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From Roussillon with love: Australian Grenache

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Last month I presented a Grenache masterclass for Wine Australia. The variety may only represent around 1% of Australia’s crush, however premium examples are well worth seeking out.  Below you’ll find my tasting notes on five mini-vertical flights, of which two were single varietal and three varietal blends.  First, I take a look at Grenache’s history and evolution or, more accurately, its transformation down under from the mainstay of fortified wines to warm climate Pinot Noir.

A walk down memory lane

During his trip through Roussillon in France’s Pyrénées-Orientales, Grenache, Carignan and Mataro (Mourvedre) were the first three varieties collected and catalogued by Australia’s “father of wine,” James Busby.   They were sourced from Monsieur Durand of Perpignan on 17 November 1831 according to Busby’s very thorough Journal of a Tour Through Some of the Vineyards of Spain and France which – wonders of the internet – you can inspect online!

 

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Although the port of entry for Busby’s cuttings was Sydney, it seems that Grenache fast put down roots in South Australia.  By 1838 the first vines had been planted in McLaren Vale, a stone’s throw from Adelaide.  And what does Adelaide have in common with Perpignan?  It is the driest of Australia’s capital cities, while the Pyrénées-Orientales is said to be the warmest and driest area of France.  Is it any wonder that, just 30 years after Grenache arrived on Australian shores, The Adelaide Advertiser’s wine correspondent Ebenezer Ward 1862 reported that it was “thriving better than any other kind.”

Even today, the five regions most planted to Grenache share the warm and dry conditions to which the variety is so well suited because of its adaptability to drought.  Top of the table is the Barossa (20% of plantings) closely followed by McLaren Vale (19%).  Third, fourth and fifth are the Riverland (15%), Langhorne Creek (11%) and Swan Hill (10%).

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While the planting profile has not changed, the number of hectares planted to Grenache has drastically dropped.  As Busby highlighted in his journal, Grenache yields a sweet wine and, for this reason, it became the mainstay of the fortified wines which dominated Australian production for so long (in 1960, 80% of Australian wine was fortified). You can see Grenache’s work horse legacy in this army of sturdy bush vines at Seppeltfield’s Para Grenache vineyard in the Barossa.  It is Australia’s biggest bush vine vineyard (270 acres, of which old bush vine Grenache is about 2/3) and, in the 19th century, Seppeltsfield claimed to be the world’s largest winery with a million gallons of stock!

Although McLaren Vale producers like d’Arenberg and Château Reynella started making acclaimed “red burgundies” – dry wines – from Grenache, Shiraz, Mataro, Carignan and Cinsault blends (d’Arenberg’s now called d’Arry’s Original Shiraz Grenache) the switch from fortified to table wines rapidly lead to the dwindling of Grenache production.  As the surplus of Grenache once destined for fortifieds grew, grape prices plunged and the South Australian Government’s 1987 vine-pull scheme paid growers to get rid of Grenache, Shiraz and Mataro.  Though Grenache was Australia’s largest volume producer in the 1970s with a crush of 72 000 tonnes in 1979, by the late nineties that figure had slumped to around 25, 000 tonnes.  By 2012 it had sunk to 14,900 tonnes, representing 1% of Australia’s overall crush, while Grenache plantings totalled 1,800ha (just 1.2% of plantings).

A new era

As old vineyards were grafted over or pulled up to make way for popular table wine varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling and Semillon, Grenache became the cannon fodder of cask wines and rosés. However, scarcity of supply has seen a revival of Grenache’s fortunes and today, old vine Grenache is being seen in a new rose and not rosé tinted light.

First made in 1988, Charlie Melton’s cheekily monikered Rhone blend Nine Popes was at the vanguard of this renaissance.  It confirmed that there was a premium path for GSMs, Grenache Shiraz Mourvedre blends made from old, dry grown, low yielding vineyards.  Melton is emphatic that they are absolutely key to great Grenache.  Why?  Because  the moment yields increase, the quality of Grenache drops off dramatically.

