Reflections: new wave McLaren Vale Grenache – on the up
On Tuesday, I presented a McLaren Vale ‘Grenache Greats’ Masterclass at Prowein in Dusseldorf on behalf of McLaren Vale Grape Wine & Tourism Association. The aim was to showcase top drawer, new wave McLaren Vale Grenache – so-called ‘warm climate Pinot Noir’ styles. A genre which had something of a watershed year in Australia in 2017, bagging prestigious awards left, right and centre.
It was the third McLaren Vale Grenache masterclass I’ve presented in as many years since visiting the South Australian region to investigate this trend in 2015 (my Decanter report here). As I reflected on the line up and my exchanges with winemakers in the lead up to the tasting, I was struck by the region’s fast-paced change. Both in terms of the growth of new wave McLaren Vale Grenache (three of my six wines had not even seen their first release in 2015) and the evolutionary tweaks which are taking place to refine these cutting edge wines.
When trends take off so fast, there’s a danger of homogeneity as folk start jumping on the copy cat bandwagon. It was good to see the diversity of new wave McLaren Vale Grenache styles on show, reflecting a skilful selection of soils, sites and winemaking techniques. Quite right for a region which, with over 40 unique geologies ranging from 15,000 to over 550 million years’ old, boasts a Smörgåsbord of soils and, spot the clue in the name, hill and dale landscape (I’m afraid it is slow to load, so maybe come back to this at the end, but you can open this Geology Map, which shows the soil/geology types, producer locations and approximate locations of the vineyards which produced the six wines shown).
It was a superlative line up, which demonstrated clear differences between soil types. As leading viticulturist Toby Bekkers puts it, Blewitt Springs’ deep bleached sand over orange clay combined with elevation “results in really perfumed, slightly lighter bodied Grenache and Shiraz,” while Seaview’s shallow red/great loam over rock, calcrete and clay produce “darker-fruited Grenache/Shiraz, enhanced concentration, tannin profile more intense.” Clarendon’s clay loam soils too, if Hickinbotham’s maiden release is a guide.
By popular vote, Bekkers McLaren Vale Grenache 2016 – a superbly accomplished blend of Blewitt Springs and Kangarilla Grenache – topped the new wave McLaren Vale Grenache charts, pipping to the post Kay Brothers Griffon’s Key Grenache 2016, winner of the inaugural James Halliday Grenache Award 2017. Interestingly, these were among the more concentrated, fleshier examples on show. The Bekkers was one of my two picks of the day. At the other end of the style spectrum, Aphelion The Confluence 2017 shared my top billing for encapsulating so beautifully the finely honed, crunchy-fruited style which makes Blewitt Springs one of Australia’s go to Grenache hot spots.
Speaking of hot spots, it’s no accident that Grenache flourishes in McLaren Vale’s warm, dry climes. It needs a long hang time to attain phenolic and flavour ripeness; the alcohol by volume level of the flight ranged between 14-15%, raising eyebrows. This time, for all the right reasons. These were balanced Grenaches, none showing any of the glycerol/syrupy character which used to typify Australian Grenache, nor the boiled sweet characters. Rather, the variety’s naturally low pH and fastidious site and grape selection (getting rid of shrivelled/raisined berries) paid dividends.
Eyebrows were raised again when I mentioned, before we started tasting, that none of the wines saw new oak or American oak. It undoubtedly helps keep this variety’s natural tendency to sweetness in check. Rather, old vines and an element of whole bunch ferment bring sinew and spice for savoury balance. To conclude, new wave McLaren Vale Grenache is a very different animal from the wines of a decade ago. Finer and more energetic, with detail – complexity and layer. And the audience appreciated it. These were much more food-friendly wines than they used to be, remarked one. Yes indeed.
