Musings about Australian grenache 1

This is a stray, off-theme post about my recent excitement, fascination, and obsession with modern Australian Grenache. It’s had a huge historical presence within Australia, but setting aside its contribution to fortified wines, there haven’t been many varietal table wines that scaled the heights.

Of course, there have been honourable exceptions; some Hardy’s wines have proven Grenache’s longevity (a recent 1997 showed up well); the 2016 Turkey Flat famously won a Jimmy Watson trophy. Yet until recently, Grenache’s unfortified best seemed to be in rosé- style wines (a la Provence).

I have been a follower of SC Pannells grenache stylings for a few years (the Smart, the Old MacDonald and several blends) but apart from that, there weren’t many thrills. My view is that wineries regarded their red wine Shiraz, and Cabernet as their meal tickets – Grenache was an afterthought –picked when convenient, stored where convenient, treated cursorily.

But only a few years ago, some winemakers and companies realised that they had a treasure. They had the seriously old-vine resources (those that remained after the misguided vine-pull scheme). Earlier picking, treatment in older, larger oak, or concrete, or amphora, extended skin contact etc made a huge difference and the transformation began. Yalumba in the Barossa has many individual grenache releases, but the action really seems to be in McLaren Vale. Here, wines from Blewitt Springs can be world-class, but there’s terrific examples from Clarendon, and the less-known “outliers” Seaview and Onkaparinga Hills, plus the ability to blend across sites.

Stephen Pannell commented ”All I have to do is counteract the two misguided extremes of varietal style: sweet and syrupy at one end, under-ripe, tannin-free giggle juice at the other.  Truly great Grenache is neither.  Truly great Grenache has aromatics and texture with vibrance and energy. It unfurls gradually with air and, most importantly, speaks clearly of soil and season”.

What is the excitement? Red fruits with intrigue not just confined to raspberry, rose-hip, rhubarb, cherry, blood orange, grapefruit, sometimes violets, seaweed, red liquorice, blueberry, saltbush, and other exotics with an array of spices and incense. Fruit abundance not smeared with excessive oak, there’s tannins and longevity, and it’s ultra food-friendly. There’s an instant fruit hit, but easy to forecast equal joy with five-to-eight years cellaring.

My first visit To McLaren Vale for ten years was only a few months ago and I tasted some thrilling Grenache examples; in a rush of enthusiasm many more were purchased with very few disappointments. Plus many of the winemakers freely name acknowledge the growers.

I have not appended tasting notes or scores fore these Grenaches, but the meagre-cropping 2020 vintage was matched in quality by the 2021s I have tasted. I have been impressed enough to purchase (alphabetically, McLaren Vale unless noted) with very approximate prices. There are many more untasted, but there are limits both to my wallet, and drinking capacity.

Adelina (Clare Valley) 2021 $55

Bekkers 2020 (not cheap, $90 but the quality is riveting)

Cirillo “the Vincent”  2021 (Barossa)  $25 – outrageous VFM from old vines, but needs significant time in a decanter to strut

De Bortoli “wizardry” (Heathcote) $20 Bargain, short-term; with a more up-market amphora “Phi”

In Praise of shadows 2021 ($30)

Krondorf Founders View 2020 (Barossa) short-term, but outstanding $25 VFM)

Paralian 2020 and 2021 – Blewitt Springs, special VFM and quality ($45), the Shiraz is a ripper too

SC Pannell 2020 Smart, and Old McDonald ($70); the “Vale” blend is also eminently cellarworthy

Seppeltsfield “village” 2021 (Barossa) $30 intense, and fleshy. Don’t let “joven” deter you.

Thistledown There’s probably 10 grenaches in their kitbag, with the Sands of time well regarded, but thrills aplenty with Vagabond ($60) and I’m working my way through other 2021s

Vanguardist “V” 2020, Blewitt Springs ($50)

Varney 2021 ($35)

Willunga 100 2020 (Blewitt springs) $45; A range of Grenaches made; this stood out

Yangarra Blewitt Springs. The High Sands is admirable, but not immediately hedonistic; the Ovitelli and Hickinbotham (Clarendon  ($75) stir my senses.