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More recently still, Grenache has become a winner in its own right, even for GSM specialists like Melton.  This year fellow Barossan John Duval joined the ranks releasing his maiden 2013 single varietal Grenache, Annexus (just 250 cases in which he used 20% whole bunch to promote aromatics and structure; it is matured in 100% older barrels).  The trend for single varietal Grenache is partly down to the growing success of Australian Pinot Noir, which has built a better understanding and appetite for medium bodied, elegant wines with a postcode. Indeed Grenache has been dubbed “warm climate Pinot Noir” or, as Robert Hill Smith rather wonderfully puts it, “blue collar Pinot Noir.”

For Tony Ingle, Angove’s winemaker, Grenache’s perfume, red fruits and barnyard notes when mature are not the only reason for this nickname.  He says “it is tough to grow right – it needs a very good terroir, and winemaking is difficult to get spot on.”  For Melton, who occasionally makes a single varietal Grenache, in the Barossa the variety “shares much in common with the Pinot of Burgundy in that unique terroir-driven wines of quite different characteristics come from a single variety in a relatively small area.”

So, the trick to great single varietal Grenache is to keep yields low and pick the right site in which case the winemakers I spoke to tell me that Grenache retains a low pH, even at riper levels, which helps rein in its tendency towards high alcohol.  This high natural acidity together with the tannin structure which comes from old, dry grown bush vines results in ageworthy, balanced wines with great depth of character – an earthiness and more savoury and spice fruit characters as opposed to the bright fruit and florals of younger vines.

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Although premium producers are working hard in the vineyard to get even ripening, pick earlier and reduce alcohol levels and jamminess, it’s not easy to get alcohol levels below 14%. You still have to be patient to achieve flavour, colour and tannin ripeness.  All the wines shown were at least 14% abv and even cutting edge ‘Grenache-anista’ Ochota Barrels sylphlike warm climate Pinot Noirs come in only a little under 14% in 2014 – check out my review of their lovely latest McLaren Vale Grenache releases here.

As for winemaking, Ochota Barrels are the high priests of the whole bunch and extended skin contact regimes so closely associated with Pinot Noir and, I must say, I’m a fan of their wines at least.  However, in common with most of the producers shown at the masterclass Chapel Hill’s Michael Fragos eschews these techniques.  He told me he has experimented with them but believes that “generic whole bunch characters overwhelmed old vine characters” and found that post ferment maceration  “seemed to advance the wine” for  variety which he already regards “quite oxidative.”

On the other hand all of the producers embrace the current trend for more sensitive oak regimes (less, if any, new oak/bigger format oak).  With greater restraint at the tiller (and a sharper focus on site differences), single site wines are on the up.  Take d’Arenberg, who account for 1/3 of McLaren Vale’s old bush vine Grenache.  They now make three single vineyard expressions from different geologies and sub-regions of McLaren Vale, The Beautiful View, Blewitt Springs and McLaren Sand Hills.

The tasting

Flight one: Chapel Hill Grenache, McLaren Vale

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Chapel Hill’s vineyard was planted in 1977 but, since it has no Grenache, this wine is sourced from three old bush vineyards (planted in 1926, 1952 and 1958) which the producer secured in 2006.

All three vintages we tasted (2011, 2009 & 2007) were predominantly from the oldest (1926) block at 120m which, like the 1958 block (115m) is on clay/ loam soils.  For Chief Winemaker Michael Fragos, this soil profile produces deeper, darker characters and tannins than the sand over clay found in the 1952 block (at 150m).  Additionally because it has a slightly higher elevation and higher rainfall, he says the 1952 block produces more scented floral fruit characters and delicate tannins.

For Fragos, “Grenache more than any other variety seems to articulate vintage conditions and site expression most vividly.”  Each vineyard parcel is hand harvested and fermented separately.  Says Fragos “a great advantage of hand harvesting is that there is more pedantic bunch selection (no green bunches, no discoloured bunches and nothing sun burnt/ shrivelled).”

In the winery, he doesn’t do a cold soak because “I don’t want to promote the simpler primary fruit characters.”  However, where hand harvested grapes tend to come in warmer, he chills the must which he describes as “essential as we like to start fermentation at 20oC so the ferment does not scream through too quickly.”  He uses a neutral yeast strain, DV10 with minimal by products/ esters as we don’t want yeast bi products to nullify the old vine characters.”   No acidification was required in 2011, the coolest year by a long chalk, otherwise Fragos points out Grenache tends to have low acidity but a low pH, minimal acid additions are usually required.

