In 1960 an amazing 80% of Australian wine was fortified, most of it made from Grenache (at that time the country’s most planted variety). But by the 70s, consumption of fortifeds had plummeted and so had plantings of Grenache. It’s hard to fathom now but by 1987, after several years of grape surpluses and low prices, the South Australian government implemented a vine removal scheme, compensating growers who removed old vines or unfashionable varieties. As a result, large swathes of ancient Grenache plantings, some dating as far back as the late 1800s, were destroyed. Luckily a small group of growers, such as d’Arenberg, stood by their treasured Grenache plantings, in many cases despite it making no financial sense. Thanks to these extraordinary efforts, a handful of now-treasured Grenache plantings survive in the Barossa and McLaren Vale, making them some the oldest on the planet.
Plantings continued to decline in the 70s and 80s and while Grenache in Australia has remained pretty static at less than 2,000ha since the mid 90s, plantings of other varieties have mushroomed. Shiraz, for example, has risen from 6,000ha in 1994 to 42,000ha in 2012.
Global plantings of Grenache (Garnacha Tinta) have also declined, but not to the same extent. In 1990 Grenache was the second most planted variety in the world behind Airen, a white variety grown in Spain. By 2010 it had fallen to 7th spot behind (in descending order) Cabernet, Merlot, Airen, Tempranillo, Chardonnay and Syrah. Despite this fall in the rankings, it still accounted for a sizeable 184,000ha.
Even though Grenache is both widespread and has the potential to produce outstanding wines, it has until recently been an overlooked variety. As Robert Parker noted in 2005: “Grenache is consistently underrated and under recognised both as a wine that can have some of the complexity and expressiveness of good Burgundy, as well as being a fabulous match for food,” Vinography.
But things are changing. Decanter Magazine, January 2011: “Invisible to vogue… Grenache is now gaining a significant following.”
Wine Spectator, June 2014: “Grenache is a defining grape, making spectacular wines and proving extremely versatile.”
Jancis Robinson MW, September 2016: “an unlikely hero of a grape.”
These days excellent examples of Grenache can be found in several regions including Priorat in Spain, Châteauneuf-du-Pape in the southern Rhône and in selected areas of Languedoc-Roussillon in the south west of France. Other notable regions are of course Australia’s own McLaren Vale and Barossa Valley. The perception here of Grenache has risen dramatically from that of a workhorse to being celebrated, not only as part of so-called Rhône blends (with Shiraz and Mourvèdre), but especially as a single varietal, where it has found a place at the top of the Australian red wine hierarchy.
While Grenache likes hot dry conditions and does best as a low yielding bush vine, it’s characteristics vary considerably depending on where it’s grown and how it’s handled by the winemaker. As Wine Spectator magazine observes; “Vintners admire Grenache mainly for the range of styles it can make, from lighter, more accessible wines emphasising snappy red berry fruit to denser, more robust versions distinguished by an intense mix of currant, cherry, raspberry, raisin, black pepper, liquorice or hot brick notes.” June 2014.
The two wines below illustrate my point. Two very different styles of Grenache - both reaching extraordinary heights.
Alex Head has been making wine in the Barossa for 10 years and in that short space of time gained a reputation for the quality of his wines. This recognition is a huge achievement in a region where it’s not unusual for a winery to have 100 years on the scoreboard.
Taking his inspiration from the Rhône, Alex was at the forefront of a wave of winemakers who challenged the so-called ‘Parkerisation’ of the Barossa, a style developed to suit the palate of influential wine critic Robert Parker. Characterised by high alcohol, rich, ripe fruit, and masses of sweet new oak, it was first brought to prominence in the Barossa by Torbreck in the mid 90s.
When Alex arrived in the Barossa in 2006, as an outsider (from Sydney), he brought with him a ground breaking and decidedly anti-Parker stance. He eschewed the common practice of picking fruit late and overly ripe. He also sought to avoid the additions that were a standard part of winemaking at the time. He used no enzymes, no cultured yeasts, no added acids and no added tannins, all techniques that have since become widely practiced.
Winemakers like Alex have redefined the classic Barossa red, giving rise to wines that are made in a leaner, less-oaked and more savoury style.
A graduate in biochemistry, Alex discovered a love of wine whilst at St Paul's College Sydney Uni. Subsequently working in many different areas of the wine industry, he studied and tasted top wines from all over the world, something not all winemakers have done surprisingly. It’s this extensive knowledge that lets him put his own wines into an international context.
Not only is Alex a talented winemaker, he’s also a nice guy. His approach is focused and he pursues his craft with an intensity and no-corners-cut approach bordering on fanaticism. He sources some of the best fruit in the Barossa, which he handpicks, before using long ferments and gentle handling techniques. It’s a labour-intensive process, the result of which is a common thread through all his red wines - seductive tannins. Click here to see Head Wines video.