Can such accomplished, trophy-bagging wines maintain their ‘blue collar Pinot Noir’ title? With shy bearing old vines – a limited resource – and limited production (Grenache represents around 1% of Australian plantings), who knows. According to Wirra Wirra’s General Manager Sam Temme, “Grenache is now a real selling point, which is great.” The results are there to see in the latest Aztec data which he shared with me. It indicates that McLaren Vale is the number 2 region for Grenache and Grenache Blends, with over 25% share and in growth of 30%. Wines priced between $20-$30 is the largest price segment, with 32% share and growing 10%.
For the Prowein premium Grenache line up, prices (AUS $) ranged from $40 (Apehlion The Confluence) to $140 (Yangarra Estate High Sands) – a good spread, which reflects the difference in styles ranging from joyous and ready to drink on release to wines of real gravitas, which should age for a decade plus. So, good news – for now, there are eminently affordable examples of great Australian Grenache which I’d highly recommend seeking out. And, as you’ll see below, trophy bagging new wave McLaren Vale Grenache is being made from younger vines too, which bodes well for the future vis a vis sustainability and pricing.
You can find details about the region’s diverse geologies, the vintages shown (all excellent), fruit sources and winemaking in this Tasting booklet. Below, you’ll find my notes on the wines.
In other Grenache news, Australia will be ‘Country of Honour’ at Vinexpo Hong Kong this May, which features a Grenache day on Wednesday 30 May, including three Australian Grenache themed events:
10:00am to 11.30am Evolution of Australian Grenache
1:00pm to 2:30pm Grenache and Pork Bun lunch tasting
4.00pm to 5:30pm Grenache: Blends
For more information, click here and scroll down to the section entitled ‘Wine Australia master classes.’ I’m told that the Grenache Association will also be running events if you’d like to put Australian Grenache in a global context. Then you will surely be well prepared to select a great bottle for International Grenache Day on September 21st!
Aphelion The Confluence Grenache 2017 (Blewitt Springs, McLaren Vale)
Did I mention that the McLaren Vale Grenache scene is dynamic? Founded in November 2015 by husband and wife team Rob Mack and Louise Rhodes, Aphelion Wine Co. did not exist when I visited McLaren Vale in 2015. Unusually, but fascinatingly, their portfolio of McLaren Vale Grenache puts site and technique under the microscope. In 2016, the couple produced wines labelled Bunch, Berry, Pressings, plus one simply labelled Grenache to highlight the use of whole bunch, whole berry, press juice and the blending of said techniques.
From 2017, the latter has changed its name to The Confluence Grenache – this wine – because it incorporates an element of whole berry (60%), whole bunch (20%) and maceration on skins (20% for 3 months); a second vineyard too. Meanwhile, Bunch has become ‘The Verdant’ on account of its “strong herbal and mescal notes” (100% whole bunch in 2017, a cool year with a long hang time), with its “pure fruited aromas” Berry becomes ‘The Aromat’ and Pressings has been dropped because, says Mack, “this wine is better used in blends as its structure provides a really good boost to some of our blends that may be lacking that aspect slightly.” Reflecting on the changes, Mack told me, “[G]iven we’re still a young brand we’re still changing things every vintage, but I think we’re very close to locking down a continual range offering now.”
You can find details of the vineyards and winemaking in the tasting booklet but Mack was keen to emphasise “[W]e wanted to keep all our Grenache sourced from Blewitt Springs as I believe it’s the best area in Australia for this variety. Blewitt Springs produces fruit that perfectly matches the style of Grenache that I want to make – fragrant, lighter.” Qualities which he attributes to its ancient geology of sandy soils with an underlying clay and ironstone base, elevation (the vineyards – 80-85 & 50 years old – are located at 195 & 180m above sea level) and cooling gully breezes at night. Aspect, he cautions, is important – “given the area is slightly further away from the Gulf than other parts of the vale, it can be hotter there during the day (even with the extra altitude moderating it a little, and the night are definitely cooler which is great). If the vines are on a West facing slope then they can get roasted quite easily in the March heat.”
