International Grenache Day: thoughts, reflections and tasting notes
It’s International Grenache Day today and I’ve been building up to it in style. In both senses of the word. Whether you fancy Dark & Moody, Old & Gnarly or Bright & Crunchy, Australia’s new wave Grenache producers from McLaren Vale and the Barossa have your back.
I didn’t come up with the categories, but they served me and Mark Pygott MW well enough when we co-presented a tasting yesterday of six Grenaches on behalf of McLaren Vale and the Barossa respectively. These classic South Australian regions are Australia’s undisputed whip crackers for the variety, with the most plantings, innovation and premium plus focused output.
The premium positioning makes sense because there’s not a lot of Grenache and much is from Barossa and McLaren Vale’s low yielding old bush vines. Even in Australia’s top regions for the variety (by plantings and profile) – the Barossa has 721ha, whilst McLaren Vale has 456ha. Grenache represented just 1% of Australia’s crush in 2021.
Grenache – an increasingly diverse repertoire
As for the innovation, David Gleave MW observed in a Grenache webinar I hosted this time last year, “Grenache is cutting through the imagination.” For consumers and producers alike. This was an opportunity to highlight the variety’s increasingly diverse repertoire.
Irrespective of category, all six wines reflected the evolution in understanding, growing and vinifying Grenache in McLaren Vale and the Barossa with quality in mind. And to making it in a contemporary style, that is to say with freshness, drinkability and balance in mind.
Cue uber-site selection, earlier picking, uber-grape selection, sympathetic winemaking, with deft use of whole bunch, whole berry, cold soaks, extended maceration and a range of fermenting/maturation vessels. Except for new oak.
I’ve regularly tasted the McLaren Vale wines over the years and observed the evolution of the wine growing process (tweaks along the journey towards ever more refined wines, which I’ve highlighted below in my tasting notes).
No longer Poor Man’s Pinot Noir
The single varietal trend of the last decade has elevated Grenache to another level. It has become the darling of artisanal and boutique winemakers.
I’m convinced that the trend for single varietal Grenache partly rides on the coat tails of Australian Pinot Noir, which has built a better understanding and appetite for medium bodied, elegant wines with a postcode. Hence Grenache’s epithet warm climate or blue collar Pinot Noir.
However, I think Grenache is becoming its own watchword for quality and finesse. And revealing its versatility and character(s).
Gearing grapes to style
My discussions with the McLaren Vale producers prior to the webinar hammered home how ultra-selective they are about their fruit. Different Grenache parcels are directed to different cuvees.
Andre Bondar sent me an infra-red image of the Rayner vineyard showing relative vigour across the site to explain how he divvies up the Grenache parcels across the portfolio.
Rayner Grenache comes from a very specific, particularly low-yielding 0.7ha parcel. The soil is classic Blewitt Springs’ deep sand (up to 5m) over yellow clay, then ironstone bedrock. It is riddled with ironstone.
The sand produces the elegance and finesse he is looking for. It helps that, being gently East-facing, the site is less exposed to the hot afternoon sun.
Picked relatively early too, “to catch the red fruits and herb and natural tightness of the grape…when there is ‘life’ and crunch in the fruit,” it’s bright and crunchy. With underlying structure, it’s a more serious expression of the bright and crunchy style. Apparently, the 2015 vintage is still very primary, even though it was a hot year.
The other Grenache parcel for red wines produces higher yields and is picked for Bondar’s juicier/fruitier GSM, whilst the area where the natural rainfall channels through the middle of the two red wine Grenache block is the most vigorous. It is picked for rosé.
At Yangarra Estate in Blewitt Springs, winemaker Peter Fraser expects that young vine material (including ENTAV clones, currently on order) will most likely produce rosé or early-drinking Grenache, like Yangarra Estate’s PF (no added sulphur) Grenache or Noir.
