Clarendon Hills: Cru, 1er Cru & Grand Cru Grenache
Clarendon Hills produces no less than six single site Grenaches from three McLaren Vale sub-regions: Clarendon, Blewitt Springs and Kangarilla. What’s more, they’re rated according to their own Cru System – so that’ll be warm climate Cru, Premier Cru and Grand Cru Pinot Noir then!
Clarendon Hills was founded by Roman Bratasiuk, a biochemist, in 1990 in Clarendon, McLarenVale. Today he is ably assisted by his two sons, Alex and Adam, who focus on marketing and distribution and winemaking respectively. Bratasiuk hit pay dirt following rave reviews from Robert Parker for Clarendon Hills Astralis 1994 – the flagship Shiraz swiftly attained cult status and prices to match. It’s the only Clarendon Hills wine I’ve tasted (the 1996 Astralis) but, on this visit, my focus was squarely (but deliciously) on the Grenache.
I arrived somewhat late at the winery, at dusk, but there was time for a quick “squiz” at the Clarendon and three Blewitt Springs vineyards (the latter within 200 metres of each other). The differences between the six dry farmed, old vine sites have been assiduously noted by Bratasiuk and, I have to say, the 2012 wines brilliantly showcased how the different terroir/quality aspects of his Cru System translate in the glass. The common thread is impressive fruit power delivered with purity and finesse – these wines are svelte, very well balanced. As Alex Bratasiuk, who hosted my visit, pointed out, the Cru system acts as “a navigation tool” giving customers guidance about which wines are to enjoy now and which need time to come out shell and should be cellared.
Before I tasted through the range, we discussed the winemaking philosophy. For Alex “the wines are entirely representative of the environment and age of the vines.” Referring to the diminished yields (a function of both vine age and aged, poor soils), thickness of skins with age which promotes colour and tannin and naturally high acidity (with small yields aged vines ripen earlier), he says “the wines make themselves.” As the family wine cellar attests, Alex is no stranger to the world’s finest wines and, for him, there is something of the “buoyancy of mid-palate, subtley and elegance” of Burgundy Grand Crus Bonnes Mares and Échezeaux in Clarendon Hills’ Grenache range – Clos Vougeot for the sensual Blewitt Springs Grenache .
When we discuss winemaking techniques, it’s clear that purity of expression of terroir and variety is the priority, which is why the winemaking is the same across board. All the vines are hand picked parcel by parcel says Alex, adding “we’re very focused on picking because that’s where the wine is made.” The difference between picking dates can range between 3-6 weeks; the Clarendon vineyard is the last, the Romas and Astralis sites the first. According to Clarendon Hills, their elevated, north-eastern vineyards are picked 7-24 days later still than the lower plains of McLaren Vale.
Although the winery has experimented with whole bunch, unlike quite a few of the Grenache-anistas I visited, Clarendon Hills 100% de-stem because “bunches sometimes mask terroir.” Some years they crush everything; in others they might use as much as 70% whole berries. Following a cold soak, ferments (natural) run up to the warmer end of the spectrum (30 degrees). Punch downs keep the cap warm.
Originally, the wines were basket pressed but, “because we don’t want volatile compounds,” Alex says they’ve used a Vaslin Bucher pneumatic press since 2001. “Massaging the protein out,” both wine and lees go to barrel for 18 months – “always 4-5 year old French oak 225l barriques from a neutral forest – Alliers, Nevers (not Troncais).” In the interests of fruit purity Alex emphasises, “we top up like mad men all the time, we’re very aware [cautious to avoid] of oxidation and very clean”. The wines are bottled with no fining or filtration.
Here are my notes on the sites and wines. I was quite caught up by, on the one hand, the differences between each site expression and, on the other, the broad brush family resemblance between them (the fruit power and purity with balance)!
Cru class Grenache
The Cru class wines “do not require cellaring to unlock the future potential as these old vine vineyards have a natural disposition to demonstrate their best drinking style, very early in their lives.”
Clarendon Hills Clarendon Grenache 2012
The vineyard: just metres apart from the sister Cru class ‘Hickinbotham Grenache’ site but located on the cooler, more shaded south/south westerly side of the hill at around 310m. The soils are shale, ironstone and quartz.