I’m a big fan of Aphelion’s pared back style (click here for recent notes on Berry, Bunch & Pressings). The Confluence 2017 has a herbal edge to its crunchy, bright red cherry, currant and berry fruit with bouncy peony (whole berry carbonic?) florals and a gentle, mineral, sandpapery rub of tannin to the finish. Finely honed, with line and lovely persistence, this is an appetising Grenache whose levity utterly belies its 14.7% abv. I’m not in the least surprised to hear that most of Aphelion’s range goes to the on trade. Mack currently makes the wines at Haselgrove. Just 240 dozen bottles were produced under screwcap. AUS $40. The Knotted Vine import Aphelion into the UK.
Wirra Wirra ‘The Absconder’ Grenache 2016 (McLaren Flat & Onkaparinga Gorge, McLaren Vale)
The Absconder was first produced in 2010, when the market was not so receptive to premium Grenache. Even Wirra Wirra’s own wine club, one of whose number enquired “isn’t that the s**t you blend into Shiraz to get rid of it?” I am glad Wirra Wirra persisted, since The Absconder is a consistently excellent, very nuanced old vine Grenache. Historically, it has primarily come from a 99 year old vineyard in McLaren Flat – the Blagrove vineyard, whose fruit comprised 95% of this vintage. In 2017, a cooler year with a longer growing season, it will be the sole source. As you would expect given its principal source, McLaren Flat (which is lower than Blewitt Springs – Blagrove at 105m – with sandy loam over ironstone soils) The Absconder 2016 is a touch darker and fleshier than the Aphelion, with Imperial Leather embedded spice notes and cooler moss and earth nuances to its silky but well-focused, very fluid, red cherry and berry fruit – lovely fruit intensity. Going through, immersive tannins break the surface, lending texture and gravitas to a long finish interwoven with savoury old vine nuances and a subtle medicinal note too. A beautiful example of old vine Grenache (my earlier January note here). 14.5% AUS $70; imported into the UK by Gonzalez Byass
Hickinbotham Clarendon Vineyard Elder Hill Grenache 2016 (Clarendon, McLaren Vale)
In 2012, the Hickinbotham Clarendon Vineyard was sold to the Jackson Family who own Yangarra Estate to the west of Clarendon sub-region. Yangarra Estate have a great track record with Grenache (see below), as does this vineyard which, until 2015, produced Clarendon Hills Hickinbotham Vineyard Grenache (click here for my report on a tasting of Clarendon Hills’ Grenache). This steeply raked vineyard in the sub-region at McLaren Vale’s northern, highest end (it touches the border of the Adelaide Hills, in the South Mount Lofty Ranges) has also famously contributed to Penfolds Grange and Eileen Hardy.
Like sister wine, Yangarra Estate High Sands 2015, this – the first Grenache made under the Jackson’s Hickinbotham label – comes from a single block of bush vines, block 301 (2.2 acres). The vines, which are around 55 years old, are located at 225m on clay/loam soils. It is a cool site – cooler than Yangarra Estate’s High Sands, observes Peter Fraser, adding, “it is amazing the difference in character between the two sites. The soils are so different, more clay at Clarendon, which seems to result in more red fruit and a softer more gentle style.” He reckons that the soil’s high clay content (versus High Sands’ deep semaphore sandy top soil) accounts for a slightly bigger canopy with less shrivel within bunches.
This wine’s cool climate Clarendon credentials are immediately apparent in its pronounced violet, even parma violet, florals. It’s a very juicy wine, with a tight, persistent seam of red currant and berry and creamier, fleshier blackberry which builds in the mouth. Powdery but prominent tannins lend a bit of chew to the finish, suggesting this wine is built for the longer haul (I’m told it is scheduled for release in June). Plenty of fruit intensity and structure here – a fretwork of tannins and fresh acidity. It is, incidentally, the lowest alcohol of those wines shown and was made by Charlie Seppelt and (California-based) Chris Carpenter at Yangarra Estate. 14% I have no details about the price but note that the other single varietal Hickinbotham releases are AUS $75.