Since Alex's first vintage in 2006, he’s received considerable recognition. He was a finalist in the Young Gun of Wine Award in 2011, 2012 and 2013, and JamesHalliday gives him a 5 star rating. Over the years his wines have picked up a swag of awards including: Best in Shows, multiple trophies and gold medals, and even a position in AFR Magazine's Top 20 Wines of the Year. His wines are regularly scored in the high nineties by the nation’s top critics.
But it’s Alex’s top wine that I want to tell you about. There are good wines and then there are great wines.
1. Head Ancestor Vine Eden Valley Grenache 2014
It’s certainly a big statement by Alex to choose Grenache over Shiraz (the traditional star of the Barossa) to make his top wine. I had a chat with him recently and he has absolute faith in the extraordinary Stonegarden vineyard, situated in the Eden Valley (Barossa Ranges). Alex believes this legendary site is capable of producing some of the country’s greatest and most distinctive single vineyard wines, capable of rivalling the likes of Henschke. The vines from which Alex sources his fruit were planted by the Seppelt family and are 155 years old.
The fruit was hand picked and 30% whole-bunch (ie. uncrushed fruit) was included in the ferment, which was carried out using wild yeasts in an open wooden vat. The ferment was hand plunged and foot trodden twice daily for 3 weeks. It was then aged for 12 months in old oak, 600L demi-muid. It was bottled unfined and unfiltered under stelvin capsule. 14.5% alcohol. Only 2 barrels were made.
Alex told me he was aiming to “make a wine above great Châteauneuf-du-Pape in terms of quality and longevity.” A big call, but I take him seriously. In my experience it’s unusual to hear him talk up his own wines, but this is one of which he’s justifiably proud.He went on to say he was “interested in making a wine that’s balanced and will live forever” and I reckon it'll age for decades.
When Alex draws comparisons with top Châteauneuf-du-Pape, it’s important to note it’s not style and taste he’s referring to. Sure this wine is powerful but it’s not overbearing, rich or heavy, and that’s what makes it so special. It will blow you away with it’s complexity, structure, balance and incredible length, as well as its all encompassing, smooth mouthfeel and tannins.With this wine Alex shows how this workhorse variety can also be one of the world’s most elegant . This wine will change the way you view Australian Grenache.
“There is a classic potpourri of red fruit aromas and flavours ranging from poached strawberries and spice through to raspberry and ultimately red cherry; there is also a striking purity to the cadence of these flavours thanks to a whisper of sweet tannins holding the flavours in flight pattern.” 97 points, James Halliday’s 2017 Australian Wine Companion. He has never given a higher score than this for a Grenache.
95 points Huon Hooke (a huge score from him). This wine takes out 2nd place in Huon Hooke’s Top 2014 Australian Grenache - a list of 41 wines.
“ Deep red with Burgundy colours. Aromas of rhubarb, raspberry, pink musk, Turkish delight and candied orange peel. Full bodied and supremely textured with layers of sweet red fruit flavours. Dense, long and chewy tannins that coat the mouth endlessly. One for the patient cellar. Drink from 3 years for up to 20 years,” Winemaker’s notes.
“Contemplative wine this one, and much like grand Pinot Noir, of which it shares a certain weight and perfume, it really evolves and shifts around with time in glass. Turkish delight perfume dusted with pepper and dusty exotic spices, raspberry and ripe strawberry, raw almonds, pears poached in red wine studded with clove and cinnamon, and a host of other things, real or imagined. Light to medium bodied, rippling with tone and muscle, funk and spice, slaty tannin and dryness, then that kiss of red fruits and perfume. It’s pretty, and tough at the same time. Takes some time and effort to get to know, though certainly it’s worth the effort. Quite outside the mainstream of Australian wine too, which is no bad thing. Real vinosity and verve.” 96 points, Gary Walsh, The Wine Front.
This is a superb wine worth every cent. In years to come you’ll laugh at the price you paid for a wine of this quality. I know I’d take several bottles of this over a single bottle of our more famous wines any day.
I can offer it for $100 a bottle (limited). Click here to order
At the opposite end of the style spectrum you’ll find Grenache made in a big, opulent style with plenty of rich, ripe fruit, high alcohol and oak. It’s a style in which the wines of Noon Winery have always and unashamedly been made.
Noon is a small family run estate in McLaren Vale, South Australia. Farmer and french teacher David Noon acquired a patch of old vines in the 1960s, initially selling the grapes, before starting to make his own wine in the 1970s. His son Drew grew up in the vineyards and later attended Roseworthy College, a Mecca for winemakers, before working at several wineries, including Tyrrell’s. In 1996 Drew returned and, with wife Raegan, took the reigns to the family winery. Drew Noon is one of the few winemakers in Australia with a Master of Wine (MW).
