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Into the wild: Grenache

On top of a small hill in a small town in the south of France sits a ruined medieval castle. Dating back to the 14th century, it was built for Pope John XXII. The name of this town is Chateauneuf du Pape. Get it?

But the papacy wasn’t just responsible for the castle, they also planted vineyards in the area, presumably to fill the sacramental goblets, and the town is now a world famous wine destination.

The high quality Chateauneuf du Pape red wines are some of the most expensive in the world and while there are up to nine red wine varieties officially allowed to be used in Chateauneuf du Pape, the most common is Grenache.

One of the reasons for the prevalence of Grenache in this southern French region is the climate. Grenache loves the heat and in Chateauneuf du Pape, the stones that are common in the vineyard soils heat up during the day, then at night-time the heat slowly disperses, preventing the vines from getting too cold. The vines are also virtually free from pesticides as the prevailing Mistral wind prevents rot and fungal attack.

While the history of Grenache in Australia is a few hundred years shorter, we can put our success with the variety down to weather and a lack of bugs too. You’ll find most of our plantings in the McLaren Vale and Barossa regions where the Mediterranean-style climate of warm summers and mild winters helps Grenache feel at home.

“It’s also a variety that responds well to vine age,” explains Giles Cooke MW, winemaker and founder of Thistledown Wines. “As the vine ages, it is able to produce grapes that are fully ripe at lower potential alcohol levels than younger vines that tend to push a lot of energy into sugar production.”

“But what’s that got to do with bugs?” I hear you ask. Giles has the answer: “Australia has some of the best old vine resources in the world due to the lack of phylloxera (an aphid-like insect that’s wreaked havoc in vineyards throughout the world).”

Its lovely old gnarly look is part of what makes Grenache vines recognisable, but also have another distinct feature. While most grape varieties need a trellis to keep them off the ground, Grenache tends to grow upright and therefore it’s ideally suited to being grown as a bush vine. So it’s old, gnarly and wild.

While bush vines are more labour intensive in that they have to be hand pruned, they have certain advantages, especially in Australia. These untamed beasts are drought resistant and can control their yield so that in a dry year they’ll produce fewer grapes than in a wet year. What’s more, their roots penetrate deep into the earth where they find water and rich nutrients.

So if Grenache is so perfectly suited to Australia’s Mediterranean-style regions and we have some of the world’s oldest vines, why haven’t you heard more about it? Giles again: “Outside of Rhone and certain parts of Spain (Catalunya) it has been a workhorse variety capable of producing large quantities of highly alcoholic reds and Rosés. In Australia, its potential to make highly alcoholic wines lent it to fortification and so it was often anonymous.”

Justin Ardill, winemaker at Reillys Wines also adds, “Historically, wines were labelled as per their style, rather than the grape varietal and since Grenache was used to create Australian Burgundy, the market is more familiar with the term ‘Burgundy’ than ‘Grenache.’”

The tasting

It’s possible then, if you’re of a certain vintage, that you’ve tried Grenache without even knowing it. But if you’ve never tried Grenache or would like to learn more about it, the Wine Selectors Tasting Panel has taken the legwork out of finding the best examples with the latest State of Play tasting.

In the top 30 wines, you’ll find the majority come from McLaren Vale and Barossa Valley. There are a couple of Clare Valley wines, a McLaren Vale/Hunter/Orange blend, one from Nagambie Lakes and even one from WA’s Ferguson Valley.

Another thing to note is that there are more blends than straight varieties. Grenache is commonly blended with Shiraz and Mourvedre (Mataro) to make GSM, but you’ll also find it with Merlot, Malbec and even the Portuguese variety, Touriga.  

The predominance of blends was also the case when the Panel last did a Grenache tasting back in 2009 and Christian Gaffey had this explanation, “Blends are often more complete wines, more thought goes into the blend or perhaps the varieties are more complementary.”

Winemaker Damian Hutton, whose Iron Cloud Purple Patch GSM is in the top 30, agrees on the point of the complementary appeal. “Grenache adds beautiful characteristics to the wines it’s blended with. In the Purple Patch GSM, Grenache contributes its classic bright, cherry and raspberry flavours. Shiraz provides structure, spice, and plum flavours. The addition of Mourvedre completes the blend with added structure and depth.”