Bekkers Grenache 2016 (Blewitt Springs & Kangarilla, McLaren Vale)
I’m a big fan of husband and wife team Toby & Emmanuele (Emma) Bekker’s wine, whom I visited in 2015. This Aussie viticulturist and French winemaker know how to mix it up! Every time I taste their beautifully crafted wines I think of a quote from each. Toby (former head viticulturist at Paxton Estate and a consultant viticulturist) telling me about applying “all that experience from walking around McLaren Vale to go to the spice rack and up hill, down vale, stitching together something in the glass.” Emma talking about balancing McLaren Vale’s natural generosity of fruit (others “have to play with techniques to get that richness”) with techniques which keep wine “on a rail, so it has structure and line.”
In 2016, Toby went walking up hill. This vintage did not include any fruit from Strout Road – a relatively southerly, low vineyard near McLaren vale township at 88-94m on Christies Beach alluvial fan clay, sand and gravel. Instead, another Blewitt Springs vineyard on sandy loam augmented Grenache from pre-existing source Ron’s vineyard on sandy soils. Both vineyards were planted in the 1930s but, at 200m, the new source is at almost double the elevation of Ron’s vineyard. Going even higher, 45% of the blend came from a 30 year old vineyard in Kangarilla at 245m (the highest vineyard of the tasting), also on sandy loam.
I asked Toby if the shift uphill, presumably to take some of the weight out of the fruit, reflected greater market acceptance (indeed celebration) of finer/lighter styles. Replying, “yes, I think we’re having more confidence to make slightly lighter framed Grenache,” he added “part of this is also the signature of the 2016 vintage for us. We need to make sure the wines have capacity to age which means that at least some of the fruit we source has to be from a more muscular site.” On which note, in 2017, another high altitude parcel from the north side of the Onkaparinga on shale and clay loam joins the blend.
Bekkers Grenache 2016 has a deliciously spicy, very layered, complex nose and palate. Deeply embedded, its Imperial Leather blend of spices (think sandalwood and anise) and old vine earth/moss notes are, like the Wirra Wirra, superbly integrated into the fabric of this wine. It is an outlier in terms of time in oak, spending significantly longer than the others (17m versus 7.5-11 months) in (500l) seasoned french oak. It makes for a slightly more emphatic savouriness but, although it has greater concentration and fruit weight, its sleek melange of red and black berry and cherry remains lively and persistent – as lingering as the spice, thanks to palate-cleaving fine, granular, very mineral tannins. An anchor for the flavours. 15% AUS $80
Kay Bros Amery Road Griffon’s Key Grenache 2016 (Seaview, McLaren Vale)
Though Kay Bros are a long established McLaren Vale producer, having owned the Amery Vineyard since 1890, this top tier Grenache label hadn’t seen the light of day when I visited the region in 2015. However the 2016 vintage, only the second release, has rapidly made its mark. It was awarded McLaren Vale’s Best Wine of Show/‘Bushing King’ in 2017 and took top honours in the inaugural James Halliday Grenache Challenge – click on the link for the full results.
Ironically, this Grenache does not feature an ingredient I have always thought of as key to great Grenache – it is not sourced from old vines. Aphelion’s Rob Mack touched on this issue in our exchanges, observing, “vine age is important, but with some of the really old vines, fruit vibrancy is sometimes lacking.” Still, for him, “the 50-90 year range seems to really work well,” whereas Kay Bros’ vineyard was planted in 1999. However, the cuttings and the site have considerable pedigree….
First established in 1850, the Amery vineyard has long been renowned for its (125 year old) old vine Shiraz. The 2012 Block 6 Shiraz which I tasted after the masterclass was in ravishing, headily perfumed form. Located in Seaview on rolling slopes (the Grenache is at 135m), local gully breezes keep disease pressure low and proximity to the Gulf of St Vincent provides a sea breeze on warm afternoons. The Grenache is mostly east-facing, protecting vines from hot western sun, which also helps retain natural acidity. While the top soil is shallow red sandy loam, many different geologies and soil types influence the wines, including quartz and ironstone gravels, weathered and calcareous sandstone and siltstone.