In common with all the other producers, Fragos favours open fermenters.  Kilkikanoon’s Kevin Mitchell explains it allows alcohol to blow off during ferment naturally “so we can pick at best ripeness and actually lose alcohol during the winemaking phase. This provides ripeness and balance.”  Where Grenache is susceptible to over extraction, Fragos conducts a long slow gentle extraction with plunging and, post-ferment.  Wines spend 12 – 14 days on skins before being basket pressed.  The resulting wine together with a high amount of solids (lees) is transferred to barrel because Fragos is “keen for the lees to scavenge oxygen to protect this oxidative variety.”

The vintages which we tasted were aged for around 17 months in 2-5 year old 300 litre fine grained hogsheads, mainly Troncais, all medium toast save for the (untoasted) heads. From 2013 Chapel Hill introduced larger (500l) barrels which Fragos told me “has worked really well and we are gradually moving over Grenache to 100% puncheons.”  The benefits?   Less oak influence because of the smaller oak to volume ratio, also less oxygenation and because puncheons have thicker staves.

The wines are bottled with no tannin additions, no fining, no enzyme additions and no filtration because Fragos doesn’t want “to strip the personality and soul which is what makes Grenache special.”

Chapel Hill Bush Vine Grenache 2011 (McLaren Vale)

The vintage most certainly marks this wine.  For me in a wholly positive way which puts the accent on the variety’s lift and pretty red fruits.  Wetter than usual with a cool, mild February and March, the 2011 was harvested relatively late, between 30 March and 14 April. It reveals complex aromatics on the nose and palate.  Since I last tasted it a couple of years ago its spiciness has become more pronounced.  More exotic too (beyond lacy white pepper). It reveals bergamot and orange peel which brings attractive lift and ethereal dimension to its succulent, very persistent red fruits.  Fine tannins lend depth and line to the finish.  Lovely.  14.5%

Chapel Hill Bush Vine Grenache 2009 (McLaren Vale)

There was no fruit from the 1958 block in this vintage which experienced above average winter rainfall but a dry spring, resulting in an early start to the growing season.  A January heatwave was followed by cooler day and night time temperatures which allowed the vines to recover and attain optimal ripeness.  The grapes were harvested 20-24 March.  This wine has more typical McLaren Vale profile, with a generosity to the mid-palate and a hint of jelly bean confection.  With a bergamot edge mind which, together with its earthier undertones and savoury, quite firm tannins, makes it infinitely more interesting and complex than simple examples which often show confected boiled sweet notes or souped up premium Grenache with lashings of new oak which ratchets up the sucrosity (especially American oak).  Generous yet balanced with supple plum fruit and good structure.  15%

Chapel Hill Bush Vine Grenache 2007 (McLaren Vale)

One of the driest vintages on record but at least there were no heat waves; the grapes were harvested in March.  Fragos reports that the berries were incredibly small so the wines are quite savoury with a firmer than normal tannin structure.  Where it might be said that the ethereal 2011 is the fairest of them all, the 2007 is most certainly the brawniest.  As you’d expect it’s also the most developed.  The floral (bergamot) notes have gone.  Rather the 2007 has attractive sweet barnyard notes to its concentrated black plum fruit.  Though the alcohol is in balance, the tannins are a touch blocky which makes for a rather four square Grenache.  Still, it has time in hand to mellow.  An imposing Grenache.  15%

Flight two: Kilikanoon Prodigal Grenache (Clare Valley)

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Grenache is not as readily associated with Clare Valley as it is with McLaren Vale or the Barossa.  However, I’ve enjoyed some excellent examples recently from Kilikanoon and Adelina.  With higher elevations and rainfall than the other two South Australian regions, Clare Valley Grenache seems more lifted and spicier, with good freshness and line.  For winemaker/owner Kevin Mitchell, “the cool nights in Clare slow things down giving a much longer window to pick fruit at the optimal time. Plus Clare being a cooler region means you can get Grenache nicely ripened without too much over ripeness.”  In fact, Mitchell adds a splash of (back-blended) Shiraz in most years (between 1 – 5%) Shiraz – more in cooler years – for “a bit more backbone via tannin increase.”

Kilikanoon released its first reds in 1997 and, of these three reds first made, one was a single vineyard Grenache made from the Walton’s vineyard. The 1997 was simply labelled Grenache but, from the 1998 vintage, it was called Prodigal because, says Mitchell, “Prodigal refers to the old ‘ Prodigal Son ‘ fable – the welcome return of Grenache to the fold after years spent in the varietal wilderness!!”

