When grenache is treated like pinot noir, vinous magic can happen in the glass, writes Peter Ranscombe.
ASK most wine geeks to pick their favourite grape varieties and the answers are often the same – riesling among the whites and pinot noir for the reds.
Yet my own answer to that question has been slowly shifting in recent months.
On the days when I’m not trying samples or – God forbid – when I’m buying my own wine, I find myself reaching again and again for grenache.
For the uninitiated, grenache is a sun-loving grape that teams up with syrah to form the backbone of the Rhone before crossing the border into Spain and changing its name to garnacha or garnatxa to play a starring role alongside tempranillo in Rioja.
It was also one of the first varieties to be planted in Australia, back in 1838, with some of the world’s oldest grenache vineyards now found down under.
By the 1950s, it was being overtaken in its heartland in the McLaren Vale in Southern Australia by varieties such as cabernet sauvignon.
From 80% of the McLaren Vale being covered with grenache at the start of the 1950s to just 5% today, the grape’s popularity waned during the 20th century.
Yet there were still bright spots, particularly with grenache appearing in blends, such as d’Arenberg’s 1967 shiraz-grenache – which won trophies under the label of “Burgundy” – and Wirra Wirra’s 1972 Church Block shiraz-grenache.
Old variety, new wines
Sitting with four winemakers in the cellar beneath the Victory Hotel in McLaren Vale back at the end of October and tasting their wines, it was clear that a revival in grenache’s fortunes is well underway.
They presented grenache as “an old variety, but with new wines being showcased”.
One of the driving forces in the revival is the way in which Australia’s cuisine has changed; diners are now looking for bright fresh reds to go with fish and meat from the coast, especially for Asian dishes.
Grenache is often labelled as “blue collar pinot” – a rougher and, often, cheaper version of Burgundy’s red grape.
One of the major differences is grenache’s thicker skins, which makes it more resistant to diseases but also gives it more tannins, the substance also found in tea that makes us suck in our cheeks.
That’s part of the balancing act that winemakers have to get right; capture lots of the sun-soaked ripeness that grenache develops in McLaren Vale, but without extracting too much of the tannin in order to preserve the lighter body.
The four winemakers who showed us their bottles over dinner – Bekkers, Jericho, Ministry of Clouds and Wirra Wirra – hit that balance with aplomb, while I’d also add Robert Oatley, Paxton and one of Scotland’s very own masters of wine, Giles Cooke, to that list.
My magnificent seven McLaren Vale grenaches
Wirra Wirra The Absconder Grenache, 2018 (2014: £39.99, The Oxford Wine Company)
A perfumed nose full of violet, woodsmoke and cedar, leading into a mix of crunchy cranberry and redcurrant and sweeter red cherry, raspberry jam and spun sugar on the palate, all wrapped in fresh acidity and fine tannins. Made from fruit that was harvested from 100-year-old vines. A bottle of the 2012 Absconder demonstrated the development of cinnamon, clove and star anise notes, with the fruit taking a turn for the darker, courtesy of bramble and prune, interlaced with blackcurrant and raspberry jams, yet still with tonnes of fresh acidity.
Ministry of Clouds Grenache, 2018 (2017: £35, Red Squirrel)
The grenache used by Ministry of Clouds came from two vineyards – an 82-year-old block from the Blewitt Springs area and a 99-year-old block from Clarendon – which together gave a delicious mixture of smoke, blueberry, blackcurrant, raspberry jam and spun sugar. The sweeter notes came to the fore on the palate, centring around red cherry, red plum, raspberry jam and spun sugar. Blending mataro, shiraz, carignan and cinsault into the grenache produces the Rhone-esque Kintsugi, which had a softer nose, weaving raspberry jam into the blackcurrant, blueberry and black cherry aromas, and was lighter on the palate, coalescing around fresher red cherry and raspberry.
Bekkers Grenache, 2018 (2017: £40 in bond, Atlas Fine Wines)
Bekkers grenache ran the whole gambit of aromas on the nose – from cedar and woodsmoke through floral notes to blackcurrant, red cherry and raspberry jam – and had an enticing spicy star anise note on the palate among the spun sugar, raspberry jam and fresher raspberry notes. The 2015 Bekkers (£240 for six in bond, Atlas Fine Wines) was a much prettier and daintier beast, with lighter redcurrant and cranberry notes among the cedar. The acidity was still really fresh and – although the flavours centred around those lighter cranberry, redcurrant and spun sugar notes – it still had a deliciously-rounded texture in the mouth.
Jericho Blewitt Springs Grenache, 2018
Made using fruit from the single Talara vineyard, the Jericho focused on darker fruit aromas and flavours, including violet, blackcurrant and blackberry, with raspberry jam and spun sugar joining the party on the palate. There was a delicious richness and roundness to the mouthfeel, with a hint of spice too. The 2018 Jericho McLaren Vale GSM – featuring a blend of 85% grenache, 12% shiraz and 3% mataro – produced a jammier and sweeter style of wine, with the raspberry jam from the nose being joined on the palate by tangy acidity and more grip from the tannins.
Robert Oatley Signature Series G-18 McLaren Vale Grenache, 2018 (£11.95 down from £14.50, The Old Bridge Wine Shop)
Exploding with redcurrant jelly and raspberry jam flavours, interwoven with spicy cinnamon and cloves notes, and tangy fresh acidity. There’s a sweep of sweetness, a twist of tartness and a moment of meatiness. Exceedingly good value for such a concentrated and complex wine.
Paxton Thomas Block Grenache (£21.45, Cellar Door Wines)
It was the texture of the Paxton grenache that really thrilled me; it’s got a lovely rounded mouthfeel without becoming cloying. The fruit comes from a single vineyard block and is growing biodynamically, following the lunar cycle and avoiding artificial chemicals. It’s handled very gently in the winery, in the same way you’d treat pinot noir, and is aged in old oak barrels that add texture without clouding the fresh fruit with heavy vanilla flavours. It makes for a great pairing with duck dishes too.
Thistledown She’s Electric Grenache, 2018 (£29.99, Virgin Wines)
Thistledown’s She’s Electric is a reliable favourite when I spot it on any restaurant wine list of bottle shop shelf. It’s got soft floral violet notes on the nose alongside its blackcurrant and blackberry jam, before launching into a sweeter palate of black cherry, spun sugar and blackcurrant jam. Edinburgh-based master of wine Giles Cooke makes wines under the Thistledown label for Beith-based importer Alliance Wine, and under his own Our Fathers label, which has a delicious grenache-shiraz blend.
Peter Ranscombe offsets the carbon dioxide emissions from the international flights he takes for his wine trips by paying the Trees For Life charity to plant Scots Pines and other native species near his birthplace in the Highlands – find out more at http://bit.ly/SF_Trees
Wine Australia, the national marketing body that took Peter Ranscombe to visit the McLaren Vale and a host of other wine-producing regions, is holding Scotland’s biggest Australian wine tasting at The Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh on Monday 27 January. More than 350 wines from 60 producers will be on show. For more information about tickets please visit https://www.australianwine.com/en-AU/our-story/events/australian-wine-tasting-edinburgh