem at the Lady. Every week I file a column of the usual conjecture, half-truths and gossip, and they call me up and ask whether champagne was really invented by Alexander de Tocqueville or port a traditional East African cure for Bilharzia. More often than not, I am wrong so I’m glad that they do check or I’d lose my hard won credibility in the wine world.
Last week I filed a column rhapsodizing about a wine called Domaine L’ Aigueliere Grenat that I’d drunk 15 years ago and never forgotten. In it I blithely stated that Grenat was Occitan for Grenache. The Lady fact checkers pounced. They couldn’t find any mention of it. I was sure that someone had told me Grenat was a local dialect word for Grenache and as it comes from a formerly Occitan speaking area I made a leap of logic/ imagination. Turns out there is absolutely nothing to back this up. Grenat in French means Garnet – a red gem stone (of course you knew that but I didn’t, I’d heard people calling wine garnet-hewed in the past and had not a clue about what they were talking about.) I spoke to two authorities on French wine, Louise Hurren , a wine PR person and writer, and Julia Harding MW from Jancis Robinson’s site. They both said that Grenat was a term used in the Roussillon to describe a non-oxidised style of fortified wine. They both sent me a link to the Appellation rules which I pretended to understand; my French never really progressed beyond the ‘you are writing to a penfriend in La Rochelle’ stage. The thing that I did pick up is that to qualify as Grenat it has to be made from at least 75% Grenache.
I then went on to ask about what the word Grenat meant in this case, did it refer to the colour perhaps? I was told that it was a term used in Rivesaltes etc etc. It turned into quite a circular discussion. I then asked ‘so when a Rivesaltes is called Grenat – is the word referring to the fact that its made from Grenache or the colour’, the reply from Louise was ‘technically neither (or partly both.)” I had flash backs to wrestling with Foucault and Derrida as part of my English degree. I retired defeated. The funny thing is that there are other wines not fortified described as Grenat such as my Domaine d’Aiguliere and this unusual Vacqueyras which is made from noble rot-affected grapes.
So what does the word Grenat actually mean when it comes to wine? Nobody seems to know but one thing I’ve learnt if it says Grenat, the wine will be mainly Grenache. I hope one day to get to the bottom of this but for the time being, I just want to thank the poor over-worked fact-checkers at the Lady for stopping me making another mistake and opening my eyes to another layer of mystery in the mysterious world of wine.