May 17th, 2019/ BY Michelle Bouffard

Understanding Australian Grenache through its history & evolution

The thermometer is reading 40 degrees Celsius. But, technically, it’s still spring. On my table, 50 blind red wine glasses are lined up. I am sitting on a chair in the barrel room of a winery in McLaren Vale. I have been invited to serve as the international judge for the McLaren Vale Wine Show. Evaluating wine when sweat is dripping down your forehead is not an easy task. Suddenly, there is a strong anticipation of a long week followed by flight after flight of big, bold reds. The smile on my face is genuine. Until we’re asked to start.

I put my lips around a light ruby-coloured wine served at the perfect temperature. Wine Number 1. Light on its feet and generous yet contained. Crunchy red cherry notes enhanced by fragrant aromas. Supple and silky, it is almost a slightly bigger version of a delicate Pinot Noir. Wine Numbers 2 and 3, similar experience. What else could it be but Grenache? This grape that was often made as a caricature of itself is now stealing my heart. Clearly, it has gone through a major makeover.

To understand the modern style of Australian Grenache, one needs to first look at its history and evolution. This grape of Spanish origin — made famous by French winemakers in the southern Rhône — arrived in Australia in 1832. It was part of the James Busby original collection and was first planted in 1838 in South Australia, where it found a happy home. Known to reach high sugar levels, Grenache was especially favoured for the production of fortified wine between the 1920s and 1960s. We often forget that until the ’60s, fortified wine made up 80 percent of the Australian wine industry. But unfortunately, when consumers turned to table wine, Grenache’s production decreased dramatically. Even though it was perfectly adapted to the climate, producers began pulling out old vines and replanting with more trendy grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

People like Charles Melton — who celebrated the cultivar by establishing the label Nine Popes, a wine inspired by Châteauneuf-du-Pape — were in minority. It was not until the ’90s and especially the beginning of the 21st century that Grenache was again celebrated.

The table wine style of Grenache has evolved dramatically in the last two decades. Full-bodied wines with jammy fruit that were merely in symbiosis with the overdose of oak and high alcohol, often reaching 14.5 perecent abv, were palate fatiguing. And, just like with fortified wine, those bottles sold to market had a shelf life with consumers. The trend towards lighter and more refreshing reds was growing around the world and producers took note. One of the greatest strengths of the Australian wine industry is to listen and react smartly, and fast. Gone are the days where those big, bold and rich Grenache were celebrated. Instead, most winemakers are seeking to craft savoury wines where, more often than not, new oak is not part of the equation. Just recently, the Ochota Barrels Green Room label 2018 from McLaren Vale — which reaches just below 12 percent ABV — quenched my thirst when it was poured in my glass slightly chilled.

Winemaking techniques used to make the trendy new light reds vary. Cold maceration and whole-berry or whole-cluster fermentation, as well as stem inclusion and carbonic maceration, are all practised. Many have also dropped dramatically the fermentation temperature. Neutral oak, stainless steel, concrete and sometimes amphorae are the typical suspects for fermentation and maturation. Others like Taras Ochota are adept at extended skin contact. Of course, Grenache find its way in traditional GSM blends (Grenache, Shiraz, Mataro) but generally, this fresh and crunchy red style is mostly observed in pure Grenache.

 

 

Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale are the two most sought-after regions for this grape. Both are blessed with old vines, though the climate and geology vary from one to the other, leading to different wines. Even though the style has changed in Barossa, its hot, arid climate does tend to craft a slightly beefier version than McLaren Vale’s. The latter has a much more diverse landscape with the Gulf Saint Vincent and the Mount Lofty ranges having an important effect on the region. It is also noted to have one of the most complex geologies in the world. The map the region has created to explain the diversity of soils is nothing short of impressive. Each corner is being analyzed and some styles are being matched to specific areas. For example, the sandy soil of Blewitt Spring, located on the rolling hills of the Mount Lofty ranges, has established a high reputation in the last decades for a perfumed, silky Grenache. And this is just the beginning of the exploration of all of the nuances; I believe the future is bright.

The ensured success of Grenache goes beyond creating a new trend. As the temperature on the planet keeps on rising, and climate change continues to be a major concern, viticulturists will have no choice but to adapt. Choosing cultivars that can succeed even in drought periods will be key. Water is already scarce and, when available, expensive to purchase. And the situation is not likely to improve. Melissa Brown, vineyard manager at Gemtree Wines in McLaren Vale, says that she has to buy water from the recycled water system managed by the Willunga Basin Water Company. Otherwise, her vines would not survive. This currently adds an extra cost of $4,500 a hectare. However, due to competition, she is not able to raise the price of her wine to justify that cost. This is another strong case for Grenache, which not only thrives in dry and arid conditions but can also survive with very little or no irrigation.

Currently, Grenache make up only 1 percent of the Australian crush and export. As talented winemakers continue to craft lip-smacking Grenache and greater environmental consciousness rises, one can only hope that this grape of Spanish origin will not only be celebrated for its old vines, but also for its increase in vineyard planting. Plant Grenache, save the planet. Cheers to a bright future.

Ochota Barrels Green Room 2018, McLaren Vale ($40)

A wine that embodies the new style of Grenache. Fresh and crunchy with bright notes of sour cherries and wild strawberries. Serve slightly chilled. Dangerously easy to drink. #glouglou

Yangarra Estate Vineyard Old Vine Grenache 2016, McLaren Vale ($35)

Made according to biodynamic farming principals, this wine can easily be mistaken for a top-notch Châteauneuf-du-Pape in a blind tasting. Rich yet savoury with impressive balance and complexity. This is serious business.

Yalumba Old Bush Vine Grenache 2016, Barossa ($20)

Once upon a time, this wine’s beauty was masked by a little bit too much makeup. The oak is gone now and the natural look is much better. Generous notes of strawberries and ripe raspberries but still displays finesse and elegance. Outstanding value.

Alpha Box & Dice Tarot Grenache 2016, McLaren Vale ($25)

Fresh and vibrant with charming notes of ripe strawberries and orange rind. A refreshing Grenache. Serve slightly chilled.

Mitolo The Jester Grenache 2016, McLaren Vale ($20)

Tasting this wine, I feel like it embodies a teenager becoming an adult. This is a cross between the old style and the new style. Full bodied with generous dark and red fruit. Simple but well made. A good barbecue wine.

Kilikanoon The Prodigal Grenache 2013, Clare Valley ($35)

This wine will please those who prefer the older style of Grenache. Full bodied with deep, dark fruit supported by toast and vanilla. It will come alive when served with food like ribs or burgers.

 

 

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