At the other end of the spectrum, top cuvee Yangarra Estate High Sands has, in recent vintages, been a draconian single block selection from the oldest vines, planted in 1946. Block 31 is located on the deepest sand (over red/orange clay over ironstone), at the estate’s highest point (210m). It represents just 1.7ha of this biodynamically cultivated 170ha estate, of which 90ha is planted to vines, with a total of 26.5ha of Grenache.
High Sands’ tannins and structure are particularly striking. Whilst Rayner Vineyard’s soil profile is similar to Yangarra Estate, Bondar believes that High Sands’ grittier tannin structure reflects the cooler, higher site (210m versus 100m) and different planting material. At Rayner vineyard, says Bondar, the vines produce lighter bodied, bigger berries.
Site versus the human touch
The impact of planting, picking and winemaking decisions was evident as we tasted. Although we did not taste Yangarra Estate Ovitelli which comes from Block 30, right next to High Sands (Block 31), I was interested to know if the terroir was markedly different. Ovitelli is described as Yangarra’s most elegant aromatic style (and is lighter, less structured and intense).
Yangarra Estate’s winemaker, Peter Fraser, reckons the 2ha Block 30 is Yangarra Estate’s “next best block… very similar to Block 31, slightly shallower sand, 80cm versus 1 to 1.2 m for High Sands.” Both gnarly, old blocks were planted at the same time, in 1946.
“It’s the winemaking that makes Ovitelli so different,” says Fraser. The fermentation occurs in 675l ceramic eggs and it remain on skins for 158 days post fermentation. He observes, fermented this way, Ovitelli doesn’t have the same structure because it’s a cooler ferment in eggs and extended maceration post fermentation polymerises the tannins to produce a lighter colour, “with chamois like tannin.”
Aphelion’s technique-driven Grenache cuvees put the spotlight on winemaking techniques like no other. When I discussed them with leading Vale young gun Rob Mack prior to a Prowein tasting I presented in 2018, he remarked “given 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.”
Looking at Aphelion’s range now, the whole berry, whole bunch and pressings cuvees have gone, but Confluence – a Blewitt Springs old vine blend of techniques – remains. And there are two new wines. At $100/bottle, Rapture is a best barrels of vintage old vine bottling, also from Mack’s beloved Blewitt Springs.
For Aphelion’s new ‘Welkin’ label, a “furiously aromatic” vibrant, early release style Grenache (with a cheeky splash of 2% Nero d’Avola), the fruit is sourced from a coastal, presumably warmer site, which is younger too – 20 year old Grenache vineyard towards the sea in Whites Valley, near Port Willunga.
In the last decade, Grenache grape prices have shot up as demand grows, underscoring the premiumisation of this workhorse turned thoroughbred.
Toby Bekkers adds that Grenache’s newfound popularity and status is also reflected in “recent vineyard sales in the go-to areas and a dearth of Grenache nursery stock this year.” “Most of the great blocks in the region are now spoken for,” confirms Andre Bondar.
Looking at the producers of the three McLaren Vale wines, Bekkers and his wife Emmanuelle acquired the historic Peake/Gillard Clarendon Vineyard Estate site last year, while Bondar and Yangarra Estate have planted new Grenache bush vines in recent years.
They are not alone and, cautioned Bekkers, “I think there’s some danger in a large volume of young vine grenache hitting the market. Hopefully people will put the work into maximising quality.” Bekkers top flight 2018 Grenache incorporates around 10% of fruit from a relatively young 1990 trellised vineyard and, emphasises the viticulturist, “trellised is fine, so long as you’re prepared to thin shoots, crop reduction etc.”
I suspect we’ll see more young vine fruit going forward. And it will become old because the site is well chosen and the vines will crop low – the key to premium styles.
Hosted by Wine Australia, you can watch the discussion here, in which Mark and I highlighted the key differences between the Barossa and McLaren Vale in terms of climate. You’ll notice that the technical notes mention distance from the coast. There is a reason for that. Being inland, the Barossa has a pronounced continental climate, which translates into marked diurnal temperature variation – cooler nights, warmer days.
