Grenache wine is now being replanted in the Barossa Valley. STEPHEN BROOK finds it a refreshing alternative to Shiras.
The Barossa, for all its familiarity as one of Australia’s best-known wine regions, is something of an enigma. Founded by mostly German-speaking Silesians, from a part of Europe with no tradition of viticulture, they planted not only Germanic varieties such as Riesling, but also southern French grapes: Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre. Barossa has become best known for its Shiraz, a heady brew of often overripe fruit, American oak and alcohol, a controversial style now championed by Robert Parker. Fortunately the Barossa has more to offer, for many of the gnarled old bush vines glimpsed in the region are not Shiraz at all but its stablemates Grenache wine and Mourvèdre.
Grenache in particular can produce excellent wine here, and we are lucky it still exists. The grape glut of the late 1970s and early 1980s encouraged the government to persuade growers to pull out the uneconomic old vines, with their wretchedly low yields, and replace them with more bountiful commercial varieties. Despite what is now perceived as an act of viticultural vandalism, some 700ha (hectares) of Grenache survived, mainly because it was valued as the region’s principal grape for fortified wines. Moreover, producers such as Grant Burge are now replanting bush-vine Grenache to maintain a steady supply; modern Grenache clones are high-yielding and not well suited for good quality wine. ‘The problem with Grenache,’ says Charlie Melton, one of the Barossa’s best exponents of the variety, ‘is that it varies so much in style, so consumers don’t know what to expect.’ Rolf Binder, whose labels include Magpie and Veritas, agrees: ‘Not only is there such stylistic variation, but till recently a lot of Grenache was sweet, sickly and hard to sell.’
It’s a variety that is sensitive to yield. Melton goes so far as to maintain that it loses its nobility and distinctiveness when cropped at more than 30hl/ha. ‘Some growers think they can push the yields up to 90 or even 120hl/ha, but they end up with wines that are alcoholic and thin. But it’s not just a question of yield. There are numerous old clones around, and some are better than others. The best clones are those that give small berries, which in turn give more concentrated wines.’There are other problems associated with Grenache. It can be temperamental at fruit-set, and, should it rain late in the growing season, the grapes can easily swell and lose fruit concentration. The wine can be light in colour, and prone to oxidation. Overcropped Grenache can exhibit boiled-sweet aromas with that slight sickliness to which Binder alludes.
With such a catalogue of woes, you could be forgiven for thinking Grenache is not worth bothering with, but in fact much Barossa Grenache is delicious. It can also age well. The Bethany winery, founded by the Schrapel family in the mid-19th century, has been producing Grenache for some years. During fermentation some of the juice is bled from the tank to improve concentration, and the wine is aged for six months in older oak. It can be quite pale when young, an essentially light and fruity wine, yet it mysteriously seems to take on weight and flesh as it ages. If the enjoyable Bethany Grenache wines can lack complexity, those from Charles Melton show the kind of multi-faceted grandeur Grenache can attain in the Barossa. He produces a pure Grenache as well as the more celebrated Nine Popes, a Grenache-dominated blend. Melton’s Grenache, cropped at a low 30 hl/ha and aged in 25% new French oak, is rich, supple and concentrated, with complex aromas that become more meaty and leathery with age, and can develop liquorice tones. Melton also produces one of Australia’s best rosés from Grenache, Rose of Virginia, itself almost as deeply coloured as some other producers’ red Grenache.
Rick Burge of Burge Family Winemakers is another Grenache veteran. He usually blends in about 15% Shiraz to give the wine more fruit and colour. A cask sample from 2001 had 16? alcohol, but it didn’t show. The 2000 Old Vine Garnacha is quite superb, with a rich, plummy, oaky nose, and hefty, peppery, minty fruit on the palate. Rolf Binder produces Grenache from a number of vineyards, of which the best is Gomersal, bottled as a varietal wine under his Magpie label. ‘Yield is critical,’ says Binder, a stocky man who oozes quiet confidence in his own competence, ‘as it’s harder to get full flavour ripeness with Grenache than with Shiraz’. He bleeds the tanks to remove about one quarter of the must, and ages the wine in older barrels. The results are deeply impressive. The 1999 is very dark in colour, and on the palate dense and gamey, and seamless in texture. The 2000 is on the same level.Binder and Burge only produce a few thousand cases a year, and the wines have become sought after and expensive. Peter Lehmann, on the other hand, produces some 400,000 cases in all, so one expects a more commercial style – yet here too the Grenache is a serious wine. The 2001 Grenache showed a tell-tale bonbon nose that suggests some overcropping, but the wine is nonetheless ripe. More complex is the Lehmann Grenache/Shiraz blend, which is smokier in aroma, and richly juicy on the palate. Yalumba also produces fine Bush Vine Grenache, including a bottling from Tricentenary Vines (vines dating from 1889). The regular bottling is produced from 70-year-old vines. Both are good wines, with ample raspberry and cherry fruit. The 2000 is especially good, with dense, more chocolatey flavours than the fresher, brighter 1999.
There are a number of fine blends in which Grenache shares the billing with Shiraz and Mourvèdre. Grant Burge, with 405ha of vineyards, had plenty of Grenache vines, but with the decline of fortified wines, wasn’t sure what to do with them. Burge and his winemaker Craig Stansborough travelled to the Rhône to understand the scope of Grenache, and in 1995 produced the first vintage of Holy Trinity, a Grenache-dominated blend with Shiraz and Mourvèdre, all from old vines. Burge and Stansborough rapidly refined the style, using only French oak from 1997 and introducing extended maceration techniques in 1998. The result is a rich, sleek, berryish wine, with ripe tannins and a positive finish. A Reserve version is given even longer maceration, but I’m not convinced the results are superior.By now there are many similar blends, such as Lehmann’s Seven Surveys, and Henschke’s Johann’s Garden, concentrated and chocolatey, with a powerful black-fruits character that contrasts strongly with the more raspberry- and cherry-tinged wines such as those from Bethany and Yalumba. The most profound is surely Charles Melton’s Nine Popes – tasting the 1996, 1998, and 1999 side by side, the consistency, depth of flavour, and tannic opulence of the wines came shining through.The Barossa (and McLaren Vale) have come to terms with Grenache with far greater success than any other non-European wine region. There are some fine Californian Grenache wines, but they can be counted on the fingers of one hand. For those, like myself, who find the excesses of so much Barossa Shiraz hard to take, Grenache – rich, lively and food-friendly – provides an attractive alternative.
Stephen Brook is a contributing editor to Decanter.