Once upon a time, in a land down under, there lived a grape so unpopular that winemakers would often pretend it didn’t exist. They tucked it into blends. They hid it behind its more famous big brother, Shiraz. They even wiped it from labels so that it wouldn’t be noticed by those whose fondness lied elsewhere.
But this particular grape happens to be a fighter. One of Australia’s original plantings, it was the nation’s most widely grown variety for more than a century, and its presence dominated the base blends of fortified wines that fueled the early Australian wine industry. Perhaps most impressively, it even survived the mid-1980s government scheme to pay growers for ripping out century-old vines.
This historic grape is Grenache, and its place in Aussie wine has become undeniable. Its story, however, is still being written.
After decades in the shadows, the heat-loving variety is finally getting its time in the sun. It’s recognized for its potential to produce premium wine that can express elegance, brightness and charm, along with the ability to transmit terroir.
The next chapter of Australian Grenache has officially begun. And it just may live happily ever after.
Grenache originated in Northern Spain, where it’s called Garnacha, and in the South of France, where it makes up a large part of Southern Rhône blends like those from Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
It can be a frustrating cultivar: It’s hardy yet demanding, vigorous yet sensitive, heat-loving yet highly susceptible to sunburn. Plus, to retain brightness and freshness, Grenache, which has relatively low acidity, requires yields be kept to a minimum.
As a result, many of Australia’s best Grenaches come from old bush vines with low yields. In fact, the country claims some of the oldest Grenache vines in the world, many planted more than a century ago. The vast majority of these grow around South Australia in regions like Barossa Valley, Langhorne Creek and Riverland.
But in recent years, one region in particular has emerged as a Grenache superstar: McLaren Vale.
About 25 miles south of Adelaide, the coastal region of McLaren Vale is home to some of the oldest, most diverse soils on the planet. Some even date back a staggering 550 million years.
Sandwiched between the Mount Lofty Ranges to the east and south, and Gulf St Vincent to the west, the region boasts an array of microclimates, based on different soil compositions as well as elevation and ocean proximity.
Grape growing began nearly 200 years ago, but fruit from McLaren Vale’s mostly small, family-owned vineyards has been historically blended into generic “South Australia” wines by large commercial wineries. Only in recent years, as growers have begun to start their own labels, has McLaren Vale emerged as a premium region. It now excels at red varieties like Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon and a growing number of southern European varietal wines.
The region’s calling card, however, is now Grenache. Its Mediterranean climate consists of warm summers, mild winters and low humidity, coupled by cooling sea breezes, all conditions that make “The Vale” a great place to grow the variety. And, perhaps most importantly, producers realize that its potential as a varietal wine often outweighs its role in blends like the Aussie GSM, a mix of Grenache, Shiraz and Mataro, a.k.a.. Mourvèdre.
“Grenache is the variety with which McLaren Vale may well stand proudest,” says Toby Bekkers, a renowned Vale-based viticulturist who owns and operates a small wine estate, Bekkers Wine, with his wife, Emmanuelle.
“Many regions fashion great Shiraz, of which McLaren Vale is one, but with Grenache, we have the opportunity to deliver something clearly unique. Grenache augments the signature of vintage and vineyard more keenly than Shiraz.”
It’s this sense of transparency that allows Grenache to showcase the diversity of McLaren Vale’s unofficial subregions. Fruit from the heavier soils on the valley floor, for example, produce denser, more structured Grenache.
Those grown closer to the mountains at higher elevation are generally more delicate and aromatic.
One of the most exciting subregions for Grenache is Blewitt Springs. It boasts cool temperatures, distinctive North Maslin sands and some of McLaren Vale’s highest elevations, from around 500–700 feet. This combination results in wines that are not only bright, but also display a distinctive tannin profile that feels, like the soils themselves, sandy.
Perhaps one of the greatest cheerleaders of the area’s Grenache is the team behind Yangarra Estate Vineyard, owned by California’s Jackson Family Wines. The winery has nearly 250 acres of biodynamically farmed bush vines that consist of Mediterranean and Rhône varieties.
Peter Fraser, winemaker and general manager at Yangarra, describes the Blewitt Springs tannins as “fine and gritty,” and “somewhat angular and crunchy when young.”
Yangarra’s oldest Grenache vines sit at the top of the estate. These bushy, gnarled beauties were planted in 1946 and are grown on what appears to be a powdery sand dune of ancient white Aeolian sands. They consist of almost 100% silica, with just a small amount of organic matter.
This site, Fraser says, yields the estate’s most opulent Grenache. It produces Yangarra’s Old Vine Grenache as well as the High Sands Grenache, a top bottling that’s complex, mineral-driven and delicate yet impactful.
