Old-vine grenache: Australia’s lesser-known treasure

Grenache certainly isn’t Australia’s best-known wine – that distinction would have to go to another red, shiraz (syrah). Nor is it particularly widely planted; as of 2020, there were only about 3,700 acres. Shiraz, by comparison, accounts for more than 98,000 acres. Australian wine books often give grenache short shrift, too, perhaps because there’s so little of it.

But Australian grenache is worth your attention. The best examples are aromatic, juicy and rich, with cherry and strawberry fruit that can be almost ethereal. Especially when the grapes are from old vines, and some of Australia’s grenache vines are really old.

According to Mark Davidson of Wine Australia, the industry’s trade group, grenache has been in Australia since the 1830s, and the oldest grenache vineyard in the world, in Barossa Valley, dates to 1848. Historically, the grape has been important for its use in fortified wines and formed the backbone of dry red blends. Today, it’s often seen in the so-called GSM (grenache, shiraz, mourvèdre) blends.

The grape does well in hot, dry conditions, which pretty much describes much of Australia. A lot of it is grown in the Riverland region, where it’s farmed for high yields for use in inexpensive, fruity wines. But when yields are held in check, the wines have more complexity and concentration. Some of the best examples of more serious grenache come from Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale, especially from sites with sandy soils.

A recent on-site and online tasting at the San Francisco Wine School in South San Francisco highlighted eight examples of Australian grenache. Jessica Hill-Smith, sixth-generation proprietor of Yalumba in Barossa Valley; Peter Fraser, general manager and winemaker of Yangarra Estate in McLaren Vale; and Davidson Zoomed in.

In both Barossa and McLaren Vale, a lot of old vines were lost when the government paid growers to rip out their vines in the 1980s because of a grape oversupply. And as chardonnay and merlot grew in popularity, grenache “kind of got lost,” Fraser said. “It really fell out of favor.”

Still, old vines were the source of many of the wines in the tasting. For example, the 2019 Yalumba “Samuel’s Collection” Bush Vine Grenache ($20) from Barossa – which was the bargain of the tasting – comes from bush vines with an average age of 70 years. (Yalumba’s oldest grenache vines were planted in 1889.) The Samuel’s Collection grenache displays very pure flavors of strawberry jam and spice. It’s plump yet structured, with an almost ethereal quality.

Another excellent Barossa wine was the 2020 Cirillo “The Vincent” Grenache ($40), made from two plots of 100-year-old vines. The supple, silky, juicy wine offers luscious Bing cherry flavors with a whisper of menthol.

There were some fine examples from McLaren Vale, too, like the 2020 Thistledown “Thorny Devil” Old Vine Grenache ($32), a delicious wine that’s structured yet supple, with flavors of roasted strawberry, spice and just a hint of eucalyptus. On the Thistledown website, the winery team calls themselves “slightly obsessed” with grenache.

There was also Fraser’s 2019 Yangarra “Ovitelli” Grenache ($60), made from vines planted in 1946. The wine, which is fermented and aged in ceramic eggs, offers pretty strawberry fruit and a savory note, along with some structure and grip. There’s no oak, and the wine is a pure expression of grenache.

After grenache’s years of semi-obscurity, Wine Australia’s Davidson said, “it’s nice to see it come out in the sunlight.”

 

 

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