As for the pedigree of the cuttings, although the Amery vineyard had a small parcel of Grenache when the Kay family acquired it in 1890, it was pulled out. Grenache was purchased from the Oliver family (from Oliver’s Taranga) between 1921 until the late 1970’s, including all the fruit from the Oliver’s Piggery block. Since Colin Kay was very happy with the Piggery’s fruit quality, which produced powerful but elegant wine, when Grenache was re-planted at the Amery vineyard in 1999, the Piggery block provided the cuttings.
Since 2003, it has produced Kay Bros Basket Pressed Grenache. When Duncan Kennedy, Kay Bros’ Chief Winemaker, joined the company in 2015 and was tasked with making a reserve level Grenache, he earmarked the most concentrated parcels for what would become the inaugural release of the “Griffon’s Key Grenache.” Kennedy shared with me his aims for Griffon’s Key, namely that it should be “lifted and floral aromatically, but dark, dense and concentrated on the palate, with elegant acidity and fine,textured tannin providing length. It should be fresh and clean but have rich layered complexity.”
The site certainly brings a richness and sweetness, a hint of confection even, which connects this Grenache with hedonic ‘old wave’ Grenache. But it brings juicy, balancing freshness too. Plus, having spent just 10 months in 500l French oak, the oak does not ratchet up the sweetness factor. Rather, one experiences great purity of fleshy, but supple, not syrupy, motile red berry fruits on a clean, open-knit palate with savoury riffs of incipient leather. Svelte. 14.5% AUS $45
Yangarra Estate High Sands Grenache 2015 (Blewitt Springs, McLaren Vale)
Planted in 1946, Yangarra Estate’s Blewitt Springs vineyard is a slope on sand over clay on ironstone, which rises to 211m. “Driving to a more pure and precise expression of the site and the variety” is the goal for Chief Winemaker Peter Fraser. Vineyard tweaks over the years include biodynamic cultivation and zooming in on just one block of High Sands’ vines (block 31). In the winery, a Mistral sorting table has upped the strike rate for ejecting shrivelled berries, the oak regime has been tempered (the 2006 spent 24 months in barriques, 10% new versus 11 months in a mix of seasoned 225l and 500l barrels for this wine) and, in this vintage, Fraser has dispensed with rack and returns in favour of (gentler, less oxidative) plunging over.
The envelope-pushing continues – Fraser additionally makes Grenache in concrete eggs and ceramic pots (about which you can read in this report of my visit in 2015, which also features a mini-vertical of High Sands). Though this vintage of High Sands has no new oak, in 2017, Fraser has trialled a Burgundy-coopered water-bent barrel of extra fine grain new oak with medium long toast “with some very exciting results.” “The thinking,” he added, “was how do Grand Cru Burgundies fit so much new oak, but still have this amazing perfume etc, but yet Grenache it’s a winemaking no no!” I won’t share his secret, but it points towards the ambition around a variety which, for many years, was viewed with contempt.
Teensy weensy yields – just 15hl/ha – produced a firm, bright, acid-driven High Sands in 2015, a relatively early, compressed vintage (picked on 3rd March, a fruit day). Jewell bright, polished and pure red currant, cherry and berry fruit is persistent, almost in a hurry, as if to reflect that compressed vintage. Teasing savoury, spicy nuances simmer beneath the surface and, doubtless, will be unlocked with time in bottle (or air). Classic sand-papery tannins ruffle and snag the tongue on the finish. I’d leave this for five years before broaching it again. Bristles with potential. 14.5% AUS$140. Yangarra Estate wines are imported into the UK by Boutinot, who tell me stockists include Noel Young Wines, Highbury Vintners & Whole Food Market. You can find my recent note on the terrific 2014 vintage here.