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Cirillo Estate: thrilling Barossa Grenache

Fabulous fruit centre, purity and balance; a 2009 tasted at Fermentasian also fabulous

Marco Cirillo with Cirillo Estate 1850 Grenache 2010 and Cirillo Estate Vincent Grenache 2014

I was extremely happy to see that I’ll be dining, once more, at FermentAsian in the Barossa later this month.   As the name suggests, it offers a fabulous fusion of wine with Asian food.  Which is unsurprising when it’s co-owned by Vietnamese chef Tuoi Do and her other half, Grant Dickson, who happens to work for Barossa icon Rockford Wines (whom I shall also be re-visiting).  But for now, I’d like to tell you about a thrilling Barossa Grenache producer to whom Dickson introduced me – Cirillo Estate.

Dickson showed me Cirillo Estate 1850 Grenache 2009.  Its youthful, zesty freshness, fruit purity and line quite simply stunned me. After all, this drought-affected vintage (let alone Grenache) is hardly shy!  But provenance is all. Check out my report of Wine Australia’s Old Vine Masterclass and you’ll see that the very same vineyard, planted in 1850, produced one of my standout wines – this time a white – Chateau Tanunda 150 Year Old Vines Semillon. So freshness and finesse is something of a given from these very old, deep-rooted vines.

Marco Cirillo with old vine 1850s Semillon

Marco Cirillo – the 1850 vineyard on super sandy, deep soils

The following day, I tasted the follow up 2010 vintage and met the (not so) junior Grenache, Vincent, at a generic Barossa tasting.  Marco Cirillo, the winemaker, swung by towards the end and we had a quick chat before I had to hot foot it to Adelaide to catch plane.  Afterwards, we caught up  by email for my upcoming feature for Decanter on new wave Grenache and Shiraz with ‘Pinosity’ (out next month).

I learned that Cirillo’s father, Vincent, acquired the aged vineyard in Light Pass in 1970. Although Vincent sold on the grapes, his son told me that this eighth generation Italian winemaker “always made a portion of wine for friends and family.” Taking the lead from his father he added, “I have never shied away from the point that I make wines for my family and me. These are wines that I would like to drink with my mother’s cooking. (My mother’s side has a lengthy history, and still have a coastal restaurant on the coast of Reggio, Calabria.) It was about making wines that matched our cuisine.” 

Historically, Grenache has not been made in a food friendly style.  For many years Australia’s most planted grape was the mainstay of fortified wines.  When they fell out of fashion it was a dire time for Grenache.  In surplus, it became the mainstay of over-cropped ‘stack it high, sell it cheap’ wines.  Mud sticks and, Cirillo quipped, “Grenache wasn’t the third  or fourth bridesmaid, not even a flower girl.”  He confided that his late father-in-law, Doug Lehmann (of Peter Lehmann Wines), described it as “a f**king weed,” that is until Cirillo opened a bottle of  Château Rayas Châteauneuf-du-Pape Pignan 1977 for him.  It was “a light bulb moment,” the winemaker recalls, for this then 50-something Barossan. (And, I might add, Rayas has influenced a good many of Australia’s new wave Grenache producers – take Col McBryde at Adelina and Ministry of Clouds’ Julian Forwood and Bernice Ong).

Rayas has not been Cirillo’s only Rhône influence.  He does a vintage with the Gonnet family of Font de Michelle, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, every second or third year,  regularly visiting their first cousins at Domaine du Vieux Telegraphe.  But he is clear about the differences between his Grenache and Châteauneuf-du-Pape: “[I]n the Barossa, we have a much warmer and longer summer, with less than 1/3rdof the rainfall. This results in a concentration that they just can’t naturally achieve.”   He defines the “Barossa stamp” as “the purity, generosity and the cleanliness of the new world.”  

As for terroir, Barossan Grenache, he observes, is influenced by many different soil types – “sand for pepper spice and fine tannins, heavier soils for big fruity punch.”  In Cirillo’s opinion, “[I]f the vineyard that you source from gives you the right balance of acid fruit tannin and texture, in the winery, it can be adapted into many styles to suit an array of cuisines making it one of the most food friendly choices.”  Planted in deep sand over limestone and clay, Cirillo’s 150+ year old Grenache vines inform the impressive acid tannin balance of his wines.

Terroir, vine age and, he adds, “a better understanding of when to harvest.” Cirillo now picks in three stages because “it allows me to balance the greener tannins to the rich over ripe tannins. This is for me is about building layers and getting the perfect balance is crucial. It is also works on fruit richness and generosity plus ‘crunchiness.’ Finally it gives me the natural acidity that I am looking for.” Referring to the very low pH of his wines, he says it lends itself to ageing – “you need to be patient with the wine for it to age before you release.” He is keeping back about 10% of production back for 10 and 20 year releases.

In the winery, age old techniques prevail.  While, he observes, using seasoned/large format oak, whole bunch and long post-fermentation macerations to build tannin structure “is somewhat of a fad or trend currently,” his family has used them for nine generations.  Mixing it up, Cirillo’s approach is to part whole-bunch and whole berry ferment with no added yeast or malic acid, though he does add a small amount of acid at the crusher from a distillery in Italy – a grape by-product – which he says integrates really well.

Cold soaking is done pre and post fermentation and the winemaker tries to keep the free run and ferment quite cold during hand pump overs or plunging. “I try to be as gentle during this process as possible.”  As for maturation, one third is stored in tank its whole life, another third is in 10+ year old seasoned French oak and the final third is stored in 80+ year old 1500 litre and 200 litre vats.

Below you’ll find my tasting notes.  Cirillo Estate 1850 Vines 2010 and Cirillo Estate Vincent 2013 can be bought direct from Cirillo’s UK importer,  Barossa & Beyond.  They specialise in bringing in small quantities of boutique wines from Barossa-based producers.  Cirillo Estate’s Grenaches are my pick of the bunch, but watch this space for my notes on other highlights.

Cirillo Estate Vincent Grenache 2014 (Barossa)

A hint of charcuterie/smokiness to the nose and palate.  The palate, silky, very fluid, reveals luminous (red) fruit – luminous for its light but bright, sappy presence.  Whole bunch riffs of spice, pepper and savoury (old vine) wood bring animation and depth.   Beautifully balanced; harmonious acidity brings freshness and length.  14%

Cirillo Estate Vincent Grenache 2013 (Barossa)

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Bright crimson and sweetly expressive on the nose with Turkish Delight and wild red cherry fruit, which follow through on the palate together with darker but juicy blackberry.  Once again, the fruit is worn lightly – almost translucently – revealing great layer and lift of spice (Imperial Leather) and edgier (but very attractive) stemmy whole bunch notes.  Fine but present sandpapery tannins anchor the flavours and lend a super subtle rusticity to the whole.  A very serious but also seriously smashable Grenache, which delivers heaps of drinking pleasure now but should age well into the mid-term too.  Delicious.  14% £18.06/bottle (case price) at Barossa & Beyond

Cirillo Estate 1850 Grenache 2010 (Barossa)

The 1850 Grenache’s spectacular intensity and concentration of fruit sets it apart.  Waves of plush, fleshy Barossa plum and black cherry wash creamily over the mid-palate and linger.  A tighter core of cassis is yet to be fully mined. Savoury oak and mineral notes emerge going through.  Tapering into the finish, sandpaper tannins and fresh, clean acidity firmly anchor and extend the fruit.  A baby; so much more to give.  I’d love to check in with this vintage again as a 10 or 20 year old Museum Release.  14.2% £34.80/bottle (case price) at Barossa & Beyond



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