Australian grenache has been on a long and winding journey since landing in this country back in 1833, as part of the James Busby collection. It’s also been a much-maligned grape variety around the world, somewhat thanks to massive plantings and, until recently, unable to align itself with beacon varietal wines considered global benchmarks.
Grenache is often forgotten behind tempranillo as a key ingredient in Rioja, while in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, it has historically been seen as just part of a blend, although an important one at that. However, the grape’s global stocks are now well and truly on the up, as its vital role in both Spain’s Priorat and Châteauneuf-du-Pape has become better understood. Slowly grenache has gained recognition for its potential to create wines the equal of other leading grape varieties. That change has been mirrored around Australia.
Despite the South Australian vine pull scheme seeing vast quantities of old vine grenache plantings destroyed, Australia has retained a vast treasury of high-quality grenache, the potential of which has only recently been explored.
Only 10 years ago, the dominant national style was for fruit-forward, jammy, red-fruited wines. However, in quick time Australian grenache has been turned on its head with the greatest wines now ethereal, savoury, complex and age-worthy delights.
Where once high-quality fruit was cheap and easily available, today grenache prices are rising fast with precious little to spare. In our warmer regions it seems like almost every winemaker is tinkering with a grenache or two.
In turn, the range of styles – and quality –available skyrocketed. There are charming, almost Beaujolais Nouveau-like fun styles for early drinking through to serious, structured wines for the cellar. In fact, there is no more exciting grape variety in Australia right now, both in terms of wines that are currently available as well as the undoubted and significant potential that is yet to be explored. There may be a time in the not-too-distant future where grenache replaces shiraz as Australia’s top fine wine export.
Grenache is a late-ripening grape variety that is particularly well suited to hot and dry climates, and offers the wine industry some insurance against climate change. It is also thin-skinned with low to moderate tannins, and can be aromatically shy requiring aeration to show all it has to offer. It’s now widely planted, and you can find grenache everywhere from the Swan Valley and Frankland River in Western Australia though significant plantings in South Australia to Heathcote and a sprinkling in other regions such as Hilltops. But South Australia is where the majority of quality wines are still found, particularly in the Barossa, McLaren Vale, Langhorne Creek and the Clare Valley.
Generally, the maritime climates of Langhorne Creek and McLaren Vale make the ripest and richest styles while wines from the more continental Barossa and Clare Valleys are more on the savoury side.
One of the key questions for every grenache winemaker is whether to blend or bottle as a straight varietal. In the early days, local winemakers followed the Southern Côtes du Rhône, predominantly blending grenache with shiraz and mourvèdre. Shiraz provides upfront fleshiness and generosity of fruit while mourvèdre can add structure and also a savoury quality. However, many winemakers new to grenache are rejecting the international preference for blends and going down the single route, to sharpen their focus and see what they can coax out of the grape. There is absolutely no reason blends or single varietals are definitively best, with the country’s top wines found in both camps.
Grenache can create dark-coloured, ripe and bold wines. In the past, these wines were often made using techniques honed on shiraz. But the greatest examples of grenache are now much more refined and perfumed thanks to more detailed winemaking.
Increasingly, whole bunches and whole berries are used to provide a brightness and fragrance of fruit. However, like pinot noir, grenache demands attention in the vineyard and the winery, and it requires a gentle hand.
“Making grenache is like juggling a balloon,” says Marco Cirillo, one of the country’s very few grenache specialists. “You can’t force your hand on it. It’s a really fine balance and it is hard to get right.”
For the Cirillo Estate 1850 Grenache, he picks three times to get different fruit and tannin profiles plus does some cold soaking and limited post-ferment maceration, gentle pump-overs with 5% whole bunch during ferment followed by less than 12 months in old oak. At the other end of the spectrum, winemakers are using 100% whole bunch, concrete eggs for ferment and long maceration.
While the jury is still out on the best winemaking techniques, one thing we can be sure of is that there are exciting times ahead for Australian grenache.
2020 Schwarz 1968 Grenache, Barossa Valley, A$50
A modern style where stalks have been used to good effect. Bright, energetic fruits – stalky, spicy aromas are underpinned by dark cherry, cranberry and earthy fruits. The palate is more-ish thanks to a combination of floral, spicy, red fruit flavours on a silky palate underscored by sinewy tannins.
2020 Adelina Estate Grenache, Clare Valley, A$40
A beautifully unforced example of grenache with immediate intrigue thanks to a powerful core of dark cherry, damp earth and spicy nuances. The palate is quite fleshy and more, with tobacco and spice, plus Clare Valley-regional baked earth. Tannins help drive a long and fine finish.
2019 Aphelion Affinity Grenache Mataro Shiraz, McLaren Vale, A$38
A chunky and full-flavoured grenache blend with mataro playing a strong role and shiraz adding flesh. Ripe, powerful and complex aromas of mulberry, spice, dried oregano and mocha oak provide a generous start. The palate is rustic and tense – rich savoury fruits are matched by firm tannins. Could do with a couple of years in the cellar.
2014 Cirillo 1850 Ancestor Vine Grenache, Barossa Valley, A$70
An incredibly complex wine, with brooding red liquorice, blackberry and soy sauce-scented fruits joined by white pepper, bay leaf and roasted meats. The palate is hearty but measured: vibrant, concentrated fruits, remarkable for a grenache this age, are well supported by acidity and sturdy tannins. It finishes with astounding length.