Grenache: Old Vines, New Ways

Australia’s most experienced wine journalist and judge, James Halliday, has described Grenache as “Australia’s secret weapon.” So long has the variety been in the chorus line – blended with Shiraz or Mourvèdre – but a movement to turn the spotlight on Grenache as solo star has been gathering pace in Australia for many years, as featured in my report from McLaren Vale early in 2017.

It seems there is momentum too with reports that grape prices are rising steadily, even overtaking Shiraz prices in Australia. The current price of $2150 per ton compares with $190 per ton back in 1985. The industry also reports a growth in sales which is “solidly at the premium end of the spectrum.”  Perhaps that’s why two British MWs, Giles Cooke and David Gleave, independently decided to set up wineries in Australia’s prime Grenache hotspot of McLaren Vale to focus on the variety.

I met up with both via Zoom in autumn 2020 to taste a range of wines and learn what Grenache means for them. David Gleave says his Willunga 100 project began after he was introduced to its potential quality in McLaren Vale by Steve Pannell of the eponymous S.C. Pannell, saying “Grenache was, at that time, much cheaper than the other varities, so we thought it was worth the punt.”  Giles Cooke partnered with Fergal Tynan (yet another MW), the pair working for Alliance Wine, a distributor, and “trying to sell Australian wines to the premium on-trade,” (restaurants and hotels, etc.) in the UK. They believed there was an opportunity for a ‘new’ style of Grenache when they set up Thistledown Wines in 2010.

Though none of these wines are light-weights, only two staying below 14% alcohol by volume, each also displayed freshness in terms of both the fruit, generally in the red fruit spectrum and, crucially, in the juiciness of the fruit and acidity.

The Wines

(2021) The vines here are 95 years old, on red clay soils. Made in open fermenters, aged on fine lees in steel for 12 months. Lovely pale colour, translucent on rim, quite herbal with small red berries. The fruit is firm and elegant on the palate, savoury, juicy, less overtly sweet fruited than some but has that clean, long, elegant character.
(2021) From Blewitt Springs, arguably the home of the new wave Grenache movement. From vines planted in 1952 in deep sandy soils, open-topped fermenters then aged in the lees in tank for 12 months. Very pure, very direct fruit, combining red and black fruits, a background of firm, leafy green herbs. Super-juicy on the palate, still with a good mouthfeel but great alacrity, keen fruit, elegant and edged by fine, sandy tannins and pert acidity. So drinkable.
(2021) A very pretty, pale colour, from sandy, loam soils, the vines were planted in 1970 on the edge of the Blewitt Springs region. 20% whole bunches in this wine, made in a combination of ceramic eggs and French oak barrels. Fragrant red fruits and a herbal touches, the palate is juicy and firm, lots of keen raspberry but also pulpy strawberry softness, but all butteressed by very fresh acidity and tight, quite spicy tannins.
(2021) Named because half of the vineyard was destroyed by a fallen power line igniting a fire, but this sourced from the old vines that survived. 50% whole bunches, foot pressed, and fermented and aged in 300-litre French oak barrels. A beautifully perfumed wine this, there's a spicy and herbaceous lift, that touch of hessian in the background from the stems, but lovely fruit and lift. The palate is smooth and ripe, a creamier mouthfeel than the Bondar, but similarly bright red fruit. Tannins very fine, cherry-ripe acidity lovely.
(2021) 60% of this wine comes from 80-year-old vines, the rest 50-year-old. 75% feremented as whole buches and aged in neutral barrels and oak casks. Fragrant, creamy, lifted red fruit with a distinct floral edge. Some creamy, almondy touches. Red fruited but really firm and gravelly on the palate, taut structure and elegant but incisive acidity. Long.
(2021) From two vineyards, one 82 and one 99 years of age and planted on deep sand, 92% of fruit was destemmed, and aged in old puncheons and foudres. Again quite an intense, deep colour, but not dense, this has a solidity to the fruit too, more plummy and full, but once again that does not mean heavy or dense: the fine tannins and the good, tangy and sour cherry acid balance is excellent, in a big and mouth-filling wine, but not without finesse.
(2021) From sandy soils with clay, vinified in open-topped fermenters with 20% whole bunches, it spend time maturing in large, old oak barrels. Soaring creamy aromatics here, real eucalyptus lift and floral notes, very distinctive with a sprinkle of pepper. In the mouth it has rich texture and quite a solid, concentrated feel, and yet the finish is bright and focused, good structural components and long.
(2021) Still a medium hued crimson colour, no whole bunches here, nine months in older French oak. Spicier than the previous wines, a little meatier in terms of its aromas. Mouthfilling and ripe fruit, really quite tangy, there's a plummy quality, but a rasp of tannin and souring acidity that gives some grip and real gastronomic appeal.
(2021) From old bush vines, this is fermented in layers of whole bunches and destemmed fruit, matured in a combination of oak and concrete tanks. Elegant ruby colour, fabulous fragrance again, real spice and a natural feeling earthiness in the background, great fruit sweetness, and a lusciousness here balanced by very fine structure indeed.
(2021) Vine grower Bernard Smart is the charming man, featured riding on his tractor on the label. Giles says he was selling his fruit to local families for home winemaking because there were no commercial buyers, even though a beautiful vineyard with vines up to 100 years old. 20% whole bunches and aged in 300-litre french barrels, 25% new. Much deeper and more violet in colour than some, perfumed, a touch of lipstick and vinous, keen red fruits are firm. Very firm on the palate too - a much more obvious tannin than in some, but retains its charm, brightness and the inherent fruit concentration and sweetness comes through beautifully.
(2021) A blend from three different districts of McLaren Vale, planted between 1930 and 1960. 20% whole bunches, this is made in open fermenters with natural yeasts, and ageing was in 500-litre barrels of French oak, with minimum added sulphur. A very pale wine this, a warmth, nuttiness and earthiness to the nose, a touch of chestnut and pepper, solid but fragrant red fruit. In the mouth dry, savoury tannins give a very gastronomic feel. Is there a touch of heat from that 15% alcohol? I think there is, but really tha balance is very good, with freshness and keen acidity ensuring this is not heavy.
(2021) High Sands is a very old vine vineyard, at the highest point of sandy and clay dunes, planted in 1946. Certified biodynamic, 50% whole bunches used, and no press wines included. Eleven months in older French oak. A more intense colour than many here, but not opaque, a vinous, silky perfume, very pure, the oak very much in the background. On the palate such full and luscious fruit, heady and perfumed as you drink, but sweet and mouth-filling, with a lovely juiciness to the acids and fine-grained, sandy tannins.

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