His desire to promote the variety stems from the fact he regards single varietals as “far more serious than blends…they also have a greater connection to region and terroir than often can have as blending can ofter mask the wines provenence.”  Plus, he adds, “I like the fact that Grenache is a variety that is very hard to improve on. You cannot disguise a poor wine through over oaking and so the quality of the wine relies heavily on the quality of the fruit. It feels like a modern drink but it possesses a rustic charm and honesty that connects it to the old world and old world winemaking.”

Prior to 2004, fruit was mostly from Walton’s (the sole source of the 1997), with a bit from a vineyard known as Brown’s a few hundred meters away.  The three vintages we tasted were sourced from two vineyards in the Watervale sub-region of Clare Valley – Waltons and Churinga.  They are older traditional vineyards which have always been hand pruned, hand harvested and dry grown.

The Walton’s Vineyard is located in southern Watervale at 350m on loam over limestone which, according to Mitchell, “particularly in cooler years, produces Grenaches that feature a very pleasant chalky, savoury character.”  The vines are 65 years old.  It tends to comprise between 40 – 60% of the Prodigal blend each year  and, says Mitchell “contributes the chalky, cherry fruit, kirsch notes to the blend.”

The Churinga Vineyard is at the very northern edge of Watervale and has the same soil profile though its lower slopes are a bit siltier/deeper.  Located at around 470 meters, it is considerably higher than Walton’s and the fruit can ripen 1 – 2 weeks later.  The vines are between 70 – 90 years and contribute the slightly more savoury, peppery, meaty notes to the blend.

Latterly Mitchell has shifted towards slightly lower harvest maturities for more bright red fruits (cherries, raspberries, etc). Lower harvest maturity also enhances the savoury characters.  Between 2002 to 2005 he tells me Prodigal had higher alcohol, spent more time in barrel and was more textural and oak enhanced.
Each vineyard is fermented separately with a cultured commercially available Rhone styled yeast. Acid is always added (between 2.0 – 3.0 grams per litre in most seasons).  Wines are left on skins for up to a week once dry, then basket pressed in a very gentle French hydraulic basket press.  Aging has always been in older (two to five year old) French oak hogsheads, however time in oak was considerably reduced in the vintages we tasted with the aim of increasing freshness through less time in barrel.

Though 2009 was slightly warmer, all three vintages shown came from classic Clare vintages, with no disease pressure, cool nights and warm days; they were harvested in early April.

Kilikanoon Prodigal Grenache 2012 (Clare Valley)

Blended with 5% Shiraz and aged for 16 months in oak.  A deep, bright hue with deep seated exotic spice notes of star anise, sandalwood and bergamot to its succulent blood plum fruit.  Seemingly darker and drier than the Chapel Hill in style, with an old vine savoury, earthy undertow. Lovely juiciness, balance and line.  14.7%

Kilikanoon Prodigal Grenache 2009 (Clare Valley)

Blended with 2.5% Shiraz (the warmer year) and aged for 20 months in oak, this is richer, more generous in profile than the 2012 with Christmas cake fruit and spice notes, that exotic edge too – satsuma and star anise here.  Firm supporting tannins carry its extra weight well and, together with its fresh acidity, bring focus and line.  14.7%

Kilikanoon Prodigal Grenache 2005 (Clare Valley)

Blended with 5% Shiraz and aged for 22 months in oak, the 2005 is my least favourite of the three.  It’s chunkier and much more savoury (obviously down to age as well as style) with a touch of boot polish to its sweet fruit.  Clare Valley’s dark liquorice spice and clean underlying acidity are well evidenced but here less well integrated.  I can well understand why Mitchell has shifted away from this style towards a brighter more fruit driven profile which is more seamless/suppler.  14.9%

Flight three:  Angove Warboy’s Vineyard Shiraz Grenache, McLaren Vale

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Although, Angove was founded in 1886 and is a fifth generation family company, it only acquired the 30ha Warboy’s Vineyard (previously called Manning Park) in 2008.  Located in the Seaview sub-region of McLaren Vale it includes 13ha of Shiraz and 3ha of Grenache vines which are aged up to some 80 years old.

