Categorized | Articles, McLaren Vale

Grenache of the day

Grenache’s time to shine has been over a century in the making. But the argument for grenache grows increasingly stronger …
Words Campbell Mattinson
Published: September 2012

Suddenly it’s cool to love grenache. We’ve been growing it in Australia from just before the year dot and it’s always had it fans – and consciously or not Aussie red drinkers have always sunk a lot of it – but right now it’s trendier and more appreciated than ever.

There’s good reason for it. “Grenache is going through some major changes,” says Steve Pannell, one of this country’s best exponents – and devotees – of this ultra-traditional red variety. “Until recently the perceived problem with grenache was that it is medium-bodied when compared to shiraz especially. So in order to compensate for the lighter weight, it tended to be made over ripe, and have shiraz added to it. It was made in more of a faux shiraz style.
“But with the increase in popularity of lighter reds such as pinot noir and the influx of imported wines – many of which are grenache based – this is having an impact on the style of [grenache] wines winemakers are making. I like to think of grenache like it’s a warm climate pinot noir.”

There it is in a nutshell. Grenache – sometimes referred to by its Spanish name garnacha and a champion variety of France’s warm southern Rhone Valley – is a light-to-mid-weight wine that’s been encouraged to fight out of its weight division for much of its long Australian history. It’s a variety that thrives in the warm climates of the Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale – its Australian history is almost exclusively South Australian though more recent pockets growing in both Western Australia and Victoria show great promise – though at its best, grenache remains perfumed and delicate and brightly flavoured. Push it into being something it’s not – like a wannabe shiraz – though and it usually turns out too sweet, rough textured and generally not much chop at all.

This, historically, has largely been grenache’s lot in Australia. Aussie red lovers have and probably always will drink their fair share of grenache by default. This is because it’s a great blender – it adds spice, perfume, and bright red fruit flavour to denser, heavier wines – and in smaller or larger amounts it will always end up in all manner of dry red wine styles. “Unfortunately grenache,” Chapel Hill winemaker Michael Fragos notes, “to most, is either an unknown quantity or it is a variety that has the baggage of having been associated with cask wine, light reds or fortified wines. Yes, over the years the variety has been utilised to make these different wine styles, however so have so many other varieties. But in old vine grenache there is the possibility to both look back at Australia’s grape growing heritage and also to gaze into the evolution of our winemaking styles.”

And now that lighter, ”lunchier” wines are often preferred at the dining table, Australian winemakers are finally being encouraged to let grenache play its true hand. You can almost hear the variety singing hallelujah.
Ochota Barrels – a hot new micro-sized producer growing grenache in McLaren Vale – is the embodiment of the new appreciation of, and drive to make great, grenache. Ochota Barrels’ grenache is savoury, earthen, meaty, delicate. It’s more about texture than density. But then, it’s maker Taras Ochota reckons, “My alpaca that I ride to the post office to get our mail is called Garnacha.” Clearly this is someone with a serious affection for the variety.

“I think it [grenache] is Australia’s superstar variety … in an underground sort of way,” he says. “When I drink Grand Cru Burgundy [i.e. great French pinot noir] it reminds me of grenache. In my winemaking decisions I always think pinot noir, not shiraz. Grenache has been misunderstood in the past yet Australia has these ancient surviving parcels [of vines] scattered across Australia which love our climate and various soils.”

Chester Osborn at D’Arenberg has been championing grenache for years – perhaps best illustrated by the fact that D’Arenberg now has “seventeen wines with grenache as a major feature. Over half of our dry red sold has grenache on the label.”
“Grenache,” he says, “has enormous fruit, complexity and length, more so than most varieties. It also expresses the site and year (in which it was grown) in more contrasting ways than many other varieties.”
Which is another way of saying that good grenache – grenache that tastes more infused and perfumed than extracted and over-wrought – offers more for the wine enthusiast to sink their teeth into than most other varieties. Seasonal variation, site variation – it’s the essential fascination of wine. Grenache, especially when there’s minimal oak and alcohol interference, is a great loudspeaker to those differences.

If you want to know what makes wine an especially fascinating drink, grenache is a great “place” to discover the answer.

Or as Justin McNamee of McLaren Vale’s Samuel’s Gorge winery – who also says that “the challenge of making grenache is as exciting and compulsive as that presented by pinot noir – more accurately puts it: “Of all of the varieties I work with, grenache has a very dramatic range of flavours depending on the season. It has a huge spice range depending on the season, from classic white pepper and black pepper to cinnamon, paprika and darker cloves. The fruit characteristic can vary from year to year. Some years to the lighter berry profile cranberry and raspberry, in other year’s poached quince to heavier Christmas Cake etc. I think this makes it a very exciting ride.”
Indeed it is. And despite the fact that Australia lays claims to many (if not most) of the world’s oldest grenache vines, the most interesting part of Australia’s grenache journey has only just started to unfurl.

Justin McNamee, Samuel’s Gorge:
“It wasn’t that long ago we welcomed two tea spoons of refined sugar with Nescafe instant coffee. The resurgence of attention on grenache can be linked to the evolution in food culture. Diversity and freshness rather than rich sauciness etc. Big is no longer considered better.”

Michael Fragos, Chapel Hill
“I have been touring Canada and the US for the last two weeks spruiking grenache. I have been quite buoyed by the response. Australian red wine has been stereotyped over there as just being about rich shiraz wines, so the interest in the more textured grenache styles has been a revelation.”

Interesting fact
In the mid-1900s grenache was Australia’s most widely planted red wine variety.

Classic Blend
There’s a style of wine called, colloquially, “earth wines”. These are red wines meant to value savouriness and earthiness/spiciness above sweet (over) ripe fruitiness. The classic “earth wine” blend is made up of grenache, shiraz and mourvedre – hence the famed “GSM” title.

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