Time to shine
Ten years ago you could not even give old vine grenache fruit away. Gnarled old vines that had survived more than a century of growing seasons were routinely ignored and passed over for young vine Shiraz, their glorious fruit often ending up in all kinds of generic blends, wasted.
It wasn’t their fault. Most local winemakers were yet to crack the code of crafting great grenache and in many cases treated it like cheap shiraz. But the tables have turned and now top-quality Grenache is in short supply.
It is a wonder grenache made it at all and we have the old growers to thank for sticking with it when times were tough. Until the 1960s grenache was the most planted variety in the country as it was handy for fortified wines. Then in the 1980s, when the government paid growers to pull out old grapevines, it was grenache that suffered most.
Old, exceptional vines were unceremoniously ripped from the ground, piled high and burnt. Knowing what we know now about the potential of Australian grenache, which has yet to be fully realised, it is one of the greatest disasters to hit the local wine industry. It was also the defining moment when grenache finally fell out of favour and shiraz rose in its place.
Rare resources well suited to the warm, dry Australian climate were rubbed out well before their true worth was known. Once making up 20 per cent of the country’s vineyards, grenache is now down to 1 per cent. Conversely, the fruit price is higher than it ever has been as its true value is finally on display. It’s been a long time coming, as belief in grenache by viticulturists and winemakers has also slowly risen in recent decades along with their effort to produce great Australian wines. Spain and Southern France have long been homes to world-class wines made from grenache and finally, Australia is coming to the party.
Grenache is in many ways similar to high-quality pinot noir. It is an expert at translating the fruit and land to give vastly different wines thanks to only small changes in the natural environment. Soil, geography and climate can all have their own unique impact on grenache.
Great grenache is also distinctly savoury, with a brooding iron heart behind its curtain of fleshy fruit. It is also a little mysterious – the best grenache does not jump out and grab you. It’s shy and sneaks up from the shadows to take your heart. So it needs a little patience, and this has always been the challenge for this variety against the likes of shiraz and cabernet sauvignon, with their Time to shine Out of the shadows, grenache is finally coming into its own immediate appeal. But it does deliver, if in a more subtle way. So much so that in a warmer and drier environment it is highly likely that in the decades to come Australian grenache will be our lead wine offering to the world.
Grenache is also in some ways like chardonnay – it’s incredibly versatile, with different winemaking styles teasing out very different sides of the variety. From the bigger, broader traditional Aussie red to fine, silky and detailed modern styles, beautifully illustrated in recent releases from the Artisans of Barossa.
The Artisans is a group of like-minded Barossan winemakers who have banded together to market, and in some cases make, wines. It boasts legendary winemakers such as John Duval, plus an eclectic mix of established names and rising stars. Their range includes the Grenache Project, where six winemakers add their own stamp to fruit taken off a single vineyard. In 2020 it was taken from a 45-year-old vineyard in the sandy soils of Light Pass, long home to some of the Barossa’s best grenache.
Winemaking was varied, from traditional extractive styles to leach out as much colour and fruit as is possible, to more nuanced approaches with whole-bunch fruit and extended maceration. It’s a fascinating exercise to line up all the wines and see each winemaker’s signature – some more obvious than others. The wines are invariably delicious and incredibly varied, showing just some of what is possible with this chameleon of a grape variety.
Artisans of Barossa Grenache Project Schwarz 2020
"The lightest and a more modern expression of grenache showing its fresh, breezy and approachable side although still laced with some serious complexity. There are strawberry and raspberry fruits topped by Chinese Five Spice and lifted by meaty, spicy layers delivering superb drinkability."
Artisans of Barossa Grenache Project Stansborough/Slade 2020
"From the Purple Hands team comes this chunky wine with lashings of blackberry, liquorice and baked earth fruits. Bold, full-bodied and fleshy, it’s a big Grenache style and a serious crowd-pleaser."
Artisans of Barossa Grenache Project Schell 2020
"A beautifully savoury and multi-layered expression of grenache with brooding dark cherry, earth and spicy aromas plus a meaty edge. The palate is dry, only mid-weight and a little shy right now, but the tail shows its serious class with layer after layer of complex fruit unfolding over a long and savoury finish."