We tasted their first Warboy’s single vineyard vintage 2009, together with the 2010 and 2012.  During this period the family have been making substantial changes in the vineyard as part and parcel of the shift towards super premium single vineyard wines.

The old 1948 Shiraz vines have been “fundamentally restructured from an ever growing monster of spur pruning, to bringing healthy wood back to the trunk of the vine.”  Cane pruning has resulted in lower crops (c. 1-2 tonnes an acre for Warboys wines) and healthier canes with better canopies. For Grenache, they are bringing back the larger arms of the vine for more consistent and better spaced bunches and much better structure and colour in the grape.

A benefit of reduced yields is that flavours develop sooner with much better acidity so Angove can pick the Grenache earlier.  Since 2013, they have also started to pick slightly closer to the Shiraz bringing the Grenache in at lower Baume – this year, these varieties were picked just 4 days apart.

Angove have also introduced organic and biodynamic practices and the Warboy’s vineyard was certified biodynamic in 2013.  For winemaker Tony Ingle, “the vines are healthier the soil so much better drained and richer, and we believe the wine has responded too to be more delicate and elegant.”  It certainly seemed to me that this wine improved significantly in each vintage (undoubtedly owing to the sea change in the oak regime too – see below).

All three vintages we tasted came from the same three blocks.  The Grenache (planted 1964) is from a block on the north-facing slope up the hill called “mid” at 75m.  It has a top soil of about 30 to 70 cm of rich loam/clay with some marl (limestone chunks) and schist rocks in it over a layer of limestone and, says Ingle “shows more elegance and lovely minerality [compared with the deeper soils of the Cellar Door block which produces fruitier wines].”  The Shiraz (planted in 1948) is from two south-facing parcels– Nth Mid & NW3 Block, the highest at about 80m, on deep loam and river wash with underlying alluvial clays.

As for the winemaking, this wine is always co-fermented (the Shiraz is kept in cold storage at 2-5 degrees centigrade post de-stemming until the Grenache is ready).  Around 15% of the Grenache component is whole bunch (this is assessed each year on taste).  The wine undergoes a cold soak for couple of days to let the natural ferment kick off; once the ferment gets to about 2-3 Baume, Angove re-innoculate with a Rhone isolate yeast to avoid a stuck ferment.  Acid additions are “very minimal and as early as possible for integration.”

Ingle has increasingly been fermenting the Grenache at higher temperatures (up to 35c at times) which, he says, “is really important for lovely chewy tannins out of the seeds and skins.” The smallest ferments (½ tonne) are plunged with a bit of foot treading if taste suggests it is needed.  Bigger ferments (1 tonne) also get delestages as well as plunging. Depending on taste Angove macerate up to 3-4 weeks.

The oak regime has changed out of sight since the first vintage.  The 2012 and 2010 spent only several months in older French hogsheads (300 litres) and a 1 year old French puncheon (500 litres).  However, the 2009 was aged in barrel for 21 months!  Ingle explains “we’re looking for more fruit to shine through…we use larger and older oak particularly for Grenache blends (now 3-5 yr old French puncheons) and the straight Grenache (straight shiraz can cope with some newer oak).”  Moreover, he is now concentrating on a very Burgundian style of oak with quite a smoky toast (Francois Freres, Sirouges) which “seem to match with the single vineyard hand tended vines and hand made wine approach we have started to develop.”

Angove Warboy’s Vineyard Shiraz Grenache 2012 (McLaren Vale)

Ingle says 2012 was a fantastic year – mild, dry, with yields well down (up to 40%) and smaller bunches/berries for good concentration and flavour.   The Shiraz (62% of the blend) was harvested 2 & 6 March; the Grenache (38%) was picked on 16 March.  It has a very fresh, sappy nose with a hint of smoky charcuterie/bacon fat; the palate sports creamier oak.  Lead partner Shiraz makes for darker but juicy blackberry fruit on the attack, firmer tannins too.  The Grenache chimes in going through, unleashing effusive red berry and perfumed kirsch on a tight, concentrated, spice accented finish. My pick of the bunch, it has greater clarity than the previous vintages.  14.5%

Angove Warboy’s Vineyard Shiraz Grenache 2010 (McLaren Vale)

