Ahead of tomorrow’s World Grenache Day, Peter Ranscombe praises the grape’s revival in Australia’s McLaren Vale – and beyond.
SOMETIMES wine feels like a popularity contest, with bottles like prosecco, pinot grigio and sauvignon blanc elbowing each other out the way to catch the drinker’s eye.
For ugly duckings, it’s harder to be seen – and, until recently, grenache fell squarely into that second category.
Once dismissed as a blending parter for syrah in France’s Rhone Valley, the black grape is finally starting to get its moment in the sun.
Winemakers in places as diverse as the Languedoc, Spain, South Africa, and even the Rhone itself are singing its praises, bottling the grape on its own instead of blending it away.
Australia has been at the epicentre of the new wave of grenache, and nowhere more so than McLaren Vale in South Australia.
Visiting the region was one of the many highlights of my trip down under last autumn… or “spring” as our Antipodean cousins call it.
Just in time for tomorrow’s World Grenache Day, trade body Wine Australia and the McLaren Vale Grape Wine & Tourism Association held a virtual tasting this morning to celebrate the way perceptions of the grape have changed over the years.
Back from the brink
Up until the 1950s, most grenache in McLaren Vale and further afield was grown to make fortified wines.
But, as the popularity of “stickies” declined, the grape fell out of favour and was one of the targets for the Australian government’s vine pull scheme during the 1980s, when farmers were paid to reduce production in order to stabilise prices.
Some growers stood by their old grenache vines, laying the foundation for a revival that started in the 1990s.
Nowadays, any vine that’s been fruiting for more than 35 years is considered “old” – so that it’s been tended by more than one generation of farmers – but many blocks are 100 or more years old.
During this morning’s webinar, Edinburgh-based master of wine Giles Cooke – who makes wines in McLaren Vale – praised Bernard Smart and his family for preserving old vines in the Clarendon area and for playing a wider role in the planting of other famous vineyards, including Yangarra’s High Sands and Sue Trott’s Home Block in the Blewitt Springs area.
This morning’s other speaker, master of wine David Gleave, pointed to winemaker Stephen Pannell for introducing him to grenache back in 1995; Gleave imports Pannell’s wines into the UK with Liberty Wines and now also makes his own grenache in McLaren Vale.
During the past ten years, pioneers like Pannell have been joined by a whole host of winemakers.
‘Blue collar pinot’
The grenache that they – and other new wave winemakers around the world – produce has been undersold by some as “warm climate pinot noir”, “blue collar pinot” or even “poor man’s pinot”.
Yet comparisons with pinot only take us so far; as webinar presenter Sarah Ahmed put it this morning, grenache has an ability to capture the characteristics of the sites on which it’s grown.
For me, those characteristics manifest themselves as layer after layer of flavour in the finished wine.
Gleave explained that the new wave of grenache winemakers were picking their grenache earlier so that it’s not over-ripe or over-powerful; in the past, grenache was still being left on the vines for too long, so it became over-ripe, which was valid for making fortified wine but not anything elegant you’d want to place on a table to drink with a meal.
Over-ripe grapes – and heavy use of new oak barrels – masks the nuiances in the flavours of grenache from different sites.
Capturing sites’ freshness helps to dispel what Ahmed called the “jammy and confected” flavours of the past.
Changes in the way grenache is treated in the vineyard and in the winery are now being reflected in the price tags on the bottles, meaning the days of grenache being relegated to rosés and “cask wines” or “goon bags” – Aussie inventions that led to the UK’s “bag-in-box” format – may well be numbered.
Six of the best grenaches from McLaren Vale – and beyond
Wirra Wirra The Absconder 2018 (2016: £39.99, Oxford Wine Company)
Hailing from the McLaren “Flats” part of the region, the 2018 incarnation of The Absconder is the first to be made solely with fruit from the Blagrove vineyard, although the site has been the dominant contributor to the blend in the past. It’s highly-perfumed, with rose, red cherry and minty notes on the nose, with drier tannins on the palate and lots of sweet spun sugar, raspberry jam and mint layers on the palate. Dare I say it in September, but the wine is one of my classic matches for turkey too?
Thistledown Sands of Time 2018 (2017: equivalent to £36.83, Fine Wine Company)
Master of wine Giles Cooke’s Sands of Time is made using fruit from Sue Trott’s Home Block vineyard in the Blewitt Springs part of McLaren Vale and absolutely sang at this morning’s online tasting, winning a straw poll as the participants’ favourite bottle. It’s a bit darker on the nose, with violets and black cherry in among the red cherry and raspberry. On the palate, its drier tannins will make it a good food wine, but there’s plenty of red cherry, raspberry jam and spun sugar to balance the structure and make it enjoyable on its own too. The heat from the 14.5% alcohol by volume is noticeable, but isn’t distracting.
SC Pannell Old McDonald 2017 (£34.25, Exel Wines)
The “Old McDonald” vineyard in Blewitt Springs produces the fruit for grenache pioneering Stephen Pannell’s creation, which has a more subtle menthol note on the nose than The Absconder, alongside some aromatic rose and red cherry aromas. Crisp acidity and ripe tannins provide structure, with layers of sweet raspberry jam, spicy black pepper, darker blackcurrant-bordering-on-black-cherry, and a lick of vanilla on the finish.
Thistledown This Charming Man 2018 (equivalent to £36.83, Fine Wine Company)
Named to salute Bernard Smart, the owner of the vineyard in the Clarendon area from which the grapes came, the wine delivers bright blackcurrant and softer woodsmoke aromas, which lead into assertive but ripe tannins. Again, there are plenty of layers, ranging from crunchy redcurrant through sweet raspberry jam and on into a spicy black pepper finish.
Ministry of Clouds Grenache 2018 (£29, Elicité)
Made with a blend of grapes from Blewitt Springs and Clarendon, Ministry of Clouds delivers aromatic rose and violet notes on the nose, with surprisingly dark blackcurrant and blackberry aromas. It’s deliciously juicy on the palate, with raspberry, blackcurrant, a lick of sweet vanilla, and kick of fresher redcurrant and cranberry on the finish, plus a hotter white pepper layer thrown into the mix too.
Yalumba Tri-Centenary Vineyard Grenache 2015 (2012: £53.10, Hedonism Wines)
While McLaren Vale may have rightly won plaudits for its grenache, it’s not the only game in town. Head to the other side of Adelaide and you’ll find Yalumba harvesting old vine grenache in the Barossa Valley too. The Tri-Centenary Vineyard has vines dating back to the 1800s – hence the name – which deliver concentrated raspberry, red cherry and redcurrant aromas, along with light woodsmoke notes. It’s really savoury on the palate, with sage and blackcurrant notes. The Yalumba Samuel’s Collection Bush Vine Grenache 2018 (£12.50, Wine Direct) – an old favourite since the very earliest days of my tenure writing the Wine to Dine column in the printed Scottish Field magazine – is also worth a look too.
Read more of Peter’s wine, beer and spirits reviews on his drinks blog, The Grape & The Grain.