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WASHINGTON’S LATEST “it” grape is one that has been around for decades but is just now, finally, coming into vogue.

Grenache is one of the most-planted red grape varieties in the world, yet it’s found in small — and expensive — amounts in Washington and the rest of the Pacific Northwest.

Last fall, Washington grape growers harvested just 900 tons of grenache (out of 210,000 total tons of grapes). Because of its rarity, quality and rising popularity, grenache was the most expensive grape grown in Washington last year, costing $1,889 per ton (by comparison, cabernet sauvignon averaged $1,440 a ton).

All of this made grenache a good choice for presenting to The Seattle Times inaugural readers’ tasting panel this summer.

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As coordinator and host, I invited 25 readers to join me at Alexandria Nicole Cellars in Woodinville to explore the world of Washington grenache. We tasted through six examples from five American Viticultural Areas. Each wine showed different characteristics of the grape, and we had a great time enjoying them all. We’ll continue to host tasting panels once a quarter, including about 175 readers who joined it this past spring. Each tasting will focus on a different aspect of wine.

As for grenache, it is thought to have originated in Spain, where it’s known as garnacha. But it’s most famous in France’s Southern Rhône Valley, where it’s a key part of that region’s blends.

Grenache has been around in Washington since at least the 1950s, when National Wine Co. (a precursor to Chateau Ste. Michelle) began planting it. When the first “Ste. Michelle Vintners” label was introduced in 1967, grenache rosé was among the first offerings. The grape ultimately fell out of favor because the tender vines had difficulty handling Eastern Washington’s occasionally harsh winters.

Today, one of the fastest-growing categories of Washington blends is “GSM” — grenache, syrah and mourvèdre. But many winemakers also are spotlighting grenache by bottling the wine alone. The resulting wine tends to show off high-toned red fruit flavors, including cherry, strawberry and cranberry, backed by bright acidity and mild tannins.

It’s not difficult to find examples of Washington grenache. At least 50 grenache-leading red blends are produced, as well as 30 or more single-variety bottlings. In addition, a small handful of bright, approachable grenache rosés can be tracked down with a bit of effort.

Andy Perdue is a wine author, journalist and international judge. Learn more about wine at www.greatnorthwestwine.com. Bettina Hansen is a Seattle Times staff photographer.