The New Wave
Chester Osborn, chief winemaker at d’Arenberg, is another of McLaren Vale’s Grenache champions. These days, he may receive more attention for the d’Arenberg Cube, a Willy Wonka-like wine-tasting experience he created, all housed within a structure that resembles a giant Rubik’s Cube. But Osborn represents his family’s fourth generation at d’Arenberg, where they’ve made wine since 1912.
While he remains respectful of family traditions—all of the d’Arenberg wines are still basket pressed and the reds foot trod, for example—Osborn certainly has a creative and innovative mind. If the Cube isn’t testament enough to this, the winery produces more than 70 wines from almost 40 grape varieties.
And yet, he seems to remain especially passionate about Grenache.
“Over half of the dry reds we sell by volume have Grenache on the front label,” says Osborn with enthusiasm. “It’s an extremely important variety for d’Arenberg.”
The winery makes three high-quality, single-district Grenaches, which are all from within The Amazing Sites range, as well as three GSM blends and many others that include Grenache at varying price points.
Osborn, like many other Grenache-loving winemakers, emphasizes gentle handling in the winery. He says it’s important to not let the grapes become overripe, “giving it minimal oak and using some tank material to retain balance and freshness.”
Stephen Pannell, winemaker at S.C. Pannell, is another Grenache fan. He’s made varietal versions since 1995, and also believes in applying a more delicate hand.
“In the winery, Grenache is in its own special winemaking universe with a susceptibility to oxygen and a dislike of small and new oak,” says Pannell. “It’s a medium-bodied variety and shouldn’t be pushed.”
Back in Barossa
It’s not just McLaren Vale producers that excel at Grenache. About 60 miles northeast, in the Barossa Valley, winemakers also have access to extremely old bush vines.
At Turkey Flat Vineyards, the Schulz family owns 100-year-old, dry-grown Grenache planted on alluvial soil.
“Grenache requires far less water than Shiraz, and it stands up very well in heat waves,” says Christie Schulz, proprietor at Turkey Flat. “Both factors are of importance going into the future in the Barossa.”
In 2017, Turkey Flat won Australia’s prestigious wine award, the Jimmy Watson Memorial Trophy, for its 2016 Grenache. It was the first time a Grenache was honored in the award’s 57-year history.
“Winning the Jimmy Watson was a watershed moment for us at Turkey Flat and a watershed moment for Grenache as a variety in Australia,” says Schulz. “It has greatly renewed winemaking interest in Barossa Grenache as well, with demand for growers’ fruit higher than we’ve ever seen it.”
Supply and Demand
Consumer demand for Grenache is a worry for some winemakers, however. The variety accounts for “just 1% of the total crush in Australia…and a further 6% of the total McLaren Vale crush,” says Pannell. “We aren’t planting any, either. And now that it has returned to the attention of both winemaker and consumer, there is going to be a battle for vineyards.”
Producers fortunate enough to work with Grenache, and particularly those who work with old-vines, have become gatekeepers to some of the Australian wine industry’s most precious commodities. Thankfully, the vines themselves don’t seem to be going anywhere.
“In 1985, the government paid producers [roughly $800 per acre] to pull out the vines,” says Osborn. “In McLaren Vale, many producers took the money, but didn’t pull out the vines. They thought that they would just die amongst the weeds. But Grenache is extremely hardy and hard to kill.”
It’s often quirks of history that allow us to learn from our mistakes. In this case, it means the opportunity to taste history in a bottle and appreciate the beauty that this resilient grape has to offer.
Australian Grenache to Look for
Yangarra 2016 Ovitelli Grenache (McLaren Vale); $50, 95 points. This is the second release of this wine, sourced from the estate’s old bush vines and fermented on skins in large ceramic eggs. The nose is a complex medley of aromas like dried rose petals, brambly red berries, mushrooms, damp earth and what seems like a whole garden of herbs. Texturally, it’s like chalk dust, sliced with laser-sharp acidity and wound with tight-grained tannins. A tightrope walk of power and elegance, the bright, juicy fruit and savory, mineral nuances flow right through to the finish. Drink 2020–2030. Majestic Imports. Cellar Selection.
S.C. Pannell 2017 Old McDonald Grenache (McLaren Vale); $75, 94 points. In this single-vineyard wine, from more than 75-year-old bush vines, one of McLaren Vale’s most renowned red winemakers expertly expresses the simultaneous power and playfulness that Grenache can offer. Notes of fleshy blueberry, black cherry, vanilla, baking spice and a savory, mineral streak are all held tightly by granular tannins. The fruit is crunchy and the texture satiny, but there’s an austerity to this wine that suggests it needs time. Drink 2020–2034. Vine Street Imports. Cellar Selection.
