Grenache has been in vineyards from the very first days of Australian viticulture, and it has maintained a meaningful presence, being responsible for many significant wines over the years. But grenache has never really had the full attention it deserves. Until now, that is. Today, makers are rethinking the possibilities for this unquestionably great grape, with many moving away from the dark side, making lighter bodied expressions that focus on fragrance and finesse.
Shiraz robustly takes the limelight in Australia, and reasonably so, with it occupying nearly 30 per cent of Australian vineyard land, and near to half of the red plantings. Grenache, on the other hand, is responsible for a tick over one per cent of vines – largely in the warmer zones of the Swan Valley and South Australia’s Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale. It’s a genuine drop in the bucket, so to speak.
“I’m looking for ‘pinosity’ character with grenache. I like light wines, and for me, it’s much more interesting to make bright styles. I push for lighter and layered wines, with aromatic prettiness. Grenache has such pretty aromatics, so I try to capture that without overcooking it.”
But the grape has certainly left a bigger mark than those numbers suggest, and with a relatively large resource of old vines and a nationwide renaissance seeing it being crafted in a multitude of interesting ways, there’s a very good case to be made for it currently being Australia’s most exciting red variety.
It’s not long ago that the grape was largely consigned to blends, not that this is not a fine place for it – with the wines of France’s Southern Rhône Valley serving as testament to that – or the varietal wines were largely made with little consideration to the properties of the grape, being fashioned much like shiraz.
The Cinderella grape
But Grenache is not shiraz. In fact, the very nature of blends built around grenache and shiraz indicate that their individual properties are complementary, but essentially different, which is the foundation of any successful blend. Those wines, with shiraz as the template, often obscured grenache’s strongest characters, with fragrance and texture dulled by new oak and ripeness pushed to jamminess.
Charlie O’Brien is a second-generation McLaren Vale maker, with his own Silent Noise label sitting alongside the family’s Kangarilla Road range. And his take on grenache is one that flips that traditional script. “My perception of grenache changed after being involved in a McLaren Vale grenache masterclass,” he says. “One of the winemakers who specialises in a big and heavy style of grenache starts by saying, ‘You won’t like what grenache looks like when you first put it into barrel and when you take it out.’”
O’Brien questioned why you’d bend the fruit so out of shape in oak; why you’d take away the fragrance in the hope it came back over time. Instead, he decided to work with the fruit, rather than against it. “I made an unoaked, unfiltered and un-fined grenache from the best fruit I could find in McLaren Vale.” He also included about 15 percent whole bunches to add tannin from “ripe” stalks and a “burst of fresh clean fruit that drives the wine and gives a refreshing element”.
“There’s a shift towards lighter styles of wine, but selfishly, that’s what I prefer to drink, so I try and produce it. Big, heavily extracted wines are… too easy. Where’s the intrigue and finesse? Elegant wines require concentration, discussion and analysis, which adds to the allure of wine.”
While bigger styles still persist, and have a valid market while demand is there, Riley Harrison of Harrison Wines believes that the expectations of what grenache should be have changed, along with much of the wine landscape. “There has been a shift toward wines of heightened aromatic intrigue and tannin that is carefully composed rather than just big and blocky. Bright red berry fruits, Asian spices and pretty florals all being features.”
Harrison sources his grenache fruit from Barossa’s fabled Schiller Vineyard, and he makes it in an elegant mode. He has a few rules for working with the variety, and they are unsurprisingly the polar opposite to the way the wines were once made. “Don’t ever use new oak. Do be mindful of over-extraction. Be gentle. Grenache bruises very easily,” he says. “Picking earlier, use of whole bunch in ferments and less new oak are all factors in the uprising of new age grenache.”
Searching for pinosity
Launching his eponymous Barossa-based label from the 2018 vintage, Sven Joschke also notes the general developing consumer interest in fresher styles, but he’s not chasing the market. “There’s a shift towards lighter styles of wine, but selfishly, that’s what I prefer to drink, so I try and produce it. Big, heavily extracted wines are… too easy. Where’s the intrigue and finesse? Elegant wines require concentration, discussion and analysis, which adds to the allure of wine.”
Over in Western Australia’s Swan Valley, Tom Daniel is revitalising old vineyards and picking ultra-early to capture fragrant fruit notes and freshness. “I’m looking for ‘pinosity’ character with grenache,” he says. “I like light wines, and for me, it’s much more interesting to make bright styles. I push for lighter and layered wines, with aromatic prettiness. Grenache has such pretty aromatics, so I try to capture that without overcooking it.”
“Don’t ever use new oak. Do be mindful of over-extraction. Be gentle. Grenache bruises very easily. Picking earlier, use of whole bunch in ferments and less new oak are all factors in the uprising of new age grenache.”
While Daniel pursues pinot-like weight, his wines are distinctly earthy, with a savouriness that reflects the variety and the arid climate, snatched from the vines before those flavours turn to bruisingly ripe berries. “The history of the variety in the Swan is closely linked with fortified styles,” he says. “Grenache can get very ripe very quickly, so it is very suited to sweet styles. However, grenache is also super versatile. It’s such a light-skinned and delicate grape, and I try to dial into that to make finer styles.”
This versatility is something that Harrison believes is a big part of what he calls “a long, bright future” for the grape, if careful viticulture and winemaking are pursued. “While it speaks very closely to site and season, grenache lends itself to a variety of winemaking techniques that provide a firm stamp of its producer,” he says. “Rosè, lightly framed reds, serious and structural reds, and, of course, it’s got history in blended wines.”