Another excellent “near perfect” year thanks to winter rains and warm days/cool nights through January.  The Shiraz (62%) was harvested on 21 March, the Grenache on 30 March.  Consistent in the dark berry Shiraz and perfumed kirsch, here with some very attractive, exotic Turkish delight, but the oak seems more obvious, less refined; given that this wine spent the same amount of time in barrel as the 2012, this is probably a reflection of fruit quality.  This vintage also has a distinct menthol refrain which detracts a bit from the Grenache perfume and overall purity, though this is perhaps a horses for courses characteristic which will appeal to some.  14%

Angove Warboy’s Vineyard Shiraz Grenache 2009 (McLaren Vale)

A hot spell in late January/early February was followed by cooler weather.  The Shiraz (60%) was picked 19 March, the Grenache (40%), a week later.  Much more time in oak (21 months v several) leaves its chocolatey, creamy, nutty mark on this richer more savoury wine.  Even taking into account its age, the oak has also taken the bounce/vibrancy off the fruit which, in 2012 in particular, has such attractive purity of expression.  14%

Flight 4: John Duval Plexus 2012, 2009, 2006 (Barossa Valley)

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After 29 years as a winemaker with Penfolds (he became Chief Winemaker in 1986), John Duval started his own Barossa-based wine label in 2003. Plexus, this GSM blend, was his very first release (his straight Shiraz, Entity, made its debut the following year).

Both Barossa examples were GSMs and Duval and Melton source Grenache from a selection of old vineyards across the Barossa.  Melton tells me it’s partly because “though the variety seems to love the Barossa climate it can be a bit fickle in that it usually is quite biannual in yield and quality, so it has turned out, if you have more than one good fruit source you can hedge your bets with consistency.”  Comparing Barossa with McLaren Vale Grenache he reckons “broadly speaking the Vales tend to have sweetness to the aromatics and the Barossa more spice.”

Duval uses Shiraz as “the blackberry core structural backbone for the wine,” while very good old bush vine Grenache and Mourvèdre add complexity – the Grenache aromatics, texture, more red fruit and the Mourvedre more savoury characters, acid and tannin.  In general, he picks the Shiraz around early to mid March, the Grenache in mid to late March and the Mourvedre in late March to mid April.  He tells me “I pick to promote aromatics, fine tannin and elegance, and not to pick too late and contend with high alcohol.”  Yields are around 20-35 hl/ha.

The Grenache was sourced from vines ranging between 50-60 year old vines (up to 80 yr old in 2012) because, he says age helps reduce yield (Grenache is vigorous) and makes for a more balanced wine, as does using dry grown fruit.  His new single varietal Grenache was sourced from two very old Grenache vineyards.  One south of Tanunda, over 100 years old, and the other in Eden Valley planted in the 1860’s (he only obtained a small allocation from this vineyard for the first time in 2013).  Duval reckons that the best Grenache sites are on deep sandy or more accurately, sandy loams which promote structure as well as the aromatics and spice.

In the winery each component is vinified and matured separately (de-stemmed, no cold soak, inoculated ferment).  He mixes it up on the fermentation; some wine is fermented using the submerged cap method in small stainless steel vats (Duval likes the extraction), while the undergoes pump over & plunging in traditional old open fermenters.  Grenache is fermented to a maximum temperature of  25 degrees centigrade in order to retain fruit.

The wines were aged in barrel for 16 months (2006/2009) & 15 months (2012), mostly seasoned (three year old plus) French 300l hogsheads (save some Shiraz, c. 10%, which finishes fermentation in new French oak).  Duval likes a medium toast and prefers Bourgogne coopers.  Plexus undergoes no fining and only a very course filtration into bottle.

John Duval Plexus 2012 (Barossa Valley)

An excellent vintage with a warmer spring and cooler summer and only three rain events over the three months on and around vintage. Yields were slightly below average and the blend comprised 51% Shiraz, 30% Grenache, 19% Mourvedre.   It was sourced from Tanunda, Light Pass, Ebenezer (the Shiraz), Tanunda and Ebeneezer (Grenache) and Light Pass (Mourvedre).  This lively, lifted GSM was my pick of the masterclass.  The fruit (predominantly red) is particularly bright, fresh, perfumed and persistent with enchanting spice and floral lift.  Polish and precision is a Duval hallmark and this has lovely finesse, fluidity and line with fine tannins to the back palate.  A joyous, supple red which is also dangerously drinkable. 14.5%

