Jamie Goode on Australian Grenache

The fall and rise of an Australian wine great
6 minutes

It could be a film plot: There's a good beginning, a plot twist with real crunch, and then a happy ending. It’s the story of Grenache in Australia, a grape variety that's currently attracting a lot of attention, though this hasn't always been the case…

Australian Grenache: In at the beginning

The story of Grenache in Australia begins right at the commencement of serious viticulture in the country. Grenache was one of the original set of varieties imported by James Busby in 1832. Busby, born in Scotland, was just 23 years old when his family emigrated to New South Wales in 1824. Before arriving, he'd learned as much as he could about wine and headed back to France and Spain for a grand tour of some of the key wine regions in 1831. Busby took exhaustive notes which he later published in his 'Journal of a Tour, Through Some of the Vineyards of Spain and France', in 1833. On this journey he collected cuttings, sending them back to Australia packed in a mix of moss, sand and soil. Of these, 363 survived the journey and were planted in the Sydney botanic gardens. Grenache was one of these survivors, and from New South Wales they found their way to South Australia. In his journal Busby described Grenache as:

'Black skin, very thick, but yielding less colour than that of the preceding [Carignan]. This grape by itself would yield a sweet wine. Cavoleau adds of this grape that it is rich in saccharine matter and strongly imprinted with aroma.'

James Busby

Grenache took off, and in 1862 one of the leading wine critics of the time, Ebenezer Ward from Adelaide, reported that Grenache was 'thriving better than any other kind.' It had found its home in South Australia, where the warm, dry conditions mimicked those of its Mediterranean home.

The decline and ascension of Australian Grenache

Globally, Grenache is one of the most widely planted red grape varieties. It's very successful in the warm dry conditions found in the south of France and Spain, in part because it thrives when grown as an un-trellised bush vine. But aside from its important presence in the blend in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, it seldom gets star billing. Instead, it is seen as a workhorse. But it is a reliable workhorse, and even in warm climates it keeps good acidity. For this reason, it was a popular choice in Australia, especially during the period of the mid-1920s to the late 1960s when the bulk of wine production was of fortifieds (in 1960, these made up 80% of the Australian industry).

The shift to table wines from the 1970s onwards didn't help Grenache. In 1979 72,000 tons of Grenache were harvested; this figure dipped to 15,000 tons in 2012. As the area under vine in Australia increased (plantings doubled in the 1990s), Grenache decreased in terms of its percentage of the total vineyard plantings as no one was planting it, and it now stands at just over 1% with 1,500 hectares.

The situation wasn’t helped by the classic, warm regions of South Australia fading slightly from view as people's attention turned to Australia’s cool climate wine regions. Even within South Australia, heads were being turned by the bigger, more obviously fruity wines that could be obtained from Shiraz, and even Cabernet Sauvignon. A sign of the times was in the mid-1980s, when Wirra Wirra, one of the leading wineries in the McLaren Vale, removed Grenache from the blend of their famous Church Block red (first made in 1972, and with 70% Grenache), replacing it with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

But in recent years its fortunes have been back on the rise. People are now talking about Grenache. And the two most important areas for the variety, the Barossa and McLaren Vale, are beginning to realise that they have something rather special: quite a bit of old vine Grenache.

‘The Pinot Noir of the South’

Grenache doesn't make dark wines. David Powell, then of Torbreck, told me once that Grenache is the Pinot Noir of the south. And he's right: This is how we should think of this variety. Its skill is in making lighter-coloured, perfumed, elegant red wines, not lacking flavour, but with freshness and nice structure. In this sense, Grenache is on message, because the trend in the Australian wine world now is to move away from dense, opaque, sweetly fruited red wines towards lighter, more drinkable reds with a prettier personality. In terms of winemaking, techniques such as using some whole bunches in the fermenter, and ageing in large format oak, or older oak barriques, seem to work well with this variety. The result is supple, often quite elegant reds that are highly food compatible and very drinkable. Now that winemakers are recognizing Grenache's talents for graceful reds, fewer are trying to force it into a style it's not good at.

Because Grenache was unfashionable it wasn't being planted. This has had the unintended side effect of increasing the average vine age. Couple this with the fact that existing old Grenache vineyards survived in part because they were planted in the right place and were making good wines, and you have a situation that works very much in the grape's favour.

One difference between Grenache and Pinot Noir, though, is that while Pinot Noir is rarely, if ever blended, Grenache works well combined with other varieties, and in particular as part of that classic South Australian combo, the GSM (for Grenache, Shiraz, Mataro). Many of the finest expressions of Grenache are blended wines where it is the dominant player. Many select lighter, more elegant expressions of Shiraz as the blending partner, and only a touch of the later ripening Mataro seems to be necessary to add detail.
Grenache the soloist

Increasingly winemakers are having success with varietally labelled Grenache. There are some really impressive examples emerging. On recent trips, I've enjoyed quite a few. Taras and Amber Ochota make one of my favourites: The Ochota Barrels Green Room is an old vine Grenache from McLaren Vale that is particularly haunting and elegant. Then there's D'Arenberg: Chester Osborn is a champion of Grenache, which has always been the backbone of D'Arry's Original. 'We have been a big instigator of Grenache in Australia,' says Chester. D'Arenberg buy up to half of the McLaren Vale's Grenache, and make five straight varietal wines and three GSMs. Toby and Emmanuelle Bekkers are also making a very impressive Grenache under their Bekkers label. As with many, they find that Grenache is best off without new oak. They use 15% whole bunch and mature their wine for 16 months in older 500 litre French oak barrels, which allows Grenache to express itself well.

Peter Fraser at Yangarra is turning out some impressive Grenache from one of the world's largest biodynamically farmed vineyards. The Yangarra High Sands Grenache is priced at a premium, and demonstrates just how well Grenache can do planted in some of the sandier terroirs in the region, and is made from vines planted in 1946. And a beautiful old Grenache vineyard planted in 1934 forms 80% of Noon's haunting Eclipse, another McLaren Vale star.

In the Barossa Valley, there are some lovely wines emerging such as the Whistler 'Get in My Belly' Grenache, which shows off this variety in its most fresh, vivid, drinkable state, and David Franz' Grenache Noir, made using 30% whole bunch, matured in old oak, and from vines planted in 1923.

A new major player?

Is this Grenache revival a fad, or here to stay? I'd argue the latter. Now that the world is embracing lighter-styled red wines, and Aussie winemakers are understanding the true personality of Grenache as the Pinot Noir of the south, those traits that in the past counted against it – the paler colour, the more ethereal appeal of the wine – are being seen as assets.

About Jamie Goode

Jamie Goode is a leading British wine writer and the founder of The Wine Anorak. As well as writing he also lectures and judges wine. He won the 2007 Glenfiddich Wine Writer of the year award, and contributes regularly to a range of publications including The World of Fine Wine, Wine Business International, Drinks International, Wines and Vines, Sommelier Journaland The Drinks Business. His first book, Wine Science, won the Glenfiddich Award for Drinks Book in 2006, and a second edition was released in 2014. 

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