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Grenache – An Australian Icon!

Grenache has been an important variety in Australia since it first arrived from the warm southern Rhône in France in 1832, as part of the original set of varieties imported by James Busby. In fact, Australia now has older vines than the French (due to the devastating effects of phylloxera) with ancient but productive vines dating back to 1850 in the Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale.

While grenache is a cornerstone of Australian wine, historically it wasn’t marketed as a premium variety. Its original role was to give bulk to our ‘dry reds’, ‘clarets’ and ‘burgundies’.

Grenache later became the core of Australia’s fortified reds when ‘port’ and ‘sherry’ drove the economics of the industry. Grown in warm climates (like the Clare and Barossa Valleys and McLaren Vale) grenache produces plenty of flavour and plenty of sugar, making it the perfect variety for the ‘port’ styles that dominated the market up until the 1970s.

Lows and highs

The trend to more sophisticated table wine saw cabernet sauvignon emerge as a key variety, with grenache and its stablemate shiraz vines grubbed out in an ill-conceived South Australian government vine-pull scheme in 1985, following a fruit surplus that led to nose-diving prices. (That Australia still has a good tranche of old grenache vines is due to good luck rather than good management.)

Luckily, traditional winemakers like Yalumba saw the folly of the scheme, with the twin regions of the Barossa and McLaren Vale now refocused on high quality grenache, either as a single variety or more often as a blend with shiraz and mourvèdre – in the style of an easy-drinking Côtes du Rhône or more serious blends that mirror the Rhône’s iconic red, Châteauneuf du Pape. These ‘GSM’ blends are perfect with all types of food, including but not limited to pizza, hamburgers, pies and anything barbequed.

Yalumba’s Kevin Glastonbury has the following to say about grenache.

“Grenache is a red grape variety that relishes heat and can relatively easily produce ripe, full styles of wine. Perhaps grenache was grown initially on sites that were more akin to producing a generous crop for fortified winemaking. But, now many wineries are searching for more finesse and picking these grenache blocks earlier and seeking red fruit rather than riper black fruit flavours. The majority of grenache in the Barossa is not trellised; it is grown as a bush-vine. These bush-vines tend to take care of themselves, allowing more air flow and light penetration.”

A bush vine is a grapevine without a trellis and is pruned to form a “goblet” shape, to separate the bunches of fruit. Low to the ground these vines benefit from the warmth of the earth to create an ideal ripening condition.

Looking ahead

A new wave of grenache made in a pinot-like manner has added another spoke to the grenache wheel, as have the oh-so-fashionable pale dry rosés made in the Provence style, where yet again grenache is the hero.

David Powell, then of Torbreck, once said that grenache is the pinot noir of the south. And he’s right: This is how we should think of this variety. Its skill is in making lighter-coloured, perfumed, elegant red wines, not lacking flavour, but with freshness and nice structure. In this sense, grenache is on message, because the trend in the Australian wine world now is to move away from dense, opaque, sweetly fruited red wines towards lighter, more drinkable reds with a prettier personality.

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