Australia is a land of varietal wines. True, it has always made blends too, but the emphasis ever since the table wine boom of the late 1960s has been on wines of a single variety: Riesling or Semillon, Shiraz or Cabernet Sauvignon, and more recently both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Even the tough Cabernet is more often than not unblended. And let’s not forget Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris.
The country’s first ‘export boom’, however – to Britain in the 19th century – was achieved on the back of red blends, chiefly composed of Grenache, Shiraz and Mataro (aka Mourvèdre), from the warm regions of South Australia. These were hearty, full-bodied, high-alcohol wines that were robust enough to survive the long sea voyage in barrels.
But since those heady days, Grenache has been a somewhat neglected, even maligned grape in Australia. After the ‘discovery’ of small new-oak barrels in the 1990s, Grenache was further mistreated by being given too much oak and was vinified much like Shiraz, with overextraction, tannin addition, acidification and other vinous crimes.
In the 21st century, a newer generation of winemakers has reinvented Grenache and Grenache blends. The grapes are harvested at optimal maturity – neither overripe, nor the green underripe products of overcropped, overwatered vines – and the wines have been vinified with less extraction, often with a proportion of whole bunches, and matured for shorter periods in older and larger-format oak such as foudres and demimuids. Then they’re often bottled earlier to retain freshness and primary fruit. The tannins are soft and silky, which means earlier drinkability, while whole-bunch treatment enhances both the texture and the aromatics. This change has happened both with straight Grenache wines, as well as with Rhône-style blends.
Mature, dry-grown vines, the Grenache often untrellised, can produce great depth of flavour and character, as exemplified by many of these wines
The blends that have historically hogged the spotlight have been Shiraz-driven wines, of which there are many fine examples, not least Penfolds Bin 138. But Shiraz is a powerful grape that can easily dominate a blend, and this can result in wines that often differ little from pure Shiraz. The 20 wines I have chosen to review here are wines that not only have Grenache as the lead variety but that also taste more of Grenache than Shiraz or any other variety. They’re wines of distinctive personality.
Those younger-generation producers are also celebrating and showcasing the very old vines with which they are privileged to work. Mature, dry-grown vines, the Grenache often untrellised, can produce great depth of flavour and character, as exemplified by many of these wines.
Because of their terroir – their soils, mesoclimates and other site factors – as well as their patrimony of very mature vines, McLaren Vale and the Barossa are the two regions that dominate provenance. Fourteen of my 20 come from the Barossa, including two from Eden Valley; the other six are from McLaren Vale. Other regions such as the Clare Valley also make fine blends, but the fact that I simply used the highest-scoring, recently tasted wines in my database says it all.
Grenache needs a certain amount of heat, and as climate change progresses, more southerly regions, finding that they can ripen these grapes more consistently than in the past, are starting to produce smart wines. They include Mount Mary Vineyard in the Yarra Valley and Dogrock Vineyard in the Victorian Pyrenees. Grenache also thrives in drier conditions than most grapes, and since growers are increasingly keen to minimise irrigation water usage, Grenache is increasingly embraced in South Australia’s arid Riverland. Its future looks bright.
Other grapes – such as Tempranillo, Graciano, Touriga and Cinsault – are being blended with Grenache, but Mataro and Shiraz are secure as its favoured partners. Both bring backbone and grip, as well as their own particular assortments of spices. The symbiosis that has long been obvious in the southern Rhône endures for very good reason.