I have not canvassed GSM blends; I am torn between the intellectual notion of site/terroir vs the bitter experience that many blends are not an attempt to make a better wine, but odds and ends thrown together, or an effort to “rescue” a batch in an attempt to cover its deficiencies.

I have also not covered the excitement of some of the Spanish Garnache blends nor some of the Southern Rhone (and yes, I have tasted several Ch Rayas).

Curiously, I think that some of the care taken with Grenache in McLaren Vale has benefited the approach taken with Shiraz too. These seem to have more freshness and are not mono-dimensional dark chocolate exemplars. I further speculate that experiences with tannin management with Nebbiolo, Nero etc have infiltrated the approach to Grenache.

But the lesson is – go forth and try some of these wines; my preconceptions were outmoded; I hope my clever and influential readers are encouraged to experiment, gain thrills and spread the word; classy wines are so close, and the prices are more than fair.

1976 Orlando Vintage Port 18.3%

Barossa Valley. “Limited Special release” with “potential for further cellaring”, Shiraz and Carignan, and possibly a better wine than the “unlimited ordinary”. A wizened cork, but no drama after 46 years.

1976 orlando vp new

An auction purchase last year for $20, this was insane buying, and a much better bottle than the previous one. Very dense garnet colour with some bricking on the rim; there’s sweet dark fruit, sweet spices and superior brandy spirit; the palate is plush and engaging, blueberry, blackberry and plum with a bit of mocha and red liquorice, all still fresh and crisp. A winner that looks good for another twenty years – cork permitting. Classic Oz. Exciting.

Drink to 2035, and well deserves 93 points

1972 – a fifty-year-old Australian fortified

1972 yalumba vp

1972 Yalumba Vintage Port
Barossa Valley, South Australia, and assumed to be mostly Shiraz.

Excellent level, and an intact, well-stained cork.
Deep brick-red colour; sweet brandy notes, liquorice and fruitcake spices. The palate is rich, mellow and rounded with brandy, mocha and bright dark plum fruits, a touch of almond, again with some spices. Clean, lingering, balanced and refreshing. Its enjoyment quotient was enormous.

For a fifty-year-old wine (purchased at auction only six months ago for a speculative $35), this is remarkable.  Australian vintage fortifieds don’t drink any better than this.

Drink now, and this spectacular bottle – at a key anniversary age -deserves 95 points.

Two different Port styles, two countries

2000 graham's vp

2000 Graham’s Vintage Port 20%
Cork in great condition, and the wine has a youthful deep crimson colour; bracingly fresh and floral raspberry and faint musk; palate with rich cherry liqueur and blue fruits ; terrific calibre of spirit, chalks and almond; has entered a decent drinking stage of a long, long, life. Graham’s reputed to be at the sweeter end of Portuguese VPs- but there were no complaints at the table.

Drink to 2040, 93 points – with more to come.

1933 para

1933 Seppelt Para Liqueur Port
1933 merely represents the oldest material in this barrel-matured tawny blend, which was released around 1962. At that tender time, there was no requirement to list alcohol, and its composition is likely to be some mix of grenache, shiraz and Mataro, with an average age guessed at 25 years.

There is the unmistakable squat bottle; but the colour did not show the tell-tale Seppelt khaki/green. It revealed more vanilla characters than expected for this style. However, it was fresher than several previous examples, and showed an array of dried fruits, almond and caramel, with a touch of mocha. Aged Barossa Valley material, and it’s always a treat to look at some history.

Drink now, 92 points.

Two older Australian Barossa fortifieds

1976 Penfolds Vintage Port

Bottle #5637 (Barossa Shiraz).  I’ve never seen or tasted this wine before- the Penfolds “rewards of Patience” book only mentions the tawny styles. Sweet but supple; red liquorice, aniseed, salted almonds, clean spirit, and this was easily consumed. Traditional, and enjoyable.