On the other hand, McLaren Vale’s coastal location at the top of the Fleurieu peninsula fronting the Gulf of St Vincent results in maritime influence. However, head north east and, further inland, especially with altitude as you approach the Adelaide Hills, there is a degree of continentality and nights are cooler.
All three McLaren Vale Grenaches shown were sourced from areas with a degree of continentality and/or lighter (mostly sandy) soils and I thought they all had lovely tension and vivid fruit. In both regions, there is consensus that lighter soils produce lighter wines than heavier (clay or loam) soils.
N.B. My notes are based on tasting from 75cl bottle over two days and the small sample bottles yesterday.
Bright & Crunchy Pair
David Franz Grenache Noir 2018 (Barossa Valley)
Soil type: Sand over orange/red clay
Distance from the coast: “3 beers”
Vines planted: 1923
Whole bunch: 33%
Ferment: 21 days + 2 weeks passive skin contact
Maturation: 12 months on Full Gross Lees
Oak: Seasoned French Oak Hogsheads
My tasting note
Pictured front left, this was markedly paler than the other Grenaches, with pronounced spiciness (liquorice and clove), with orange peel and sweet leather nuances to its soft strawberry/sweet strawberry brittle fruit. Powdery (talcy) tannins, with a bit of firmer spicier tannin too. The use of whole bunch (spiciness, spicy tannins) and extended skin contact (talcy tannins, paleness) make for a lighter framed ‘bistro style,’ although I felt my sample was developed. Still, lots of interest and character. 13.8% RRP £24 Imported to the UK by Graft Wine Co
Bondar Rayner Vineyard Grenache 2020 (McLaren Vale)
Soil type: Sand over pirramimma sandstone
Distance from the coast: approx. 17km
Vines planted: 1970
Farmed using organic practices, no irrigation
Whole bunch: 20%
Ferment & Maturation: 120 days ceramic eggs and seasoned French Oak.
My tasting note
Pictured top left, it is a vivid crimson hue, with an impression of pert red fruits (soon reinforced on the palate) and a pretty, fragrant nose, with violets, peony. Hints of orange and rose water and chinato too. In the mouth, the red cherry, pomegranate and berry fruit is vibrant – sweet, but not confected. Juicy water melon lends buoyancy as it opens up. Notes of anise and red liquorice lend savoury nuance. Bondar is crushing more fruit (less whole berry) for structure and sandy, nubular tannins gently graze the tongue on the persistent finish – an element of its freshness, but also its seriousness. (I should add that, in 2020, yields were half the average – just 20hl/ha). As I said, at the more serious end of the spectrum for this category, Bondar’s recommended food matches include fennel salami or spring lamb with fresh herbs and salad (middle eastern spices). Incidentally, the winemaker mentioned that he now favours barrels of five years old plus. I notice that he has also upped the amount of ceramic egg ferment, having dispensed with stainless steel and reduced the amount of oak. There’s no recipe, he says. It’s about vintage and continual refinement. Very refined the 2020 is too! 14% $40/cellar door.