While Daniel notes that the effects of climate change are making viticulture in the Swan a challenge, one other key advantage of grenache is that it is better adapted to warm conditions than many other varieties “Grenache is a relatively late ripener and enjoys heat, so it’s particularly suited to the Swan,” he says.
“Grenache is a grape that thrives in the warmth,” agrees Harrison. “It retains vibrant acidity and if picked at the right time can produce really pretty, perfumed wines. The Barossa Valley is fortunate to be home to some quite old plantings, and it’s great to see these vines now being cherished.”
For Daniel, it’s the pressure of development that could hamper grenache’s rise in his region. The Swan Valley – Australia’s second-oldest winegrowing region – is on Perth’s doorstep, with the ever-expanding suburbs threatening to encroach on the district, applying commercial pressure on vineyard land that a new generation is generally less inclined to farm.
“In my view grenache – along with chenin blanc – is the most important variety in the Swan,” says Daniel, “and there’s really not that much around anymore in what is already a tiny region. Interest in the fruit is at an all-time high, so there is a squeeze going on. Grenache in the Swan has a bright future – if we can keep the vines in the ground!”
O’Brien also steadfastly believes in grenache’s potential, but even in McLaren Vale where its renaissance is being widely celebrated, there are still barriers. “I think that grenache has a very bright future in the wine industry, but at the same time, it’s a grape that not many people are planting more of.”
With the Barossa’s dry and warm climate, but with relatively cool nights, Joschke believes that the region shares a similar compatibility for grenache as southern France, and that’s a parallel that should encourage more plantings, and it has implications beyond wine quality.
“It’s a strong variety, allowing for unirrigated bush vine practices, saving on water. In my humble opinion, it is the future… of the Barossa, anyway. In a sustainability focused world, we should take lessons from traditionally dry regions with limited resources where grenache features heavily to this day. The ability to grow bush vines without traditional chemically treated posts and with fewer inputs is a win – sustainability is number one.”
A super-vibrant lift of red fruits, florals and spices, touches of rosehip, sour raspberry, pomegranate and macerated cherries. It pops with bright flavours, a tangle of wild fruits and pleasingly unpolished grapey/stemmy notes. That theme continues on the palate, along with a little puff of rosewater Turkish delight, an engaging sour twist that’s all about the fruit and a creep of tannin. This is so bright and drinkable, but the fruit intensity and detail can give you plenty to think about if you’re of a mind to ponder.
There’s a good deal of brightness here, with wild raspberries, redcurrants, poached rhubarb and a hint of five-spice and gingery, bunchy, gently herbal spice notes. But there’s a bit of growl to the depth, too, with the fruit cresting into full ripeness, though never drifting past it, with red fruits firmly in play. The palate hits with a pillowy richness up front, then caresses through finely rippling tannins, with the gentlest seam of mineral salinity providing definition.
This is all cool fruit, with tart rhubarb, mulberries not quite switched to full ripeness, a tense display of wild berries and apple, with a dusty pucker of earth, sun-hit terracotta and a shadowing of old-vine depth. This sits at the lighter end of the spectrum – and very intentionally so – vibrant, nervy, but with the presence of variety and place at the fore. This has chalky, chewy tannins carrying the wine through the finish, feeling a little like nebbiolo from a cool place, rugged, sour-toned red fruits, with floral hints, acid drive, puckering tannin and really persistent.
This is spicy and layered, with classic small red berries, dried raspberry, dark cherry, bitter chocolate and goji accented with ground ginger, cinnamon, cassia and flashes of mint. This is more zippy than rich, but it’s far from lean, with chalky tannins carrying the spice-inflected fruit through the finish. It’s ripe but savoury with it, neither sweet fruited or overly dry, just a lovely poised expression showing many sides of the grape in one wine.
2020 Harrison ‘Fleur de la Lune’ Barossa Valley Grenache $35
Lifted notes of wild red berries, sour raspberries and ripe redcurrants accompanied by lilting red florals, with a gently brambly lift of spices and dried woody herbs from an extremely well-integrated use of whole bunches – 100 per cent, in fact. This is flavoursome with an earthy old vine note, but it’s also fine and vibrant, intense yet pretty and poised, with a sheath of fine tannins and fine natural acidity carrying the fruit through the finish.
2020 Year Wines ‘Sausage in Bread’ McLaren Vale $25
(Grenache, syrah, cinsault and mataro.) An ultra-bright nose of brambly red and black fruits, grapey and kind of rough around the edges, but in the best possible way, with an emphasis on boisterous primary qualities, rather than polish – a wine made for now. That tangle of fruits has a savoury edge, too, with a sprinkling of spice and a snap of fine tannin and vibrant natural acidity jolting this into a pretty fresh zone. There are tart wild berries, sour blueberries and blackberries, a hot bitumen note and a slightly sandy saline finish. This takes a chill well.
2020 Chouette ‘Luluc’ Swan Valley Malbec Grenache $32
Bright and fruitful but savoury at the same time, with black plum, blueberry skin, darkly tarry spicy notes, and a distinct mineral, almost slatey, feel. Earth and panforte spice notes arrive on the palate without overt fruit sweetness, but still with present dark-fruited flavours. This leans towards mid-weight, ripe, but savoury a dry dustiness through that gives it an Old World feel, while being distinctly individual.
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