Australian Grenache 'makes your saliva glands pulse'

Chris Losh

Chris Losh

14 August 2020

From red carpet superstar to disgrace, but now a Grenache revolution is underway in Australia, says Chris Losh

If you asked most people for a grape that sums up Australia, they’d probably say Shiraz. Fair enough. It’s a third of all the country’s vines. Yet in some ways Grenache’s story better sums up Australia’s wine journey.

It was one of the first to arrive – planted in 1838 – and became a stalwart of the huge fortified wine industry. But, as the country moved away from fortified and into table wine production in the 1970s, Shiraz and Cabernet took over and Grenache plantings tumbled. Today, it’s only the fifth most-planted red – behind even Pinot and Merlot.

Yet Grenache’s problem was never of its own making. It’s that, as wineries focused on Cab and Shiraz, it became an afterthought. It got picked last, giving porty, class-free juice. The more bad wine it made, the less seriously it was taken: a vicious circle of diminishing quality.

‘For a long time it was a hated variety,’ says Wirra Wirra’s winemaker, Paul Smith. But no longer. This year, for the first time ever, Grenache prices in McLaren Vale were higher than those of Shiraz.

A new chapter

From red carpet superstar to ‘my drugs and booze hell’ disgrace, it’s now on the redemptive ‘those in the know get it’ stage of its life story. A revolution is underway.

To drive the revolution, two things needed to happen: firstly, winemakers needed to stop seeing it as an afterthought and take it seriously, and secondly wine drinkers needed to like the results.

Sure enough, a string of great hose-wallahs have thrown their weight behind the variety. Steven Pannell, John Duval, Taras Ochota, Paul Smith, Toby Bekkers (Bekkers Wines) and Julian Forward (Ministry of Clouds) have all been bitten by the Grenache bug. Alliance Wines’ owner Giles Cooke MW cheerfully admits he is ‘obsessed’ by the variety in his Thistledown Wines project.

To drive the revolution, two things needed to happen: firstly, winemakers needed to stop seeing it as an afterthought and take it seriously, and secondly wine drinkers needed to like the results

With no shortage of seriously old vines (100-years plus) the miracle, you might think, is that this rediscovery took so long. In fact, it's no coincidence that its renaissance should occur at a time when Pinot Noir and Beaujolais are both on the rise.

‘Grenache delivers what Pinot promises,’ says Corinna Wright of Olivers Taranga. ‘We are very grateful to Pinot Noir producers. People used to not like lighter-style reds, but Pinot’s success has changed that.’

She’s not the only one to make a connection between the two varieties. As recently as the 1980s, Grenache-heavy reds were often labelled as ‘Burgundy’, while Australian wine writer, Nick Ryan, is one of several people I spoke to who calls it ‘warm-climate Pinot Noir.’

‘All the things that get us excited about Pinot – suppleness, perfume, texture – it does that in places where Pinot would curl up and die,’ he says.

Great Grenache Producers

  • D’Arenberg (Enotria&Coe)
  • Bekkers Wines (Atlas Fine Wines)
  • John Duval Wines (Liberty)
  • Ministry of Clouds (Graft Wine Company)
  • Ochota Barrels (Indigo Wine)
  • S.C. Pannell (Liberty)
  • Thistledown Wines (Alliance wine)
  • Wirra Wirra (Gonzalez Byass)
  • Yalumba (JE Fells)

Warm-climate Pinot Noir?

In truth, the ‘warm climate Pinot’ tag both works, and doesn’t. Yes, there are some stylistic similarities – an aromatic, even delicate character in both wines. But Emma Farrelly, head of wine for State Buildings restaurants in Perth, says she sees ‘entirely different characteristics and fruit spectrum [in Grenache]… incredible elegance and almost gravelly, savoury notes alongside perfumed red and black fruits, herbal tones and silky yet structured tannins.’

Like Pinot, Grenache is thin-skinned and highly aromatic, but it is quite low in acidity and can easily lose what little it does have if it’s over-cropped. A naturally exuberant variety, growers need to keep an eye on its vigour.

‘Give it water and it’s a weed,’ says Ministry of Clouds’ Julian Forward. ‘That’s why the good stuff is nearly all dry-grown. You just don’t need water.’

Old vines help keep yields low and quality high. Picking at the right time (rather than whenever the cash-cow varieties were safely in the tanks) has ensured better balance in the fruit.

Old vines help keep yields low and quality high. Picking at the right time (rather than whenever the cash-cow varieties were safely in the tanks) has ensured better balance in the fruit.

But winemakers have changed the way they treat Grenache in the winery, too. There’s been a marked shift from ‘extraction and oak’ to the kind of hands-off approach epitomised by the likes of Taras Ochota, relying on extended, gentle maceration of whole bunches rather than shorter, more intense working of the fruit.

‘Ten years ago the wines would have been pretty beaten up,’ says Toby Bekkers of Bekkers Wine. ‘They’re a lot more delicately handled now.’

With plenty of natural flavour to work with, winemakers see their job more about building in texture, complexity and structure. Stem work provides what Wirra Wirra’s Paul Smith calls ‘a train line’ down the middle of the wine; Thistledown’s Giles Cooke MW talks of ‘immediate appeal, but multiple layers’.

If that sounds like something that could do multiple jobs on a wine list, then you’re right. Emma Farrelly in Perth sees its versatility as a major plus.

‘I like to sell it in the restaurants as it works across a variety of dishes,’ she says. ‘Often from fish & seafood to more weighty dishes. It is light enough not to overpower but can still stand up to bolder flavours.’

Some wineries are even making wines in an almost ‘nouveau’ style, which can be served chilled and is proving popular with younger drinkers.

But let’s leave the final word to Taras Ochota: ‘Grenache to me… I love it,’ he says reverently. ‘It’s succulent. That nervous tension... it makes your saliva glands pulse. It makes you hungry almost…

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