Grenache vines of Alkina Wine Estate.

Find a quiet corner and scratch many a Barossa winemaker – they’ll tell you a secret. About the wines they love to drink. About the vines that thrive in the ground, no matter what Mother Nature throws at them. And it’s not necessarily about the region’s hot-to-trot shiraz. Welcome to the conversation – grenache.

In the past three years the variety that has long sat quietly unnoticed in the shadows of the Barossa’s big-gun shiraz has risen to prominence at the region’s own wine show, starting in 2017 when the 2016 Bethany Old Vine Grenache took honours in the grenache class, then the Rod Schubert Trophy for best red wine, and finally Most Outstanding Barossa Wine.

Tim Smith of  Bugalugs fame.
Tim Smith of Bugalugs fame.

In the same show season, the region and variety scored a major coup when Turkey Flat’s 2016 Grenache became the first ever grenache to win the Jimmy Watson Trophy at the Royal Melbourne Wine Show, marking the return of the much vaunted “Jimmy” to the Barossa Valley for the first time since 2003.

A year later at the regional show, once again grenache trumped shiraz when the St John’s Road 2017 The Resilient Grenache was awarded Most Outstanding Barossa Red Table Wine, though missing out on the show’s top honours to an extraordinary Eden Valley riesling.

To prove the variety’s star had risen beyond doubt, in the latest 2019 Barossa Wine Show, the 2018 Hentley Farm The Old Legend Grenache once again won the three key trophies including best red and best in show.

Word has it there were distinct rumblings among the region’s traditionalists – enough was enough with this grenache business, the old boys were whispering. It’s about time shiraz was restored to its rightful place of privilege.

Well, it ain’t necessarily so, came the reply from many other Barossa winemakers. As one of the district’s glorious vinous assets, with vineyards across the Valley floor and into the Eden Valley proudly sprouting forth every year, living their unique histories, some as far back as 150 years, grenache is a genuine adornment to the region and it is absolutely time to celebrate the variety’s coming out.

Artisans of Barossa John and Tim
John and Tim Duval.

Hentley Farm’s winemaker Andrew Quin is unequivocal in his praise of the local hero, which he says has had an exciting rise to prominence in the past five years.

“You go back 10 years and there was a love for it then,” he says. “But the difference today is there’s been a huge change in style and winemaking.”

He’s not alone. Having worked behind the scenes at the latest show – though not on the competition floor – he recalls seeing the judges at work and their response to the different classes.

“Sometimes they can be really drained with the heavier varieties and styles, but seeing them come out after the grenache class this year, they were really beside themselves. They were really excited, not just with the wine that had got up but with how great the wines were across the board.”

Quin later found himself at the annual tasting of all the entries at the Royal Adelaide Show. The grenache again starred. “All those wines were super, super drinkable. They have complexity and they have a real drinkability about them, with a trend towards lower alcohols, and I think that’s really important for the Barossa,” Quin says.

“Barossa shiraz is always going to be, to an extent, what it is, even looking to pick a bit earlier and seeking some freshness as well, but it’s always going to be a big, rich, dark style.

“Barossa grenache, where it is now and where it is trending to, can be so stylistically different it gives another string to our bow; something that can compete with the pinots of the world.”

Christie Schulz of Turkey Flat Vineyards.
Christie Schulz of Turkey Flat Vineyards.

The pinot-grenache link is common in much of the discussion about the latter variety. Often referred to as “warm-climate pinot”, grenache fits the bill for a lighter, fresher, more medium-bodied red wine style out of a region mostly associated with bigger, bolder and more robust reds – shiraz, of course, to the fore.

The referencing to pinot noir is both from a winemaking perspective and a market conundrum, that comes to light during a close-up tasting of six wines from one Barossa vineyard – the Scheer Vineyard at Rowland Flat – all crafted uniquely by six winemakers and released in one intensely fascinating tasting pack under the Artisans of Barossa Grenache Project banner.