Old & gnarly pair
Cirillo 1850 Grenache 2014 (Barossa Valley)
Soil type: Sand over yellow clay & limestone
Distance from the coast: approx. 80km
Vines planted: 1848 (oldest, continuously producing Grenache vines in the world)
Whole bunch: 0%, Complete Carbonic 100%
Ferment: 20 days open fermented, cold soak pre and post ferment for 6 days
Maturation: a third in old foudres and a third in 10-15 year old French oak barrels for 12 months, a third in steel, then all in 100% stainless steel for 5 years
I was shown the 2009 vintage of this wine during a Grenache-focused visit to the Barossa in 2015 and was impressed by the vibrant core of fresh fruit (click here for my earlier post, tasting and exchange with Marco Cirillo). Pictured middle, front, it is holding its colour well for a seven year old Grenache, with just a touch of brick to the rim. The nose and palate have a savoury, tertiary dimension, with a high toned lick of saddle soap to the leather, game, warm spice, smoke and orange peel. Very Chateauneuf du Pape! But there’s a lovely core of plum and sweet cherry too. Sunny and warm, yet clean lined, structured, it still has time on its side. Layers of spicy, musky Imperial Leather aromatics – sandalwood, liquorice, smoky clove – build with time in glass. The finish has classic sandy, textural, mineral tannins. 14% Imported to the UK by GB Wine Shippers RRP £54
Yangarra Estate High Sands 2018 (McLaren Vale)
Soil type: 1m deep white sand (silica) over red/orange clay
Distance from the coast: approx. 17km
Vines planted: 1946
Whole bunch: 0%; 100% destemmed 50% whole berry
Ferment: 100% free run juice
Maturation: 11 months on lees in one ceramic egg and French oak
Oak: Seasoned French oak
With good reason, regarded as Australia’s top Grenache vineyard, High Sands was first made in 2005. Winemaker Peter Fraser continues to tweak it and cosset the grapes better to express this distinguished parcel. Now with 10 years’ track record under its belt (none was made in 2008 and 2009), he hopes it will make the cut for the imminent next release of Langton’s Classification of Australian Wine. If it does, it will break the glass ceiling for Grenache (to date, only a couple of Barossa Grenache blends – GSMs -feature – Charlie Melton’s Nine Popes [outstanding] and John Duval’s Plexus [excellent]). I’ve written about some of the historic tweaks in this post, following a visit to Yangarra Estate and tasting with Fraser. A key shift, aside from narrowing in on Block 31, is the scything down of time in oak (24 months in 2006, 10% new) to 11 months today, with larger format oak (a shift to puncheons) and a little (ceramic) egg whisked in the mix! Fraser trialled extra fine grain new barrels with medium long toast water-bent from a Burgundian cooper (a barrel in the blend in 2017), but is now experimenting with 3rd use Austrian thick-staved puncheons. Like a demi-muid, but only 500l, the thick staves operate more like a foudre, he says (protecting the fruit). So, how is the 2018. Magnificent, in a word. Yields were desperately low at 12hl/ha. Pictured middle/back, it is a little deeper in colour than the Bondar, bright crimson, with youthful purple glints. Displays a lovely purity of fragrant, fresh raspberry with mouth-watering pithy pomegranate, cranberry, al dente red cherry and cherrystone fruit, some grip/grit to the tannins and savoury undertones. Youthful as it looks, it’s lively in the mouth – energetic, with a coiled tension. And, though intense, the fruit cleaves close – with a certain sparseness and economy about it – as if to remind you, like the vines, it has staying power and will only get better! Layers of flavour unravel given time, with musk (dried roses), pepper, citrus orange peel and lavender inflections. The (natural) acid backbone, the tannins – sandy and mineral, sinewy and scratchy (thoroughly engaging) – make for a long, linear palate, with great persistence. Culminates with a sandpaper over the tongue quality to the finish. These gnarly old vines and this winemaking produces a long haul wine. Fraser reckons it starts opening up in 6-8 years (he mentioned that the 2013 & 2014 are just opening up, but still quite primary). At 8-10 years, he says it’s “very safe and covers off best of both worlds, but there’s no reason they will not go 20 plus in the right conditions from the best vintages.” 14.5% Imported to the UK by Boutinot, RRP £100
Dark & brooding
Turkey Flat Grenache 2018 (Barossa Valley)
Soil type: Heavy, cracking Biscay clay
Distance from the coast: approx. 70km
Vines planted: circa 1920s
Whole bunch: 15% + 50% of remaining stems
Ferment: Neutral oak foudre & puncheons
Maturation: 12 months
Oak: Seasoned French Foudre & 20% second use Burgundian hogsheads
Pictured right/front, it is suitably dark and, yes brooding, but also very expressive and generous now. Ever so appealing and drinkable with its effusive whole bunch aromats – a great sense of alcohol steeped botanicals – chinato – bringing heightened intensity to the orange peel, liquorice, fern and Imperial Leather notes. Succulent sweet red cherry and plum fruit, with sappier, perfumed water melon pervades the palate. The bones are well covered and, with harmonious juicy acidity and an undertow of sandpapery tannins, the flavours and aromas are kept in play. Buoyant, long and satisfying, it wears it alcohol very well. 15% Imported to the UK by Mentzendorff & Co, it’s great value at RRP £23
Bekkers Grenache 2018 (McLaren Vale)
Altitude: Blewitt Springs 98-107m; Kangarilla 240-244m; Onkaparinga Hills 186-201m.