John Duval Plexus 2009 (Barossa Valley)

Average winter rainfall. Hot weather in late January through early February was followed by a period with no extreme heat and a little rain until late April.  Yields were down (Shiraz yields the lowest since 2003).  The blend comprised 48% Shiraz, 31% Grenache, 21% Mourvedre and was sourced from Krondorf, Marananga (Shiraz), Stockwell, Tanunda (Grenache), Light Pass, Krondorf (Mourvedre).   With some age under its belt the Mourvedre is starting to show the saddle soap notes I very much like to see in this variety – savoury, yet lifted.  Spiced fruitcake and a hint of tarriness lend bottom while It primary red berry fruit brings the juice and freshness.  Nice balance and length with polished, ripe tannins. 14.5%

John Duval Plexus 2006 (Barossa Valley)

One of the driest Autumns on record. Late season opening rains were experienced in October and November and cool, mild conditions extending until January. A series of heat waves were experienced in late January and early February which meant slow ripening and vegetative growth. Despite the daytime heat, evening temperatures were mild to cool and rainfall was average. Mild climatic conditions continued through February and March and the slightly above average rainfall kept the vines fresh and the fruit ripened slowly and evenly.  The blend comprised  52% Shiraz, 30% Grenache, 18% Mourvedre and it was sourced from Stockwell, Light Pass, Krondorf, Marananga (Shiraz), Stockwell, Krondorf, Light Pass (Grenache),  Light Pass, Krondorf (Mourvedre).  Though tertiary and mellow in its very spicy, savoury flavour profile (fruitcake, saddle soap and linseed), the 2006 is very persistent and seamless – lovely length and line. 14.5%

Flight 5 – Charles Melton Nine Popes 2010, 2006, 2001 (Barossa Valley)

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When Charles Melton founded his eponymous winery in 1984 and chose to focus on Shiraz and Grenache, they were distinctly unfashionable. Speaking at the Landmark Tutorial on red blends in 2010 he told us that he really had to scratch around to find older examples of Grenache blends.

As for his approach he described his vision for Nine Popes thus – “we make a Grenache blend that relies on a fruit sweetness, plumpness and softness and use Mataro/Mourvedre as a seasoning for spiciness and grip.” Referring to the more recent trend of introducing Cinsault or Carignan to Barossa blends, he explained wasn’t for him because “it may add aromatics but it takes away from the weight and depth of our house style.”  Of the tasting, Nine Popes was the most traditional red – the most savoury, rich and plush in style.  And in a way this fits with Melton’s philosophy where he explained to me why he prefers blends over a strong varietal push – “I favour a much stronger nexus between place…the Barossa is synonymous with Mediterranean varieties so the style of wines and regional characteristics carry as much weight as varietal properties.”

In contrast to Duval, Melton sources his Grenache from the south of the Valley where there is less sand which, he says “tends to give sweeter, broader varietal characters.”  He explains “we are looking for a darker, more focused black fruit spice with maybe just a leavening touch of sweet musk,” hence he sources from red soils, river loams and black cracking (Bay of Biscay) clays from Tanunda down to Williamstown.

Pretty much all of the Grenache comes off six blocks ranging from 70 through to 130 years old.  The blend gets first priority on the high quality Grenache in any season. On the variety’s tendency to high alcohol Melton points out how alcohol levels have “wavered with the mores of the times, from 12.5 % in the mid to late ‘80’s to occasionally (only occasionally !) hitting the heady (and tailsy!) heights of 15 %.” These days he is looking for “a mature and sober 14 to 14.5 at most” and adds “if you don’t have full flavor development at 14.5 baume in our area, then pull the vineyard out and plant somewhere that’s bloody decent!!”  Save for severe drought years when the yield on many of his old blocks has been as low as 1.2 tonnes /ha, the three vintages shown were all within the normal range of 4.5 to 5.5 tonne /ha.

Since the first vintage in 1988, Melton has made other tweaks to the blend.  The percentage of Mataro has dropped because “it lacks the mid-palate richness we want…  we use it as a seasoning for a lovely dark prune lift to the aroma.”  The Grenache was originally sourced from the original bush vine vineyard which he bought in 1986 but, since then, other vineyards have been tapped.