Corey Ryan, who with Simon Cowham makes Sons of Eden Wines – part of the AoB grouping – says a lot of Barossan winemakers began to look at grenache in a different light when they saw the range of winemaking practices employed in pinot noir circles in the late 2000s. By the turn of the decade (around 2010), many Barossa winemakers started to explore similar methods with their grenache, seeking more savoury complexity, less oak impact, perhaps some whole-bunch and stalk influence and certainly developing the variety’s specific tannin textural feel.

“Like pinot noir, grenache lends itself to a huge variation in styles – the soils (and terroir) have a huge influence, and this Artisan of Barossa Grenache Project shows that you do see the winemaker’s hand as well,” Ryan says.

John Duval, also one of the AoBs via his own brand John Duval Wines, sees the project as fulfilling the old saying: “Give the same grapes to six different winemakers and you’ll get six different wines.”

However, there does seem to be a common thread, according to a guest AoB winemaker in the latest 2019 project release, Phil Lehmann, from his own Max and Me brand.

“Grenache is such a lovely wine to drink and now we are making it in a style that’s more akin to medium-bodied pinot with that fragrance and flavour punch,” Lehmann says.

“There was a real macho wine culture (in the Barossa) where the wine always had to be dark coloured with big structure. But grenache is not naturally like that. The light-bulb moment for me came when I thought of it less as a baby shiraz and more as in the structure of a pinot.”

Carla Rza and Richard Betts of An Approach to Relaxation.
Carla Rza and Richard Betts of An Approach to Relaxation.

Their passion for the variety is tempered a little by consumers still discovering what the new generation of grenache can deliver. AoB member Jason Schwarz, from Schwarz Wine Co. says he’d make grenache every day – if he could sell it.

“If only consumers could fall in love with it like the winemakers have fallen in love with it,” Schwarz says. “Grenache gives you everything pinot doesn’t – if we could convert pinot drinkers to grenache, we’d all be very be happy.”

But the Barossa doesn’t do pinot, so grenache it is. It has a powerful history in the region, and a rollicking story to tell. It’s a variety deeply rooted in the Barossa’s viticultural heritage and is very clearly suited to grow there, says AoB protagonist Peter Schell of Spinifex Wines.

“The growing profile of Barossa grenache is to me a sign of the maturing of a new generation of winemakers and wine drinkers. They respect the landscape and what it’s best able to produce, rather than imposing the will of the market upon it to yield the latest fashionable variety,” Schell says.

Winemakers and grape growers have done a lot of work in the past decade to learn more about that landscape, above and below the surface in what eventually has become known as the Barossa Grounds project. While it focused on the effect of different soil and geological profiles on the region’s hero shiraz variety, current Barons of Barossa Winemaker of the Year Tim Smith, from his own eponymous label, believes grenache has as much a place in that conversation as well.

“We have a lot of good and different styles here that vary depending on their soil type,” Smith says. “While shiraz does show an identity which is recognised worldwide, grenache does show its differences.”

Andrew Quin of Hentley Farm
Andrew Quin of Hentley Farm.

Smith selects fruit from vineyards stretching from the southern foothills through to his own base in the sandy Vine Vale subdistrict all the way to the northern Ebenezer area. He makes a juicier everyday style called Bugalugs and a more serious Estate version. The sandy country produces one of the most distinctive wines, he says, which he can pick a mile off.

It’s also been responsible for attracting international attention in the likes of Carla Rza Betts and husband Richard Betts, both well-known US sommeliers, now based in Amsterdam, who have purchased and brought back to life an old vineyard in the Vine Vale area thought to have been planted in the late 1860s. It’s the core supply for their own An Approach To Relaxation brand’s Sucette Grenache.

“When we decided to get dirty and begin making wine ourselves, we followed what we love – elegant, red-fruited varietals with high-toned aromatics and a clear sense of place – and after an exhaustive search across multiple continents, found ourselves in Vine Vale,” Carla recounts.

