Homegrown grenache has won over crowds and critics alike, with local winemakers praising its elegance, versatility and huge potential. By Jeni Port
A quarter of a century ago, a young Peter Fraser fell in love with the grenache grape. The McLaren Vale winemaker remembers walking along the vines of a 20-hectare patch of old vine grenache that his employer, Normans Wines, had just bought, and he felt enlivened. They were now his.
These days, there’s a new vineyard owner (Jackson Family Wines) and the vineyard has a new name (Yangarra Estate), but Fraser continues to walk along the same vines. His emotional connection to the grape and to McLaren Vale remains as strong as ever. What has changed, fortunately, is Australian wine drinkers’ perception of grenache.
“I remember being so passionate about grenache in the late ’90s and early 2000s, and I would present it at wine dinners,” says Fraser. “In those times, it was mostly older gents, and I would hear from the crowd, ‘It’s not bad for blending … [But] when is the shiraz and cabernet [coming]?’”
Grenache has gone from a fortified filler and third string in many South Australian red wines to a celebrated single varietal that’s taking off in the relatively “foreign” soils of Victoria, New South Wales and Western Australia — all in the space of 15 to 20 years.
From obscure to outstanding
Many old grenache vines in Australia have managed to avoid being grafted to shiraz or another trendy grape. The quality of the variety shone through and was recognised. As a result, producers now have some of the oldest bush vine grenache in the world; in some Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale vineyards, the vines are 100 years old or more.
It helped that those who saw the grape’s potential acted upon it — people such Ian Hongell, chief winemaker and general manager at Torbreck Vintners in the Barossa Valley. Hongell works with dry-grown, low-yielding vineyards that are still hand-pruned and -picked. “These vines will produce grapes that will ripen with great flavour and bright colour intensity,” Hongell says. “And I think, as people discover the flavours and feel of grenache, there will be a continued resurgence of the variety.”
Many of the nation’s sommeliers saw the food-friendliness of the grape and listed the newer, medium-bodied and juicy styles on their wine lists. Then there were the leading wine judges and critics who noted winemakers’ almost 180-degree change in attitude towards the grape, loved it and rewarded it with overwhelmingly favourable reviews and scores. Consumers followed.
Getting to know grenache
Grenache hails from France’s Rhône Valley or, to be precise, the southern Rhône’s Côtes du Rhône and Châteauneuf-du-Pape regions, where it tends to bring plenty of warm-hearted blackberry, cherry-raspberry and spice appeal to blended reds.
In Spain, where it’s called garnacha, it rivals tempranillo as the most planted red grape variety in the country.
Grenache is happy in the heat. Its naturally high alcohols and richness of fruit reveal a boldness that Australian winemakers have always appreciated. Today, however, they are turning down the volume, looking to cooler vineyard sites, picking earlier and expressing a different side to the grape.
Mike Brown, managing director and chief winemaker of Gemtree Wines in McLaren Flat, believes the search for new sites for the grape is finally paying off. “The cooler sites of the Barossa and the Vale create styles with more finesse [that show] purity and depth through restraint, not power,” he says.
Along with Gemtree, other McLaren Vale producers — including SC Pannell, Yangarra, Turkey Flat, Torbreck and Hentley Farm — are helping fulfil the grape’s great potential by planting it in cooler locations.
The grenache bug has also caught on in other regions. Winemakers are discovering and celebrating the grape’s versatility everywhere from Heathcote in Victoria to Frankland River in Western Australia to Hilltops in New South Wales. It can move in style from a pristine aromatic-driven rosé or juicy berry confection to something fuller, more savoury and complex.
At Tellurian Wines in Heathcote, chief winemaker Tobias Ansted made the company’s first 100 per cent varietal grenache in 2015. Ansted says local producers are still working out where the grape, which is one of the region’s newer varieties, will perform best. “Although grenache can undoubtedly produce excellent standalone wines, my personal feeling is it may be that the best wines are made from thoughtful blends of grenache and other Rhône varieties,” Ansted says. “That is why we have also planted mourvedre, carignan and cinsaut.”
Fellow Heathcote winemaker Rachel Gore, at Heathcote Winery, sees a big future for the grape as a Provence-style rosé. She appreciates its purity of fruit, fine line of acid and the balance achieved when picked early. There’s also the “ever so slight” underlying savoury character it sometimes shows.
Playing it cool
Even winemakers completely new to the grape are getting excited. Michael Dhillon at Bindi Wines in Victoria’s Macedon Ranges is familiar with cool-climate chardonnay and pinot noir. But grenache? “It was a revelation to see the fruit,” he says.
He made his first rosé in 2020 with Heathcote fruit he bought in, fermented like he would a pinot noir and matured in small barrels for 10 months. The result was impressive. Raspberry, red cherry, pomegranate and almond aromas exploded from the glass. “Very seductive and charming,” Dhillon recalls. “The mid-weight, fresh, textured and satisfying palate was a pleasing outcome.”
One of the country’s leading pinot noir makers, Tom Carson at Yabby Lake in Victoria, is similarly enamoured. He and his wife, Nadège Sune, planted what’s believed to be the region’s first grenache in 2001 — in soils where some of the best Yarra Valley cabernet sauvignon and shiraz are also grown — and have released single-varietal grenache wines under their family’s Yarra Valley label, Serrat.
The couple’s success has made other Yarra Valley makers sit up and take notice. “I think that some of the warmer sites in the Yarra [would] be very good for grenache,” says Steve Webber, Yarra Valley chief winemaker at De Bortoli, who is yet to plant grenache but is taking a keen interest.
Shaping the future
The little red grape with the big personality is being reimagined in Australia, transforming into a sophisticated, elegant beauty with a promising future.
The winemaker who saw its early potential all those years ago and who’s now making some of the most stunning incarnations of grenache in Australia — Yangarra Estate’s Peter Fraser — can’t keep the smile off his face.
He likes to talk about the little one-percenters that make the difference with grenache. It’s not about looking at what France or Spain are doing; it’s about considering every little detail, from the vineyard to the winery. “Like the great pinot noir and nebbiolo of the world, it is the fine details, the one-percenters that compound, that bring the X factor,” Fraser says. “It will be the adoption of this uncompromising philosophy that will take Australian grenache to the forefront of classic wines of the world.”
This is an extract from an article that appears in print in our ninth edition, Page 84 of Winning Magazine with the headline: “Amazing Grapes”. Subscribe to Winning Magazine today.