Soil types: Blewitt Springs/Kangarilla – deep bleached sand and ironstone gravel over orange clay; Onkaparinga Hills – brown clay, loam and slaty siltstone.
Distance from the coast: approx. 8-17km
Vines planted: Blewitt Springs 1930’s; Onkaparinga Hills 1960’s; Kangarilla c1990
Whole bunch: 10%, remaining whole berry
Ferment: Cold soaked for 5-6 days
Maturation: on fine lees with minimal sulphur
Oak: seasoned French oak 500l puncheons for c. 11 months
Pictured right/back, the Bekkers Grenache has a couple of points of difference from the other wines shown. It is a blend from three sites and, as I mentioned earlier, has a small component of (relatively) young vines. I say relatively, because 35 years old technically constitutes ‘old vines’ under the Barossa Old Vine Charter, reflecting the fact that vines have well and truly hit their straps by then, if not quite as auto-regulating as older material. It has good colour but, if memory serves me correctly, is perhaps a touch lighter than earlier vintages, reflecting a shift from 2016, “going higher for lighter framed fruit to take the weight out in the vineyard, not the winery,” said Bekkers. Blended to celebrate McLaren Vale’s generous Mediterranean climate, but produce a wine which, says winemaker Emmanuelle Bekkers, “should still be on a rail, so it has structure and line,” it has the couple’s trademark svelteness and carries a little more flesh – mid-palate – than the other McLaren Vale examples. (Click here for my report of a visit and a vertical in 2015). Whilst the oak is seasoned and large format, you feel its influence more, but for support, not flavour. Part of the “rail” – the oak lends a smoother, more immersive scaffolding than whole bunch/Blewitt Springs’ grainier, textural tannins, which parry dynamically with the touch sour, firm red cherry and plum fruit, with brambly juice and flesh. Very young and focused, with wafts of turkish delight and Imperial Leather spice, it is beautifully stitched. Though built to age and, in that sense, dark and brooding, it remains light on its feet, with a sense of brightness from tip to toe. Whilst Bekkers prefers Grenache at 3-6 years from harvest for spice and fragrance, he thinks their wines will last much longer. That freshness and tannin structure is key. 14.5% Imported into the UK by Atlas Wines. RRP £50.
Let me share Toby Bekkers’ insightful remarks on the contribution of each vineyard. Onkaparinga Hills produces a “dense, dark, tannic, small berried fruit from a very tough site- shallow topsoil, rocky siltstone subsoils.” The flavours are darker, he adds – blackberry compote and quince – whilst the tannins are rounder tannin, more on the middle palate. On the other hand, the Kangarilla site at 245m – the higher elevation (more rainfall, cooler), produces bigger berries, higher yields and, being more shaded, ripens much later, resulting in “a very much lighter frame.” It tames the density of the other parcels with its white pepper, clove and star anise to its pretty red fruit. From Blewitt Springs, more medium-bodied raspberry and strawberry fruit contributes asiatic spice and turkish delight/rose water fragrance with the sub-region’s signature “mouth coating all-around tannin, long and layered.” Sage and black olive savouriness too.