Old Vines, high-altitude vineyards, granite soils and hands-off winemaking are transforming Grenache from a blowsy, boozy boor into a thrillingly elegant expresser of terroir. From Spain to Australia, Darren Smith meets the revolutionaries
Mostly unloved. Sometimes unlovable. Suddenly Grenache Noir seems to have been touched by divine light. Now there is a Grenache like none that has gone before it – no longer alcoholic to the point of being a fortified wine, no longer jammy, a minor blending partner playing second fiddle to Syrah, but a noble grape and ne plus ultra communicator of terroir, both in the Old World and the New.
The most exciting regions for Grenache in 2017 are central and northern Spain, and South Australia. Since the 2000s in these regions, a succession of small wineries have emerged that are committed to recovering old vineyards and native varieties to produce wines that reflect their terroir. The common denominator for many is the move to higher altitude and less interventionist, less extractive – more Burgundian – winemaking.
Leading the charge
There are two winemakers whose wines, more than any other, have convinced me of the nobility of Grenache: Daniel Landi and Fernando Garcia. Their Comando G project, making mountain Garnachas in granitic soils from small parcels of 80-plus-year-old vines at 900-1,200m above sea level in the Sierra de Gredos, is arguably the most interesting development for Grenache in recent years.
Forget boiled sweets and confected blandness, these wines combine elegance, delicacy, freshness and minerality: terroir wines that are both drinkable and structured for the long haul.
How they work in the cellar is revealing: aiming to perform 100% whole cluster fermentations, minimal intervention, no chemicals, very soft treatment of the cap and extended skin maceration at cold temperatures. The juice is pressed, goes into used foudres (no new oak, no racking). As Garcia explains, their wines are ‘grown, not made’. It comes down to vineyard sites, the terroir and the concentration of grapes. Landi cites influences such as Château Rayas and Domaine Gramenon’s Le Mémé – both from the Rhône, and similarly elegant in style, delicate and expressive.
‘We believe Gredos has the most potential to make the finest Grenache,’ says Landi. ‘It’s been the indigenous variety since around the 13th century. We have altitude like nobody has with Grenache. We have the climate, the rain, the temperatures, the combination with granite, which “straight and narrows” the wine. We believe it’s the best place in the world.’
Another region bearing witness to this revival of old Garnacha vines is Navarra. Here Garnacha has traditionally been used to produce pale wines labelled either rosado or, slightly darker, clarete. However, producers such as Domaines Lupier are producing wines that highlight the terroir of the region in a way that few others do.
Elisa Ucar and Enrique Basarte own Domaines Lupiers. When they started the winery in 2006 they had a mission to rescue some of the precious old vines at a time when growers were being given EU subsidies. They biodynamically farm 27 plots around the village of San Martín de Unx, in Baja Montaña, a sub-area of the DO Navarra, performing almost as many micro-vinifications to produce just two wines – both 100% Garnacha.
La Dama is their more ethereal Garnacha, with ‘its energy connected to the sky’, as Ucar describes it; El Terroir is their ‘telluric’ expression, where you will find ‘the gravity of the earth in the wine’. Whether or not you subscribe to the idea of energies, the contrast is very evident.
As with Comando G, the winemaking is very hands-off – wild yeast fermentation, only one punchdown per day, and use of larger format barrels of second and third use. The more important work takes place in the vineyard, Ucar says.
‘Grenache is an amazing communicator of terroir,’ she enthuses. ‘You have examples [around] Spain – in Gredos, Montsant, Priorat, Aragon – and all are different. So in that sense it’s like Pinot Noir in other places. It’s a magical variety.’
These are two examples of an exciting incipient revival of Garnacha in north and central Spain. Further evidence comes from Cala-tayud, where ones to watch are Sarah Morris and Iwo Jakimowicz from Si Vintners. Based in Australia, since 2011 they have made pure, old-vine Grenache in the ‘off-season’. Again, old vines, hands-off winemaking and altitude make it work.
Even in Priorat, usually home to pretty beefy wines, producers such as Terroir al Limit are working to the beat of their own drum and, as the name implies, exploring the altitudinous extremes of the region to produce a new style of wine.
Dominik Huber, originally aided by Swartland pioneer Eben Sadie, produces old vine Grenache (and Carignan) from steep slate slopes around the village of Torroja. Sites are worked biodynamically and wood influence is shunned, with fermentation and ageing done in unlined concrete and large-format mature oak. In terms of their elegance, freshness and subtle power, the wines are outstanding.
Meanwhile, in Oz...
Switching hemispheres, an equally profound Grenache revival is going on in South Australia. The contrast between how the variety was once thought of – as little more than a weed, according to some growers – and how a small but significant minority now regard it couldn’t be more stark.