Tasting note: very perfumed (floral, spicy), with very bright, well-defined red cherry fruit, kirsch and frangipane hints. Although it is more approachable than the others, pretty even, make no mistake, this is a well-structured, focused wine, long and persistent with chalky, fine tannins and a muscular core of fruit. Delicious. 14.5%
Clarendon Hills Hickenbotham Grenache 2012
The vineyard: though it has a warmer north/north east aspect than the Clarendon vineyard, at 290 metres, the famous Hickinbotham vineyard is still a cool site in McLaren Vale terms.
Tasting note: the warmer exposure translates into a deeper hue and an impressive shower of exuberant blue/black fruits on scented nose and bountiful but balanced palate. Terrific fruit purity, with the tannin structure and acid to provide length, layer and interest. 14.5%
Premier Cru Grenache
The Premier Cru class aims to offer “a perfect balance of roundness and approachable enjoyability in the short term- however has all the structural components and balance to comfortably cellar for decades.”
Clarendon Hills Blewitt Springs Grenache 2012
The vineyard: located in the Blewitt Springs sub-region it was planted in 1920 on a top soil of pure free-draining sand deposited some 20 million years ago which offers no resistance to the vines’ root system.
Tasting note: very perfumed, elegant, long and layered with lifted Turkish delight, red fruits, fusel/kirsch hints and an old vine earth’n spice “bottom” of star anise and warm terra cotta. A long wheel base chassis of sandy, fine grained tannins carries a lingering finish. A sensual wine. Gorgeous. 14.5%
Clarendon Hills Kangarilla 2012
The vineyard: located in the Kangarilla sub-region this, at 64m, is the lowest, flattest of Clarendon Hills’ sites. It was planted in 1945 on a topsoil of gravelly clay over deep limestone. The extra soil moisture levels associated with the clays results in slightly higher yields and a higher natural acidity/low pH which makes for slow ageing wines; performs especially well in warmer years.
Tasting note: where the Blewitt Springs is expressive, the Kangrilla is
surprisingly elusive for a Grenache, surprisingly taut too with lots of mid-palate tension and a sour cherry twist to the finish. Definitely one to set aside to allow it to come out of its shell. 14.5%
Grand Cru Grenache
Clarendon Hills Onkaparinga Grenache 2012
The vineyard: on the same hillside as Blewitt Springs but the uppermost, west-facing hilltop area. All sites are within 200 metres of each other.
Tasting note: deeper in colour, initially quite shy – old vine earth and marzipan notes take precedence over its glimmers of blue fruit. With time in glass the fruit becomes punchier (as in more assertive) and perfumed damask rose and star anise notes build. Beautifully integrated, sly even, persistent acidity pulls you in and along a lively, showy extended trot finish. Earth, game and dried spice old vines undertones win the day on a super long, savoury “dry” and involving finish. Plenty still in the tank here. The conversation is only just beginning. 14.5%
Clarendon Hills Romas Grenache 2012
The vineyard: Romas is the steepest (+40˚ gradient in parts) and at 280 metres most elevated section of the Blewitt Springs site; it was planted in 1920. above sea level and is approximately seven kilometres from the ocean. It enjoys a perfect due east aspect. On this rocky hill face 30 cm “tall” vines struggle to produce, yielding “a microscopic 0.5 tonne / acre.”
Tasting note: quite different, much more mineral than the others, with inky florals and a pronounced iodine note to a tight, still quite closed palate. The fruit seems almost on the backfoot, but one senses a great intensity of red and black fruits and exotic five-spice lurks beneath. Firm yet fine tannins keep it on the rails. Long, very linear. Impressive; great finesse. I’d love to linger over a bottle of this in five years! 14.5%
Clarendon Hills Old Vines Grenache 2001
From Blewitt Springs this mature Grenache shows lovely generosity on the palate with a touch of Turkish delight, chocolate cherry truffle, savoury black olive and sweet/savoury barnyard notes. Nonetheless, it remains well balanced going through, with oak and alcohol in check. Very good. 14.5%
Clarendon Hills Romas Grenache 2004
A deep hue, still generously, powerfully fruited (muscular), though I found the chocolate cherry truffle palate carried a touch too much sucrosity for me. Perhaps we should have let it open up a bit more and reveal more layers? But it was already past dinner time…. 14.5%
You’ll find my reports on more thrilling Australian Grenaches here.