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.