Grenache was first imported into Australia from Roussillon in 1831. By the mid-20th century it was the country’s most-planted variety, used largely in fortified wines. A huge shift away from fortified wines led to a drastic reduction in plantings. Many producers made it a lesser part of GSM blends, or treated it like Shiraz, with lots of extraction and new oak.
The new trend is towards more Burgundian methods, with lots of whole-bunch fermentation for clarity, structure and complexity, use of wild ferments, larger format, neutral barrels and cold soaks, along with earlier picking.
Such a trend is often associated with winemakers such as Steve Pannell, Clarendon Hills, D’Arenberg, Wirra Wirra, Julian Forwood (Ministry of Clouds), Langmeil and Cirillo (owner of the oldest Grenache vines in Australia) – all making pure, finely chiselled Grenache from some of the oldest vines in Australia.
Compared with the sweetly fruited, high-alcohol Grenaches of old, the wines made by the producers outlined above can be justifiably considered ‘new wave’. Perfumed and more Burgundian, yes, but they are still big and intensely flavoured.
However, a couple of other Aussie Grenaches also hint at a new, more cool-climate paradigm for the variety.
Taras Ochota’s Ochota Fugazi Vineyard Grenache, one which uses plenty of whole bunches for fermentation and long maceration on skins, has evolved to arguably become a benchmark for the delicate, ‘Pinot-esque’ style of Grenache. His neighbour James Erskine, Jauma winery owner, is another trailblazer, who funnily enough made his Ascension Grenache from the Fugazi vineyard until 2011.
Erskine – Australia’s former top sommelier – loves Grenache, and is completely convinced of its nobility. For him, a committed natural winemaker, it’s all about drinkability. Before he started Jauma he worked on vintages in Germany and Austria, and when he came back to Australia he was alarmed by the over-extraction, intensity and tartaric additions in almost all the wines he tasted.
‘I was so surprised,’ he says, ‘because I listed McLaren Vale Grenache and Barossa Grenache where I was working in my old job, but they were very much after-dinner drinks. They were labelled as 15% and were absolutely delicious, but so far removed from a dinner wine or an aperitif.’
Eventually he started his own business, originally buying fruit from various regions in South Australia. With a natural bias towards ‘underdog’ varieties, he began experimenting, and Grenaches from two vineyards in McLaren Vale stood out.
Launching Jauma in 2011, he employed viticulturist Fiona Hill to manage a growing selection of special vineyards. Jauma works with five Grenache vineyards at the moment, and Erskine says that evolving towards this fresher, lighter style has been a huge learning curve for him.
‘The paradigm for red wine in McLaren Vale and Australia is you need maximum sunlight on your grapes to get maximum ripeness, flavour and colour,’ he says. ‘But I’m not interested in colour and the flavour’s going to be there anyway. I need maximum tannin ripeness at low baumé and ripe acidity. Basically we’ve been experimenting since 2011 with how we can get the alcohols down.’ Typically his wines are around the 13% mark.
Erskine’s success was made clear at a recent Grenache lunch at London restaurant Temper, which highlighted the food-friendliness of these lighter styles. On the menu was BBQ goat with some spicy sauces, with which guests tried 11 varietal Grenaches from the likes of Yalumba, Langmeil, John Duval, Thistledown, Jauma and Ochota Barrels. Almost unanimously, the Jauma (Like Raindrops 2015) and the Ochota Barrels (Fugazi Vineyard 2015) were picked out as the best fit.
Grenaches such as these are popping up all over the winemaking world. It’s more of a footnote to Spain and South Australia for the moment, but the Swartland, which has decomposed granite soils remarkably similar to those in the Sierra de Gredos, is worthy of comment.
Eben Sadie’s Soldaat and Craig Hawkins’ Testalonga King of Grapes are both great examples of this complex but fine-boned Grenache style, but Johan Meyer’s Mother Rock is a name to follow here. Already making a taut, Pinot Noir-like minimal intervention Grenache in Swartland, next year Meyer is planting Grenache vines on land north of Swartland in Piket-Bo-Berg.
Wherever in the world they are from, what counts for this new style of wines are aromatics, texture and drinkability. The catalysts for revealing this trinity are old vines and a new generation of ambitious, terroir-focused winemakers.
As Landi says: ‘Spain is like a house with a lot of treasure inside but with the doors and the windows closed, and now the new generation is starting to open them and discover these treasures.’
This picture could just as well be applied to South Australia, where Grenache-loving producers are searching for the best plots and face competition from an ever-growing band of Garnachistas. All this is very good news for restaurants.
‘If I’m talking about the top restaurants in the country where there is a good sommelier, then it’s Grenache that’s selling,’ says Erskine. ‘Yeah, there’s deliciousness, [with Shiraz] but they don’t have the depth of flavour, they don’t have the texture and they’re just not as fun. For me, Grenache is far superior.’