Drink to 2026, 91 points.

1987 Seppelt Vintage Fortified (Touriga) 20%
Barossa Valley, GR 124 “fortified with grape spirit” with lots of bling up to 2002 – and released around that time, based on back label comments. It was a recent auction purchase for $25.

I didn’t realise much Touriga was available in Australia then, destined for vintage fortifieds; although Lindemans released some Portuguese-varietal fortifieds around the late 1970s. Probably winemakers aspired to the drier and more “classical” in style, necessitating a move away from reliance solely on Shiraz.

Now (as in Portugal) there are also some dry red table wines made from Touriga, or blended with other varieties.

I was conflicted between “too old” vs “mellow for age”. It’s a light ruby colour. Roses, and rose-hip, red liquorice with a touch of mocha, even some earl grey. I’ve settled on “OK, but better previously”. Sweet fruit, immaculate sprit and there is still tannin. But as a pointer to the drier style, this would have thrilled ten years ago.

Drink now, 90 points.

Two from Australia

1975 Yalumba Vintage Port 18%


Plenty of colour here- quink ink; then comes dark fruits, violet, mocha, almond notes and clean spirit. The palate is deep and voluptuous, relatively dry with an array of mixed fruit; blueberry, fresh plum, red cherry, spice notes and light coffee.  Fine chalky tannins, and a persistent aftertaste filled out the picture – delicious! This wine presented a conundrum – the colour was un-Portuguese, as was the mocha and faint liquorice- yet the complexity of flavour components and dryness pulled me in that direction. My first guess on its age was 1985, but I revised this to 1994 based on fruit vibrancy, Wrong on all counts, but this is a triumph for Barossa Shiraz from Australia. Two bottles were opened, the second was very slightly better, and fresher than the bottle I described!

Drink now, and 94 points.

NV Wynns Pedro Ximenez 17%
Coonawarra, South Australia. Bottle # 9053

Fortified, and light gold in colour, with exotic floral scents of spices and Cointreau, with vanilla and marzipan. The palate is sweet with the cardamon, dried green herbs and raisin notes powering through. Very smooth with vibrant clean spirit – unctuous and just a little cloying, but altogether satisfying with its honeyed richness.  The raisin and light malt notes pointed me to the variety, despite this being different to the air-dried Spanish PX. Perhaps I learned something from the Bullers PX tasted in 2019!

It’s a blend across vintages, with an average age of five years – one surprise to see a young fresh example, and another to find the wine is available (albeit with some hunting) for around $60 for the 500ml bottle.

Drink now, 90 points

A few different ports

1994 Gehrig Family Estate Vintage Port 17.5%
Barnawatha, on the outskirts of Rutherglen (Victoria). A recent very smart $25 auction buy. Although the cork failed to survive the corkscrew and ah-so, all was OK after the usual filtration. From “low-yielding old Shiraz vines”, it’s still a deep ruby colour with blackberry, bramble and sweet brandy vanilla. The palate is mellow and cuddly. There is fruity plum, blackberry and fig to satisfy the most fastidious with enough weight and tannin to maintain interest throughout.  Absolutely at its peak with cork gods indulgence. Terrific, and insanely delicious from a less-well-known producer.

1994 gehrig vp

Drink to 2026, and 91 points

1985 Warres Vintage Port 20%
Three different corkscrews failed to remove the cork cleanly, and plentiful sediment was successfully filtered out.

Ruby with some bricking, but the colour was still  flattering for a 36 year old Portuguese Vintage Port.. The wine is very stylish with fragrant mocha, fig, ripe red and black fruits and smart integrated mellow spirit. The palate adds almond notes, spices and the fresh as well as dried fruit flavours persist.