“Where else on earth can you find extremely old grenache vines planted in sand, aside from a very well-known address in the southern Rhône? Old-vine grenache grown in sand is king. And while the Barossa may be known best for shiraz, or for the heavier red clay soils, we find those wines to be too bassy and rich for our Old World-style sommelier palates. We believe in the pedigree of these vines, and the world-class quality of the fruit.”

Alkina winery.
Alkina winery.

On the opposite side of the Valley, just north of Greenock village, another grape and wine project with elite international backing has developed arguably the most detailed unearthing of the impact of different soils and geology on the grenache variety in the Barossa.

At the Alkina Wine Estate – financed by Argentinian industrialist Alejandro Bulgheroni, with technical help from Italian wine consultant Alberto Antonini and terroir specialist Pedro Parra – Managing Director Amelia Nolan has overseen the digging of scores of soil pits to fast-track their knowledge of the micro-terroirs present on the certified organic and biodynamic property where shiraz, grenache and mataro grow.

“Grenache has been the star so far,” Nolan reports. In one section where there is a deep seam of limestone, the dominant factor in the grenache is bright red fruits, while in another spot where there is schist and clay, the wines display a much richer black and red fruit character more like dark cherry. Each have varying degrees of the variety’s much-loved chalky tannins.

Yalumba’s cooperage.
Yalumba’s cooperage.

While taking into account what goes on under the surface, just a few kilometres away in the Marananga district, Two Hands proprietor/winemaker Michael Twelftree believes the oft-repeated adage, that grenache is pretty much made in the vineyard.

“It’s all in the farming,” Twelftree says. “I don’t think you can do a lot of winemaking trickery to really improve grenache – there’s an honesty to it, and that’s what I love about grenache.”

Like many in the Barossa winemaking community, he also recognises the suitability of the variety to the region’s climate.

“We have a hot climate, we have less and less rainfall, and we have two varieties (grenache and mourvèdre) that absolutely love it here,” Twelftree says.

That suitability to the Barossa’s particular ripening seasons, which for the most part are warm and dry with the usual occasional summer and autumn temperature peaks, is one of the variety’s key home traits.

The man who many in the Barossa consider the guru when it comes to grenache, Yalumba’s red and fortified winemaker Kevin Glastonbury, believes the region’s smaller labels seem to be the great drivers in the variety’s styling as well as marketing success. The capacity to take grenache in so many different directions, to create with it and to evolve it is the reason he loves the variety so much.

“I’ve tried to make our grenache as pretty and as drinkable and as approachable as possible,” Glastonbury says.

“The consumer is starting to understand what grenache can be, and I think ultimately the Barossa may well be known more so for grenache than shiraz – one day.”

Samples at  Hentley Farm.
Samples at Hentley Farm.

Six to Drink

2018 Yalumba Samuel’s Collection Bush Vine Grenache, A$28
Jubey, bright raspberry to the fore. Great summer red drinking – even chill it down a touch. At the other end of the spectrum, the 2015 Tri-Centenary Grenache (A$65) is a rare, 125-year-old bush-vine highlight.

2017 Tim Smith Estate Grenache, A$40
A joyous, spicy and earthily complex style yet with brightness of red to purple fruits. Delightful, modern Barossa expression. Also try its more juicy, fun 2018 Bugalugs Grenache (A$25).

2018 Hentley Farm The Old Legend Grenache, A$62
Best grenache, best red and best wine of the 2019 Barossa Wine Show. Red fruits, spice and pepper complexities, textural with 35% whole bunch and extended maceration influences.

2018 Turkey Flat Grenache, A$40
Former 2016 vintage won the Jimmy Watson Trophy. A generous grenache style with great spice seasoning powerful fruit, underlined by textural, chalky tannins.

Twelftree Grenache, A$45
Two Hands proprietor puts his own name to a range of grenache from both McLaren Vale and the Barossa, currently two from the Ebenezer and Greenock districts. They’re varietally distinctive with pure red/purple fruit and fine tannin feels.

Artisans of Barossa 2019 Grenache Project, A$250
A unique opportunity to taste six wines made by six winemakers from one single block. The wines range from ultra aromatic to more robust. Small production volumes so get in quick.