The time in and type of wood has changed significantly over the years.  The first vintage was released in December 1988 after just part of it was oak aged for 6 months.  The early releases were predominately American oak aged (for budgetary and stylistic reasons) but this changed as “American oak was seen as gauche and French oak a statement of your worldly sophistication as a winemaker.”   For the vintages we tasted the oak regime has settled at around two thirds French 225l barriques & one third American oak (which is immersion bent  and European seasoned for a minimum 36 months).  For Melton the American oak “can meld into some sweetness of character to add another element to the typical Barossa Christmas pudding / spice flavours.” On average it ranges between 20 to 25% new, in a rich year going up to 30% or so.

Nine Popes is aged on reasonably thick lees for its whole maturation time, with no racking or battonage.  Final blending is done on a barrel by barrel basis after full oak ageing and it is bottled without fining and with a light filtration.

The three varieties are co-fermented with about half the fruit uncrushed and some whole bunch in the equation (especially for the Grenache “for structure and aromatic intensity”).  The open fermentation vats are hand plunged and the closed tanks pumped over; the fermentation temperature is at about 28 degrees centigrade for the first day then moderates to 18-22ºC “to help retain fruit flavours and elegance/aroma.”

Charles Melton Nine Popes 2010 (Barossa Valley)

For Melton a special vintage from the start, which produced ageworthy deeply coloured, sweet but dark focused fruit aromatics, a rich, almost velvety mouthfeel and fine tannins.  The 2010 comprises 73% Shiraz, 23% Grenache and 4% Mataro and it was aged for 24 months in 80% French oak, 20% American of which around 25% was new.  It’s a deep colour with a generous palate of fleshy plum and blackberry with spicy, savoury, creamy, chocolately oak.  Supple fruit and smooth tannins make for a lingering finish.  14.5%

Charles Melton Nine Popes 2006 (Barossa Valley)

Melton says “our best Grenache years tend to be the bright, mild years where we have good sun levels but without the scorching heat that may lead to burn. 2006 was such a year.  The blend comprises 50% Shiraz, 46% Grenache and 4% Mourvedre which was aged for between 16-18 months in 65% French oak, 35% American oak of which around 25% was new.  Classic mature sweet barnyardy Grenache to the nose with savoury black olive and rich, spicy fruitcake.  Good length, though I detected a touch of astringent oak to the finish. 14.5%

Charles Melton Nine Popes 2001 (Barossa Valley)

Good winter rains followed by mild pre-harvest weather. The highest temperature recorded was 33 degrees centigrade, which is relatively mild for a peak summer high in the Barossa. The wines have had a richness which, says Melton, the very cool 2000’s didn’t possess. The 2001 is a blend of 61.9% Shiraz, 35.4% Grenache and 2.7% Mourvedre. was aged for between 16-18 months in 60% French oak, 40% American oak of which around 25% was new.  A little porty on the nose with fruitcake and camphor notes which follow through on the palate together with creamier chocolate cherry truffle notes.  Going back to my glass at the end the spiciness stands out and the palate seems firmer – hello Mataro!  14.7%

 

 

 

 

 

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  1. Peter Nixon

    Hi Sarah

    Great article – Grenache is finally starting to attract the attention it deserves here in Australia, thanks to those producers you mention and the “Burgundian” techniques they are adopting – rather than extracting as much colour and alcohol as possible then smothering the wine in American oak in an effort to replicate the traditional South Australian Shiraz style. A new era indeed.

    The Schwarz Wine Co Thiele Barossa SA Grenache our panel looked at recently was simply stunning – I will ensure to bring a bottle when I meet you at the Hunter Valley wine show this year.

    Thank-you also for sharing the link to James Busby’s wine notes – an important part of Australian wine history.

    Kind regards Peter Nixon Dan Murphy’s Wine Panel – Melbourne Australia

  2. Richard Mills

    Hi Sarah

    I am also a big fan of Grenache after several stints in the Cote du Rhone. There is some fabulous 100% dry grown Grenache coming out of the Gomersal and Greenock areas from 50 year old vines.
    The most memorable in recent times was 2006 MSV Grenache followed closely by Magpie Estate 2009 “The Gomersal”. Both these winemakers, Andrew Seppelt and Rolf Binder understand the very non intrusive approach required to allow these wines to fully express their varietal character.


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