Australian Grenache: Cooling Down, Slimming Down, Tasting Great

By Doug Frost

‘When we painted Australia, we painted it like England,’ says Stephen Pannell of the S.C. Pannell Winery in McLaren Vale. ‘You tend to copy what some other country does rather than stepping outside and saying, ‘Who cares if they do it like that there?’’

Pannell has made wines from Grenache and other grapes for two decades now. His Grenache, as with so many others I’ve recently tasted from Australia, is rendered in lighter colors, less garish and subtler and more earth toned. ‘Let’s do what we have to do with our fruit. We need to control its natural exuberance,’ says Pannell.

Reinvention Is The Order Of The Day

It’s Australian wine’s 21st century dilemma: whether to leave behind a career of gaudy, sometimes cartoonish creations designed for a critic or two, and a market that seemed to delight in only the loudest wines, or progress to something subtler.

In the early, heady days when Australian wine first exploded on to the US market, high alcohol was not a problem nor, it seems, did the buying public require that the wines were free of flaws, just as long as they were jam-packed. Just as nobody complained about Michael Bay’s movies because of the volume of the soundtrack; people simply enjoyed them while the sensitive souls stayed away altogether.

Though the US movie-going public hasn’t yet tired of superheroes and explosions, wine consumers have, it seems. Aussie wines – especially Shiraz –  have suffered mightily as a result. ‘What people perceive to be Australia, it’s a crazy confected idea of what it should be,’ says Pannell. ‘We were strangled by the culture and history of wine,’ responds Tony Ingle of the Angove Winery.

From 2008, Shiraz sales famously dove into the Southern Ocean. Grenache, a grape that can be as jammy as any 100-point Shiraz (ah, those were the days…), took a hit too. But Grenache is a many splendored thing; a malleable grape that is willing to offer the friendly countenance of a quaffable, commercial wine from the Barossa Valley – such as Jacob’s Creek – to the bold outlines of a powerful, concentrated McLaren Vale example from d’Arenberg. Its most common iteration for many is as a rosé; even at high yields it can generate flavor and alcohol, despite a lack of color.

Grenache: Becomes Cool On The Winds Of Change

‘Grenache had a bad reputation from its past use in fortified wines,’ explains Pannell. ‘In the ‘90s Shiraz was the focus, and bigness was best. It was all about [Robert] Parker, and we tried to make Grenache as big as we could. As Pinot Noir sales took off, it took years to notice that the grape’s natural medium body is its strength. It offers a connectivity to where we live. We eat squid and fish, and [if] I make 15% alcohol wines, how does that fit?’

McLaren Vale isn’t alone in this sea change, but it’s a fit example for a place that was not so long ago trying to beat the Barossa Valley at its own game. They share a heritage of old vines and success, however fleeting, at wooing the world with jam-pot wines. But the Barossa too is dialing things back; Hewitson‘s Miss Harry Grenache, to name just one, is nearly as elegant as any New World Pinot Noir. The McLaren Vale is just a few notches cooler and windier than Barossa; the winemakers there seem nearly unified in pursuit of this new slimmer profile.

Wines With A Taste Of Place

‘Go to Barossa,’ says Richard Angove of the Angove Winery, ‘and it’s warmer and you get this much more luscious, almost butterscotch character which we don’t get. Here it ages so well; there’s a lot of limestone in general under this part of Australia. It’s really important to the structure.’

‘Grenache delivers what Pinot promises,’ is the running joke among producers. With vines averaging over half a century in age in some vineyards, producers here can choose to make complex, medium-bodied wines. ‘We’re growing this variety,’ Pannell says, ‘rather than ‘making’ it.’ Reducing yields and taking a more Pinot Noir-like approach gives wines that are more transparent and reflective of place: in these wines, you’ll find floral notes (roses and violets), savory elements, even stony, mineral-laden accents.

And winemaking discussions now mimic those of Pinot Noir makers: much attention is being given to crop loads – ‘If you go over a certain yield, like Pinot Noir, Grenache just goes over a cliff,’ says Drew Noon MW. Shoot lengths and cluster counts are also being discussed. ‘A short shoot won’t ripen a grape,’ notes Noon, while other aspects, such as fermentation temperatures, large format barrels, stem percentages and whole cluster inclusion, are all in the Grenache best practice mix.

Noon says, ‘This place was under the sea, and there are flavors of rust, blood and licorice (though Shiraz has that too). But we want to taste McLaren Vale, and this variety does that.’ Transparency is a distinctive feature with these wines; longevity might be achieved as well. ‘We are winding the wines up more and more,’ says Pannell, ‘and they need time in bottle. I truly believe that in fifty to sixty years this will be the most important grape in this district.’

‘It took a while to see the beauty of the landscape,’ adds Tony Ingle. ‘Grenache does fit the land here.’

Perhaps it took some time for Australian Grenache’s charm to come through as well, but these new, elegant wines show more depth and character. Slimmed down a bit, they are easier to embrace. And the market is doing just that.

‘It took a while to see the beauty of the landscape,’ adds Tony Ingle. ‘Grenache does fit the land here.’

Perhaps it took some time for Australian Grenache’s charm to come through as well, but these new, elegant wines show more depth and character. Slimmed down a bit, they are easier to embrace. And the market is doing just that.

Master of wine and master sommelier Doug Frost visited Australia in 2016

2017-09-22T01:34:51+00:00 September 11th, 2017|Varieties|1 Comment

One Comment

  1. John September 26, 2017 at 12:30 pm - Reply

    Doug,

    Thank you for this very insightful article regarding Australian Grenache and more importantly the diversity of Australian wine. As an industry professional, currently no Australian wines represented, I am always amazed how all of a country’s wine is quickly pigeon-holed. This just doesn’t make sense with the variety of climates, grapes and philosophies being employed. To me it is the laziest way of wine evaluation.

Leave A Comment