Same vineyard, same grape, 6 winemakers: the Grenache Project bears fruit
I hate to say I told you so but … well, I told you so.
In my first column for this newspaper a year ago I hailed grenache as a grape variety on the rise in Australia. And look what a huge year 2017 turned out to be for this once-maligned red wine.
At the Barossa Wine Show in September, the 2016 Bethany Old Vine Grenache won three trophies, including the gong for best wine of show. And in October the 2016 Turkey Flat Grenache, from a vineyard just up the road from Bethany, won the famous Jimmy Watson Memorial Trophy. It's the first time a wine made from grenache has won the Jimmy, and from what I can gather it's also the first time the grape has achieved such prominence in the Barossa show.
It came as no surprise, then, to learn that during the 2017 vintage the Artisans of Barossa group decided to play a little game with some grenache grapes to explore the role of winemaking in the expression of terroir.
The Artisans are six wine producers – John Duval Wines (John and his son Tim), Sons of Eden (Corey Ryan and Simon Cowham), Massena (Jaysen Collins), Schwarz Wine Co (Jason Schwarz), Spinifex (Pete Schell), and Hobbs of Barossa Ranges (Greg and Allison Hobbs) – who share a beautiful cellar-door tasting room near Tanunda in the heart of the Barossa.
In late March, they each picked a parcel of grenache grapes from the 46-year-old Quarry Hill vineyard near Angaston and took the fruit back to their respective wineries. A fascinating project: same vineyard, same fruit, harvested at the same ripeness, but six different approaches to winemaking. How would they turn out? Would vineyard character – terroir – triumph? Or would the fermentation techniques stomp all over the flavour of the grapes and produce six wines that reflected maker more than provenance?
It's not the first time something like this has been done. In 2008, 2010 and again in 2015, for example, a group of six grape-treaders (including Pete Schell from Spinifex) ran a similar exercise with shiraz grapes from the Chalk Hill vineyard, with the wines sold in a six-pack under the Alpha Crucis label.
The Grenache Project six-pack was released just before Christmas. The Artisans kindly sent me the wines to taste, which I did, blind, over a number of days. And I can tell you that right now, 10 months after vintage, the winemaking influence is far more obvious than the vineyard-derived characters that all six wines should, theoretically, share (they were made from the same fruit, remember).
This fits with my experience of other wines made from the same site by a number of producers. In their youth, the differences can be stark, thanks to factors such as how much (if any) whole bunch fruit went into the fermenter, how long the wine spent on skins after ferment, what kind of oak it was aged in and so on.
But as wines age, the winemaking influence recedes a little (it never disappears) and the underlying terroir and vintage conditions emerge. In the case of the Grenache Project wines, despite their differences, all of them do have a savoury, sinewy edge – albeit subtle – and I'd expect this to build over time.
The only way to find out, of course, is to buy a couple of six-packs – one to try now (chuck some garlicky lamb on the grill and invite some wine-geek friends over to share the bottles with you) and one to try in five years' time.
Grenache six ways
2017 Grenache Project Schwarz [Barossa Valley]
Jason Schwarz's 100 per cent whole-bunch fermented grenache, bottled early straight from tank, is the lightest and most immediately quaffable of the six wines. With its perfumed red cherry fruit and squishy tannins it tastes almost more pinot-like – no, gamay-like – than grenache-like.
2017 Grenache Project Ryan/Cowham [Barossa Valley]
Corey Ryan and Simon Cowham chose to make their grenache using very different techniques to those they employ for their Sons of Eden wines: 100 per cent whole bunch, fermentation in an egg-shapped vessel, and two months' maceration on skins. This explains the wine's savoury, sappy, slightly minty characters and persistent powdery tannins.
2017 Grenache Project Collins [Barossa Valley]
Another 100 per cent whole-bunch wine, left for a month to ferment in a closed tank, where it underwent carbonic maceration before pressing. At first taste this was the earthiest and funkiest of the six wines (in keeping with the Massena style) but exposure to air revealed some lovely, crunchy, bright purple fruit flavours.
2017 Grenache Project Schell [Barossa Valley]
Pete Schell's use of 50 per cent whole bunch, carbonic maceration and ageing in large old oak all contribute to this exceptionally vibrant expression of grenache – intensely aromatic (sarsaparilla, Campari, rose petals, vermouth herbs), wonderfully lively and juicy in the mouth. My pick of the six right now. Will be fascinating to see how it ages.
2017 Grenache Project Duval [Barossa Valley]
As you'd expect perhaps from ex-Penfolds chief winemaker John Duval, this expression of the Quarry Hill grenache is well balanced, approachable and generous. Just a little whole bunch in the ferment and gentle pressing have resulted in a wine with lovely supple dark fruit and flowing tannins draped across the tongue.
2017 Grenache Project Hobbs [Barossa Valley]
Greg and Allison Hobbs chose to turn the volume up to 11 on their grenache parcel by drying the grapes on racks for five days before crushing and fermenting them. The result is a quite different style of wine to the others: dark, dense, glossy blueberry and black cherry fruit, round, slick dark chocolate tannins.
The 2017 Grenache Project six pack – one of each wine in each pack – is available for $250 plus $10 delivery. artisansofbarossa.com.
Article by Max Allen
Appeared in the Australian Financial Review, 12 January 2018