Grenache finds its place in the spotlight

Grenache finds its place in the spotlight

Name: Chester Osborn

A modern history of Grenache
Grenache is second only to the Spanish variety of Airen as the world's most widely planted variety with more than 300,000ha under vine. Three-quarters of the world's Grenache is grown in France and Spain. The remainder is spread between North Africa, Australia, California, Italy, Mexico and, perhaps surprisingly, China, which has more than 12,000ac of Grenache under vine. In Australia, Grenache is the fifth most planted red table variety with most of the 3000ha planted in South Australia.

For such a widely-planted variety there is little factual documentation available about Grenache, meaning it is often underrated and misunderstood. From its origins in Spain where it is still known as Garnacha, plantings spread though the
Kingdom of Aragon; moving eastwards to Roija and Navarre before going north and south of the Pyrenees to Roussillon.

From Roussillon the variety continued its eastward movement towards the southern Rhone and by sea to the island of Sardinia off the Italian coast where it became known as Cannonau. In some literature there is a belief that the variety is Sardinia's own and cuttings were, in fact, transported to Aragon.

During the 1800s Grenache found its way to California and Washington State in the USA and to South Africa and Australia. Today, more than three quarters of the world's Grenache is grown in France and Spain.

Grenache has been a long-time inclusion in many of the world's celebrated wines yet has rarely received recognition for the qualities it offers. In Australia, as with many other wineproducing countries, Grenache has been blended with more renowned varieties such as Syrah and Shiraz, particularly to create variations of the GSM blend incorporating Mourvedre, which was a foundation style of Australian red wines until the latter part of the 1960s. Grenache was popular before that time when made into fortified styles thanks to its ability to crop heavily and achieve high alcohol levels suitable for making Tawny (Port) while presenting with a light colour.

The Riverland recognised the suitability of Grenache to its warm climate in the 1960s, producing wines that were light in body and colour and sweet in taste, with much of it destined for the cask market and entry-level Sparkling wines.

Wine industry visionaries, including my father d'Arry Osborn, resisted the Federal Government's Vine Pull Scheme of the late 1970s and early 1980s which included the destruction of many Grenache vines. He could not bare to see the vines removed that his grandfather and father planted together before he was born and those that he helped plant as a child. The Australian wine industry can credit the stubbornness of d'Arry and his fellow Grenache enthusiasts of the time for the old vine Grenache that we have available to us today from which to produce world-class wines.

During the early 1980s, d'Arenberg Burgundy was one of the few Grenache wines available before the emergence that decade of Charles Melton's Shiraz Grenache Mourvedre blend 'Nine Popes', a wine that played a major role in introducing Grenache to a new breed of wine consumers. At the same time, California was witnessing a similar emergence with 'The Rhone Rangers' appearing on the marketing scene. The 'Rangers' were led by Randal Grahm, the man behind Bonny Doon, with 'Cigare Volant', 'Old Telegram' and 'Clos de Gilroy' who was actively promoting old vine wines made from Grenache.

Australian Grenache - the quiet achiever
Grenache doesn't work well in cold or humid environments, hence why there is so little or none in Tasmania, Southern Victoria or the Hunter Valley regions. Most of the Grenache in Australia now is in South Australia, mainly in the Riverland, McLaren Vale, and Barossa Valley and, to a lesser extent, Clare Valley, Langhorne Creek and Currency Creek where smaller amounts are found. In my opinion, the best wines come from McLaren Vale, the Barossa Valley and the Clare Valley as the Riverland's climate is a bit too hot, producing slightly more jammy styles.

McLaren Vale-grown Grenache vines are planted on a wide variety of soils, including podsolic soils of low fertility, fertile red-brown earths, terra rossa, rendzina, soldolic and dark cracking soils. Grenache is one of the best producing varieties when grown in dry, warm-to-hot regions or if subjected to excessive wind. Grenache is sensitive to its site and, in particular, to its soil. I have found Grenache prefers to be grown on lean, non-nitrous soils. Excess fertility has dramatic effects on the vigour of the vine by encouraging excessive growth of its root system, canopy size, leaf size and colour as well the colour of the bunch stem, pedicel and berry.

The colour of the leaves is of a darker green and berry size can be quite exaggerated, reducing flavour and tannin profiles. Many of these occurrences are also influenced by available water via irrigation. Trellised vines or bush-grown can work equally as well if dry-grown and balanced.

Grenache is an expressive variety capable of producing a range of different wine styles ranging from fragrant Rosés to fullbodied reds, either as savoury or perfumed wines. The flavour moves through a wide spectrum including strawberry, raspberry and cherry through to jams, spice, and fresh and dry herbs, and powerfully-spicy characters to roasted vegetables and earthy tones such as soil, blood and hung meat.

Many Grenaches are serious wines with structure to match big Shiraz, however, with often more fruit, complexity and length. Grenache performs best being dry-grown. It can cope quite well in adverse conditions.

If the wine is not made from concentrated grapes with a reasonable acidity, the alcohol will often be too sharp and the wine may fall over early due to the lack of ageing potential. Other varieties such as Shiraz, Mourvedre and in Spain, Carignan, are added to enhance the final wine. By blending these varieties with Grenache, the natural level of acidity in the finished wine is improved which extends its ageing potential as Grenache has a natural tendency to oxidise; early bottling is recommended.

Even small barrels can be detrimental to the wine by allowing the wine to advance too quickly and if the oak is relatively new the oak tannins can dominate and cover the vibrant, flowery notes at the end of the taste spectrum.

Only the lowest-yielding, tightest Grenache can cope with oak. This is why many wineries opt for 'big woods' or stainless steel. Saignée, or bleeding-off , is often practiced with good results. Grenache can age for 20-40 years if produced correctly. Some people find the sweet, exotic, spicy character of Grenache off -putting while others love it. When the wine is too sweet and not savoury enough it does become unattractive. The show judges are slowly coming to grips with bigger Grenaches.

Some years ago, many judges thought Grenache should be lighter and relatively free of tannin. Many wine judges still find it difficult to give a high score to a quite tannic Grenache, but will award a tannic Shiraz highly. Some also have a problem with the earthy nature of very low-yielding Grenache. I say this is where the real Grenache is happening. This style can go fantastically with spicy foods, Indian or Chinese, that are notoriously hard to partner.

The future of serious Grenache looks bright as there is ever increasing demand for French and Spanish top-end examples, many wines fetching well in excess of A$100 a bottle. It is our challenge to harness this part of the market and many of the world's wine journalists believe Australia has the potential to lead the way in producing quality Grenache.

The full Grenache Varietal Report can be found in the November/December 2007 issue of the Wine Industry Journal.

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