Grenache Uncorked: A varietal renaissance

The story of Grenache is not dissimilar from that of the ugly duckling. It was long misunderstood but has seen a resurgence in recent years that has brought it to the forefront of Australian winemaking. Harrison Davies explores how the stars aligned for this long ignored variety to enter the spotlight.

Grenache could be described as Australia’s red. The world’s oldest Grenache vines are found in the Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale and interest in the variety is higher there than anywhere else.

While Australia may now be the home of Grenache’s oldest vines, its true home can be found in Europe, in south-western France and northern Spain.

Known as ‘Garnacha’ in its homeland, it is characterised by its bright, floral flavours with notes of raspberries, pepper and strawberries and makes for a light-style red that pairs well with game.

Looking across the Old World, Grenache was is found in places like the Southern Rhône region, where it is a principal variety due to its inclusion in the Rhône blend – typically 50 per cent Grenache with Shiraz and Mourvèdre.

It is also widely grown in Sardinia, where is it known as Cannonau, as it grows well in hot, dry soils.

Marcell Kustos, a lecturer at Le Cordon Bleu Australia and Sommelier at Restaurant Botanic in Adelaide, detailed the variety’s rich history in Europe.

“Grenache Noir likely originated in Aragón, Spain. Plantings stretched over the Pyrenees, notably in Roussillon, and vineyards were established in the southern Rhône by the 19th century,” he said.

“Legend has it, the variety made its way from Sardinia to Spain when the island was under Aragón rule.”

Disaster struck European vineyards in the Second World War, when many of the oldest Grenache vines were wiped out by a wave of Phylloxera – unchecked due to the severity of the war.

Legend has it, the variety made its way from Sardinia to Spain when the island was under Aragón rule.

Marcell Kustos

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Australia’s Red

Grenache took off in South Australia largely because of the similar Mediterranean adjacent climate and for many decades was the most planted variety in the entire country.

Grenache was first brought to Australia by famed viticulturist James Busby, along with several other varieties, in 1832. It was quickly adopted by winemakers in South Australia after vines were planted in the Barossa, McLaren Vale and
Clare Valley.

“Grenache is thin-skinned, early-budding, late-ripening, and well suited to hot, dry climates like most of South Australia. There are some more than 100-year-old, own-rooted bush vines. A legacy of the country’s former fortified stronghold,” said Kustos.

In the early days of the Australian wine industry, when a majority of the product was fortifieds, Grenache was amongst the most widely used varieties due to its high yield when grown as an un-trellised bush vine.

“Grenache used to be the work horse variety for fortified wine production,” Kustos said.

“It grew all over the country and was a winemaker’s darling due to its high crop/yield ability. However, if the vine is irrigated and cropped heavily, it may lose these characteristics. Not surprisingly, Grenache became synonymous with mass produced, diluted red wines.”

Judy Kelly, co-owner of the Adelaide Hills based Artwine Estate, specialises in alternative varieties and has several Grenache vines in the Clare Valley.

“We have beautiful old dry-grown bush vines on our Clare Valley vineyard that we believe are a hundred years old,”
she said.

As tastes changed and table wine began to rise to prominence, attention shifted to cooler regions that specialised in varieties like Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon.

After a dip in popularity in the ‘70s, the government encouraged producers to pull their vines and either replace them with varieties that were more in vogue, or clear the land for development. Thankfully, many producers opted not to.

“Clare Valley only started keeping records of vines planted in 1932 – so prior to that we are unsure but believe they were planted before then and fortunately survived the government encouragement vine pull of the ‘80s,” Kelly continued.

“Grenache, like many reds, needs warmth to ripen so Clare Valley to us is perfect. It’s slightly cooler but the vines are extremely happy in their environment and being dry-grown makes them sustainable.

“We believe that old vine Grenache is superior to any younger vines and fortunately SA is blessed with many old bush vine vineyards.”

Since 2010, a change in style has led Grenache to re-enter the forefront of South Australian winemaking.

In the 1980s, the SA government offered producers money to pull Grenache vines, which were unproductive at the time, due to what was thought to be an oversupply

The return

South Australia is home to the oldest surviving Grenache vines in the world. The vines thrive in the warm, dry climate and the variety’s growing popularity in the state is encouraging more producers to make use of their ancestral vines.

The availability of Grenache grapes has also contributed to their price and made them an accessible variety for winemakers, particularly in SA, to work with.

“Depending on the clones, Grenache can produce wines that are fragrant and elegant or quite concentrated and tannic,” Kustos said.

“Younger winemakers tend to champion Grenache’s light yet defined character that
is often paralleled with Pinot Noir.”

Young winemakers have been leading the Grenache revival. Producers like Silent Noise Wine’s Charlie O’Brien, 23, took it upon themselves to create something new with a variety that had been overlooked.

“I feel like winemakers, especially the younger ones, are open and able to experiment with Grenache more than Pinot Noir and Gamay,” he said.

“These varieties have their own issues with a combination of cost and availability.

“Grenache is a versatile variety. When I first started working with it I was doing a 100 per cent crushed fruit, savoury style of wine. I have been lucky to spend time with other winemakers discussing and tasting Grenache and looking at different styles that I like.

“McLaren Vale is an amazing place to work with Grenache. The diversity of the geology here is so interesting.

“The expression of fruit within the wines that come from the sandy vineyards of Blewitt Springs and some smaller pockets of sand in the Vale are so elegant and pure.

“Grenache is cool because it can sustain a fair amount of carbonic maceration which is something that I think really suits the fruit and it can still retain savouriness on the palate.”

In a piece written for Wine Australia, writer Jamie Good described the style as the Pinot Noir of the South, and that winemakers had misjudged the variety in the past by making Grenache that was too dark and too bold.

“At the moment, grape prices are still much more affordable than Pinot Noir. The availability of old vine material provides an opportunity to winemakers to make wines like nowhere else in the world,” Kustos said.

“It’s a similar story to Zinfandel in California, Pais in Chile and some forgotten varieties in Spain.”

Artwine’s success with their Grumpy Old Man Grenache correlates with the success of the variety across the country.

Kelly said viticulturists at Artwine, like many others in recent years, had embraced the lighter qualities of Grenache and explored what makes it unique.

“The resurgence, I believe, is due to the lighter style of wines that are being made which is reaching the changing consumer demand and tastes,” Kelly said.

“They are lighter, fruity and food friendly, which is what we all want. Mostly the old-style heavy Grenaches are a thing of the past.”

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This post was originally featured in the December 2021 issue of the Grapegrower & Winemaker.

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