Straight talking

There are staunch advocates for keeping Grenache straight, though. Ben Riggs, whose Mr Riggs Generation Series The Magnet Grenache was a highlight of the tasting, says, “Our personal philosophy is to express pure Grenache. As a single varietal wine it expresses much more sense of place.”

On this point, winemaker Troy Kalleske agrees. “I think Grenache is extremely expressive of time and place. Grenache character can vary a lot from year to year depending on season and it expresses differently in different soils. So you never really know what you’re are going to get, and that’s enjoyable!”

What you are guaranteed to get is an extremely food-friendly red. As Ben explains, “Grenache pairs beautifully rather than overpowers, it amplifies the flavours of the food, rather than being overbearing with its own flavours.”

Damian and Troy add that the soft tannins contribute to its food-matching potential and they both recommend it with duck with bok choy. Justin agrees that Asian-style dishes work, but adds, “Grenache is also fantastic with barbecued meats, particularly charred meats as found in Greek souvlaki, yiros and roasted lamb. For Giles, “When chilled, a young Grenache is great with fish.”

It makes me wonder if Pope John had a favourite food match for his Chateauneuf du Pape. I am guessing it was divine.

Top 30 Grenache and Grenache blends (March 2016)

Thistledown The Vagabond Grenache 2014 (McLaren Vale, $40)

S.C. Pannell Grenache Shiraz Touriga 2014 (McLaren Vale, $30)

Teusner Joshua Grenache Mataro Shiraz 2015 (Barossa, $35)

Mr Riggs Generation Series The Magnet Grenache 2013 (McLaren Vale, $27)

St John’s Road Motley Bunch Grenache Mataro Shiraz 2013 (Barossa, $22)

Henschke Johann’s Garden Grenache Mataro Shiraz 2014 (Barossa, $51)

Z Wines Roman Grenache Shiraz Mataro 2013 (Barossa, $25)

Turkey Flat Vineyards Grenache 2014 (Barossa, $30)

Gomersal Wines Grenache Shiraz Mataro 2013 (Barossa, $17)

IronCloud Rock of Solitude Purple Patch GSM 2014 (Ferguson Valley, $32)

Reillys Wines Old Bush Vine Grenache 2012 (Clare Valley, $25)

Two Hands Brave Faces Grenache Mourvedre Shiraz 2014 (Barossa, $27)

Vinrock Grenache 2014 (McLaren Vale, $30)

Alternatus Grenache 2014 (McLaren Vale, $25)

Landhaus Grenache 2012 (Barossa, $27)

Tim Smith Wines Grenache 2014 (Barossa, $36)

Serafino Grenache Shiraz Mataro 2013 (McLaren Vale, $28)

Doc Adams Grenache Shiraz Mataro 2013 (McLaren Vale, $20)

Handcrafted by Geoff Hardy Grenache Shiraz Mataro 2013 (McLaren Vale, $30)

Hemera Estate Single Vineyard Grenache Shiraz Mataro 2013 (Barossa, $35)

Yalumba The Strapper Grenache Shiraz Mataro 2012 (Barossa, $22)

Kalleske Clarry’s Grenache Shiraz Mourvedre 2014 (Barossa, $21)

Château Tanunda 1858 Field Blend 150 year old vines Grenache Mourvedre Malbec 2013 (Eden Valley, $250)

Barossa Valley Estate Grenache Shiraz Mourvedre 2014 (Barossa, $26.99)

First Creek Grenache Shiraz Merlot 2014 (McLaren Vale/Hunter Valley/Orange, $25)

Running With Bulls Garnacha 2015 (Barossa, $20.95)

Stone Bridge Wines Grenache Mataro Shiraz 2014 (Clare Valley, $26)

Tahbilk Grenache Shiraz Mourvedre 2013 (Nagambie Lakes, $27.95)

Richard Hamilton Colton’s Grenache Shiraz Mourvedre 2013 (McLaren Vale, $21)

Charles Melton La Belle Mere Grenache Shiraz Mourvedre 2013 (Barossa, $22.90)

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Two Blues Sauvignon Blanc 2014
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