By Rose Murray Brown MW Published in The Scotsman 3 October 2020
Juicy, sappy, delicate and perfumed are not my normal tasting descriptors for Australian wine.
Yet at a virtual webinar of a dozen Grenache wines from 2017-2019 vintages from South Australia’s McLaren Vale region, I was using tasting descriptions more akin to cool climate Pinot Noir.
“There has been a big shift in the perception of ripeness here”, says Scots-born Giles Cooke MW winemaker at Thistledown Wines. After years of producing powerful blockbuster oaky styles, a new generation of Aussie winemakers like ‘Grenachenista’ Cooke are changing tack.
“Now the last thing we are trying to do is go for ripeness - we are trying to curtail it and make fragrant early-picked wines” says Cooke (pictured right).
Grenache grape has long been considered the underdog in South Australia, usually picked far too late, hidden in Shiraz blends, made into cheap jammy confected wines or used for rose - despite being the nation’s most widely-grown variety for more than a century.
In the 1950’s there was so little demand, growers like Bernard Smart (now 87 years old) in McLaren Vale’s Clarendon sub-region sold his Grenache grapes to Greek and Italian-immigrant families to make wine themselves at home.
Even in mid-1990s, when David Gleave MW of Liberty Wines began working with ex-Hardy’s winemaker Steve Pannell, Grenache was considered second rate. “You could pick up Grenache grapes at AUS$190 per ton. Now it is proving itself as a single varietal, prices have shot up to AUS$2156 per ton, even exceeding Shiraz”, says Gleave.
Transition from underdog to super-star varietal has been taking place in McLaren Vale, a beautiful region 25 miles south of Adelaide, where Grenache makes up over 6% of the region. 455 hectares of Grenache (out of the region’s total 7,348 hectares) are grown in this geologically diverse region on over 40 different soil types. Grenache is very adaptable to terroir and can display a wide range styles and flavours, making it so interesting.
The key element is vine age – many are 50-100 years old. Australia has the world’s oldest Grenache vines, some dating to 1850’s, mainly in McLaren Vale and Barossa. Garnacha originated in Spain and is also widely planted in France’s southern Rhone (rarely made as a single varietal here, always blended). It was first imported into Australia in 1832.
“Old bush-vines in Australia are dry-farmed, requiring no irrigation”, says Gleave. “Only younger vines need irrigation to ensure physiological ripeness”.
So Grenache could be Australia’s secret weapon; a better option than Shiraz as the climate gets hotter and drier here. “Grenache handles heat better and you don’t loose freshness in drought”, says Gleave.
Cooke believes styles now being made are more relevant today, appealing to those who like ‘old vine’ wines and aromatic lighter reds. The style is relatively new, but is starting to capture imagination - however it is important it is not seen as ‘poor man’s Pinot’.
In the vineyard, winemakers are careful with this thin-skinned grape which can be susceptible to sunburn; a raised canopy open in the middle gives good leaf coverage to avoid this.
Winemaking techniques vary. Thistledown prefers a layer-cake method with whole bunches and de-stemmed crushed fruit without intervention for more purity and flavour; others do traditional skin punch-downs to extract colour and flavour. Some use tanks, others concrete eggs, ceramic eggs or even 4,500 litre oak fudres.
Our tasting clearly demonstrated that Grenache can really amplify its site. As winemaker Steve Pannell, a keen Grenache fan, says: “It should show where it comes from, not who made it”.
The most sought-after old Grenache bush-vines are in McLaren Vale’s elevated Blewitt Springs, giving wines with finesse, spice and crunchy grainy tannins from distinctive Maslin sand over clay/ limestone. Ten minutes away is Clarendon sub-region with heavier red brown loam with siltstone, soils with more iron content giving firmer structured styles.
BONDAR ‘RAYNER VINEYARD’ GRENACHE 2019 (14%) ***STAR BUY***
£26 Tilleys Wines
Delicious savoury sappy expression from early-picked grapes; fragrant raspberry fruits and vivid freshness from 50 year old vines at Blewitt Springs’ southern edge. Bondar is a producer to watch.
WILLUNGA 100 ‘THE HUNDRED’ GRENACHE 2018 (14.5%)
£18.99 Hay Wines, 3 D Vine Cellars, ND John, Vinvm, Taurus Wines
So different – initially floral, but with rich rounded more opulent cherry fruits and smooth velvety tannins. A more approachable unoaked introduction to single varietal Grenache.
THISTLEDOWN ‘SANDS OF TIME’ SINGLE VINEYARD GRENACHE 2018 (14.5%) ***STAR BUY***
£35 Fine Wine Musselburgh; £42 Noble Green Wines
Piercing raspberry aromas, bright juicy tart cherry fruits, spicy & peppery, delicate texture and lovely finesse from 70 year old vines in grower Sue Trott’s vineyard, made by Giles Cooke MW.
BEKKERS WINE GRENACHE 2017 (15%)
£43 Atlas Fine Wines
From 60-90 year old vines from cooler 2017 vintage in Blewitt Springs and Kangarilla, Toby & Emmanuelle Bekkers made a refined oaked example; bright red cherry, soft smooth texture, lovely finesse and length.
YANGARRA VINEYARD ‘HIGH SANDS’ GRENACHE 2017 (14%) ***STAR BUY***
£86 Boutinot, Woodwinters
Outstanding Grenache from 70 year old vines; beautifully balanced with layers of complexity, light spice, fine framed, spicy notes, gritty tannins and long finish.
WILLUNGA 100 ‘THE HUNDRED’ GRENACHE 2017 (14.5%)
Pure ripe unoaked expression, lovely aromatics, peppery and fuller-bodied; from range of Bernard Smart’s vineyards with 80-95 year old vines on clay loam in cooler Clarendon.
Join Rose’s Meet the Winemaker virtual tastings in association with Raeburn Fine Wines on Fri 30 Oct & Sat 7 Nov www.rosemurraybrown.com