Thistledown 2017 She’s Electric Old Vine Single Vineyard Grenache (McLaren Vale); $50, 94 points. Made from a single plot of organically farmed old vines, this wine offers lively tones of red berry, rose, violet and herbal tonic, backed by cinnamon and clove spice. It’s light, bright and easy to knock back, which belies just how well structured and complex it really is. This is a beautiful example of the variety McLaren’s Vale does best. Wine Dogs Imports LLC. Editors’ Choice.
John Duval Wines 2016 Annexus Grenache (Barossa Valley); $60, 93 points. This vintage expresses the variety’s typical bright raspberry, cranberry, blueberry combo but laced with notes of dried leaves, nutmeg, cumin, white pepper and graphite. The palate is restrained and beautifully balanced, with soft, savory, sandy-textured tannins, a tart raspberry crunch and a mineral, hot stone spine. Drink now–2029. Old Bridge Cellars. Editors’ Choice.
Angove 2017 Warboys Vineyard Grenache (McLaren Vale); $75, 92 points. This premium Grenache comes from the estate’s oldest, organically farmed vines and utilizes whole bunches during fermenation. Rose petal in color, it’s a fragrant combo of strawberry, cherry, white pepper, fresh aniseed and dried flowers. With time in the glass, the more extroverted fruit notes take a back seat to those floral and peppery nuances. It’s satiny in texture, with bright, crunchy red fruit and focused, savory tannins. Trinchero Family Estates.
Living Roots 2017 Grevillea Grenache (McLaren Vale); $26, 92 points. This Grenache is fun, fruity and varietal. It smells like a strawberry creamsicle without feeling overly confected, thanks to the floral, dried herb and stalky characters filling in the gaps. It’s less bombastically fruity on the palate, where savory, herbal tannins gently grip, which allows space for lifted acidity and a silky, slinky texture to shine. Drink now. Living Roots Wine & Co. Editors’ Choice.
Robert Oatley 2018 G-18 Grenache (McLaren Vale); $20, 92 points. This wine offers plush, brambly cherry and blackberry aromas, alongside clove, dried flower and warm stone accents. The palate has a similar vibe, with rounded, plump fruit framed by sandy, savory and herbal tannins, running along an earthy, mineral spine. Drink now–2029. Pacific Highway Wines & Spirits. Editors’ Choice.
Year 2017 Grenache (McLaren Vale); $40, 92 points. This is a lithe, bouncy small-batch, single-vineyard Grenache made with minimal intervention using grapes from a single vineyard. The nose is a delicate medley of bright cranberry, red currant and rhubarb smudged with cinnamon, thyme and graphite. The palate is light bodied and crunchy-fruited, boasting a touch of herbaceousness slithering along a savory spine. Vine Street Imports. Editors’ Choice.
d’Arenberg 2014 The Derelict Vineyard Grenache (McLaren Vale); $29, 91 points. This wine is held back before release longer than most Aussie reds. With five years of bottle age to date, it still shows Winemaker Chester Osborn’s characteristic affinity to structure and power over plushness. While the brambly plum and raspberry fruit still feels ripe, it’s caught up in a web of black pepper, cedar and savory tones. These earthy, savory nuances carry through to the palate, which is blanketed in tight-grained tannins, with juicy fruit peeping through the cracks. Old Bridge Cellars.
Kay Brothers 2017 Basket Pressed Amery Vineyard Grenache (McLaren Vale); $40, 91 points. This wine is named in honor of the historic winery’s 90-year-old basket press. The nose offers up heady aromas of bright cherry, red currant, clove, fresh rose petals and graphite. These follow onto the palate where crunchy acidity and sandy, fine-grained tannins knit the bright fruit and floral flavors together. Quintessential Wines.
Koerner 2018 Gullyview Vineyard Cannonau Grenache (Clare Valley); $35, 91 points. More varietal and bold in style compared to the previous vintage’s featherlight expression, this natural-leaning Grenache evokes fresh strawberries ripening beneath their leaves beside a garden of flowers, with notes of white pepper and cinnamon. Soft and silky in texture, the fruit feels plump but crunchy on the palate, with fine-grained tannins that offer gentle support. Elegant and likable, drink this slightly chilled on a warm spring day. Little Peacock Imports.
Yalumba 2016 Old Bush Vine Grenache (Barossa Valley); $20, 91 points. Strawberry in hue and in flavor, too, it’s hard not to emit a grunt of pleasure upon first smelling and tasting this wine. It’s light, bright and aromatic, bursting with plump red berries, orange peel, cumin, white pepper, stalks and a herbal tonic tone. Medium-bodied and silky smooth, it’s seriously fruity but steers clear of being syrupy. Drink now–2026. Negociants USA–Winebow. Editors’ Choice.