Drinking dramatically well now – and up to say 2030, and 95 points

1991 Seppeltsfield Para (21 year old) 21%
A single vintage tawny style, purchased last year at auction for $70. Around 40 y/o seems to be my preference in tawny styles; older wines can show extremes, meaning they are impressive but not entirely pleasurable; younger wines don’t achieve all the complexities the style is capable of. But 21 years is enough!

Seppelts (and Seppeltsfield) have unparalleled experience in this style with Para appearing in many guises. Mainly made from Grenache, there is the typical Seppelt khaki colour with a green tint. Beautifully assembled; there are all sorts of nut – almond and brazil with whispers of olive.  Toffee, caramel, mocha, hints of malt, salinity; clean spirit integrated and the end result in is a lush triumph. Rich with depth and acidy preventing any cloying. From a terrific red year in the Barossa

Drink now, and 93 points.

1976 Orlando Vintage Port 18.3%

This was a very recent speculative $20 auction purchase; a “limited special release”, Barossa Shiraz and Carignan, American oak, brandy spirit.

“Ideal for enjoyment now…potential for further cellaring”.
So, an each-way bet, although 45 years cellaring was likely beyond the writer’s imagination. Simpler times then, well before my interest in wine turned to an obsession, with fortified wines a mystery then – still partially mysterious.

The level was low neck., and the cork was stained but intact. There was abundant fine sediment. The high-cropping and well-coloured Carignan turns out to be more widespread in the Barossa than I thought, but its regarded as a second-rate variety confined to blends.

Blood-plum colour with some bricking, the fruit still remains with headsy brandy spirit, and just a gentle touch of mocha.  The palate is relatively soft but with a pleasant lick of tannin to finish. Plum and blackberry dominate, with a suggestion of blueberry, but nothing burnt or over-ripe. Sweet, old-fashioned, straightforward, invigorating, and ideal for a winter’s night of contemplation over the embers of the fire.

Drink now, and 88 points

Impressions, again

2009 Zilliken (Forstmeister Geltz) Saarberger Rausch Riesling “diabas” 12.0%
Mosel, 16g/l residual sugar. Pale lemon colour, which leads to scents of passionfruit, quince, pear, red apple, and ginger spice. The palate is brisk, showcasing lemon, nashi pear plus salinity, minerals and depth. It’s rounded, textured mouthfeel, and acidity carries matters along with conviction. This wine is not dry, but not even approaching Kabinett level, and it’s drinking right in the zone.

Drink to 2025 while its fresh, complex and completely delicious – 91 points.

2007 Seppelt GR 27 Vintage fortified 19%
Barossa Valley (South Australia). Shiraz and Tinta molle.  Half-bottle with an abbreviated cork and abundant sediment. Decanting essential! Ruby colour with the beginning of some bricking. Rose-petal, sweet spices, sweet dark fruit and liquorice. The palate is soft, with the dark plum, blackberry and figgy fruit, mocha and brandy spirit in mellow harmony with a lingering spicy kick..

Drink now, as the structure may outlast the fruit – 89 points

Recent drinking

2006 MF Richter Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Spatlese AP #7 8%
Mosel, 91 g/l residual sugar.

Bright deep gold colour, showing red apple, a hint of pineapple and spices. The palate is ripe, creamy, with similar ripe red  apple, citrus and a touch of nut puree on the finish.

It’s sweet for the style (2006 in the Mosel was a heavy botrytis year) but retains plenty of acidity. I cannot imagine additional improvement- it’s in the holding zone, and I suggest drinking rather than keeping.

To 2024, and 90 points

1973 Kaiser Stuhl Vintage Port
Shiraz, Barossa Valley. The company no longer exists – corporate shenanigans.

From an average year, the surprise is the longevity. It’s not the most complex wine, but it shows the stylistic sweet, ripe liquorice and blackberry fruit, suggestions of mocha, raisin and camphor, and warming brandy spirit. A surprise that this humble wine from an average vintage still provides pleasure after 47 years!

Drink now, 87 points.