Noon focuses solely on red wines and makes them in what can only be described as a heroicstyle. I’ve tasted many of their wines and they're powerful, delicious, ripe, opulent, concentrated and alcoholic. These blockbuster wines are highly sought after and hard to find as they sell out as soon as they’re released. Not surprisingly they’ve attracted a cult following among those who like high-octane style - including Robert Parker.
I checked out Parker’s ratings and none of the almost 50 Noon wines he’s rated score less than 90 points. 28 of them score 95 or higher and 5 score 99 points. Incredible!
“An Australian genius!” The Wine Advocate #127.
“This estate’s brilliant owners/winemakers, Drew and Rae Noon, are meticulous about everything... The results are some of the most precise, full-bodied, yet remarkably vibrant wines produced in Australia.” The Wine advocate #167.
“Noon remains one of Australia's iconic wineries.” The Wine Advocate #181.
“Life is too short not to be drinking the wines of Drew and Rae Noon… With their incredible perfume, extraordinary purity and layers of fruit, these are attention-getting wines but there is a restraint, balance and complexity that is remarkable.” Robert Parker’s book The World’s Greatest Wine Estates.
“Noon Winery continues to be one of Australia’s benchmarks.” The Wine Advocate #173.
Noon grows Grenache, Graciano, Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon. They have three vineyards in McLaren Vale, planted in 1934, 1943 and 1998 and two contract vineyards at nearby Langhorne Creek, one planted in the early 60s, the other in the 70s.
I’m pleased to be able to offer several wonderful older vintages of Grenachebased wines from Noon. The most important thing with aged wines is provenance. When buying, there is always a risk they haven't been stored well and the detrimental effect on the wine will be significant. I’ve seen many great wines ruined by cellaring conditions described as ‘good’, but which were in fact substandard. Even when a bottle supposedly comes from a good cellar, you can’t be sure it’s spent its entire life there.
Importantly, I guarantee the provenance and cellaring conditions of every bottle offered here. They are in immaculate condition. All were purchased from cellar door on release and have been held in the same temperature controlled cellar since that time.
I hope you enjoy these treasures, they are deep, rich, intense and ready to drink.
Noon Winery Eclipse
This is Noon’s signature wine. Prior to 2011 the wine was made up of around 60-70% Grenache and 30-40% Shiraz. Since then it’s been around 90% Grenache with small components of Shiraz and Graciano. This wine sits in the Excellent category in Langton’s Classification of Australian Wine.
Tasting note from Robert Parker: “The 2005 Eclipse was aged in a mix of French and American oak, small and large, for 18 months. Composed of 65% Grenache and 35% Shiraz ranging in age from 40-70 years, it offers up a sublime perfume of garrigue, scorched earth, lavender, licorice, black cherry, and black raspberry. Full-bodied yet elegant, this succulent, sweet, layered blend has gobs of spicy blueberry, kirsch, and black fruit flavors, great balance, and a 60-second finish. Drink it now and over the next 15-20 years.” 95 points, The Wine Advocate #173, Oct 2007.
1999 Noon Eclipse - Parker 94 pts $100 per bottle SOLD OUT.
2000 Noon Eclipse - Parker 92 pts $100 per bottle Order online.
2001 Noon Eclipse - Parker 94 pts $100 per bottle Order online.
2002 Noon Eclipse - Parker 95 pts $150 per bottle Order online.
2005 Noon Eclipse - Parker 95 pts $150 per bottle SOLD OUT.
Noon Winery Solaire
This delicious wine is no longer made, the last vintage was 2008. Only 2 barrels were made in most vintages so it's rather hard to come by. It’s 100% Grenache, produced from very ripe grapes. I’ve tried this several times and it’s lush, full-bodied, high alcohol and subtly sweet. Great to share after dinner as you would a vintage port - perfect with hard cheese. Amazing wine and now very rare.
Such small quantities of this wine were made they haven't been widely reviewed.
Tasting note from the winemaker: “The 1999 Solaire offers up sweet blackberry and strawberry aromas along with fresh earth and cedar spice notes. It is medium-deep in colour and the palate is powerful, intense and fresh. There is a rich sweetness at first but the palate finishes dry with the flavours lingering for a long 45 seconds or more. There is good balance despite the intensity of this wine and yes, it carries the alcohol without a problem. This is an exciting wine to drink and is maturing slowly.”
Noon Solaire 1998 500ml 15.5% $120 per bottle Order online.
Noon Solaire 1999 500ml 17.9% $120 per bottle SOLD OUT.
Noon Solaire 2002 500ml 18.0% $120 per bottle Order online.