Wine is fashion. Years ago I heard a highly respected winehead proffer this opinion and I was sceptical. But I’ve come to realise it’s true.
Like fondue and beards - wines go in and out of favour. Where was NZ Sauv Blanc fifteen years ago? And super oaky Chardonnay and over-the-top Shiraz, so prevalent in the early 90s, have given way to leaner, more savoury styles.
It’s important though to make the distinction between fashion and quality. If you do this you’ll come across wines that are absolutely outstanding value for money.
Grenache seems to have remained out of the spotlight, which is surprising given its important connection with Australia. In 1960 an amazing 80% of Australian wine was fortified, most of it made from Grenache, which at that time was the country’s most planted variety with around 3,000 ha. But by the 70s, consumption of fortifieds 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 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.
Global plantings of Grenache (Garnacha Tinta) have also declined, but not to the same extent. By 2010 it had fallen to 7th spot behind (in descending order) Cabernet, Merlot, Airen, Tempranillo, Chardonnay and Syrah. Despite this, 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 overlooked. 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 it seems a few people have cottoned on…
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.”
Andrew Graham, Australian Wine Review, Aug 2017: “ Grenache is back… there’s a palpable sense of enthusiasm for Grenache (and notably Australian Grenache) that wasn’t there a few years back.”
These days excellent examples of Grenache are 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 workhorse, to being celebrated. And not just as part of so-called Rhône blends with Shiraz and Mourvèdre, but as a single varietal. Finally it’s finding 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, its 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.
It’s International Grenache Day tomorrow (15th September), and to celebrate I’ve sourced the two highest scoring Grenaches in Halliday’s latest guide, each awarded an incredible 98 points. The wines come from the BarossaValley and McLaren Valeand while they’re quite different in style, they represent absolute peak quality for Australian Grenache.
Interestingly, Halliday also awarded both wines Special Value Ratings, not common for wines in this price range. Wines of this standard, made from an in-demand variety like Shiraz from the Barossa or McLaren Vale, would usually sell for more. Much more.
Husband and wife team Toby and Emmanuelle Bekkers are the perfect wine couple. Both are highly credentialed and experienced and have an extraordinary attention to detail.
Toby is a gun in the vineyard. He has his own viticultural consulting business, working in both Australia (particularly McLaren Vale) and France. He has an honours degree in Applied Science and Agriculture from Uni of Adelaide and is universally recognised as a “leading exponent of organic and Biodynamic viticulture,”James Halliday.
Emmanuelle was born in beautiful Bandol, in the south of France. She has a degree in Biology (biochemistry) from the University of Marseille and a Degree in Oenology from the University of Montpellier. She’s worked in several wineries, large and small, in both France (Burgundy, Bordeaux and Languedoc) and Australia (McLaren Vale & Langhorne Creek). Emmanuelle has her own wine consulting business, Oenologie Requin, and has been the winemaker at Chalk Hill in McLaren Vale since 2001.
Specialising in Grenache and Shiraz, the Bekkers’ first vintage was in 2011. They only make 3 wines in Australia; a Grenache (98 points from Halliday), a Syrah (98 points from Halliday) and a Syrah Grenache (95 points from Halliday). Emmanuelle also makes a premier cru Chablis in France but that's for another time. Not surprisingly Halliday rates the winery 5 stars.
The Bekkers note: “In our Grenache we search for asiatic spice (cloves and star anise), fragrance and pretty aromatics. We love Grenache's clarity of fruit. It's no shrinking violet though, and has the capacity age beautifully.”
The wine is 100% Grenache with the handpicked fruit coming from three vineyards. It’s gently crushed (split as opposed to totally pressed) with 15% left as whole bunches. It’s then cold soaked for 5-6 days to extract tannins, obtain darker colour and control the ensuing ferment speed. It then undergoes a long, cool, gentle ferment using wild yeasts, after which it is spends 18 months in used French oak. It’s a big 15% alcohol.
This is a super wine.
“As close to perfection as you are likely to come with McLaren Vale Grenache. The perfumed bouquet sets the scene for the silky, supple red-fruited palate, superfine tannins always present, oak flavour absent. Has many of the characteristics of a great Pinot Noir.”98 points, Halliday’s Australian Wine Companion 2018 and a Special Value Star Rating.
“An outstanding Grenache, scented with sweet, ripe raspberry jam aromas while the palate is full-bodied, soft and rounded with ample tannins and richness. It’s youthful and bright, bold and almost decadent; the finish lingering on and on.” 95 points, Five Stars, Gourmet Traveller Wine Magazine.
“Medium to deep red with a purple tinge. The bouquet is raspberry jam-like and sweet, bold and ripe and not showing development yet, while the palate is full-bodied, soft and rounded, with ample soft tannins and good richness. The length is superior and the wine is all-round satisfying. Very good - even decadent.”95 points, Huon Hooke (a huge score from him).
“One of the most outstanding wines of the thousands I tasted last year: superb, earthy, macerated red and black fruits, perfectly poised, wrapped up in firm, lip-smacking tannin and a deep, umami-rich savoury quality. Intensely flavoured but not heavy: the wine carries its 15 per cent alcohol effortlessly, and will, I suspect, develop beautifully in the cellar for many years.” Max Allen, AFR 2015.
I can offer it for $80 a bottle. Order online
Aside from sharing 98 points as the top Grenache in Halliday’s Wine Companion, this wine was also awarded a Gold Medal and Trophy for the Best Grenache at the last Barossa Wine Show (late 2016).
Since Alex Head’s first vintage in 2006, this Barossa winemaker has received considerable recognition. He was a finalist in the Young Gun of Wine Award in 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2017, and Halliday 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, inclusion in Halliday’s Annual Top 100, 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.
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, rivalling the likes of Henschke. The vines from which Alex sources his fruit were planted by the Seppelt family and are 156 years old.
The wine is 95% Grenache and 5% Mataro (Mourvèdre). The fruit was handpicked and 20% whole-bunch (ie. uncrushed fruit) was included in the ferment, which was carried out using wild yeasts in an open vat. The ferment was hand plunged and foot trodden twice daily for 2 weeks. It was then aged for 17 months in old oak, 600L demi-muid. A small addition of Mourvèdre was made for balance. It was bottled unfined and unfiltered under stelvin capsule. Only 2 barrels were made. 14.5% alcohol.
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. It’s unusual to hear him talk up his own wines, but this is one of which he’s justifiably proud.
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 savoury, 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. Alex says he’s “interested in making a wine that’s balanced and will live forever” and I agree - it’ll age for decades.
“Deep red/purple, youthfully bright colour with a clean, bright, aromatic bouquet with mixed spices to the fore. It’s rich and full bodied, profound and lush in the mouth with a sweet fruit core surrounded by soft, ample tannin. It’s complex with some savoury sides and a very long alcohol-warming aftertaste. Excellent, Drink 2017-2032.” 95 points, Huon Hooke (a huge score from him) & ranked #1 Grenache in the Barossa.
“A deep color foreshadows a wealth of concentrated raspberries and red fruit on the nose, as well as poached cherries and swish, cedary oak influence that's well fitted. There are some darker blackberries too and a swathe of mountain herbs and chalky edge. This is super pure. The palate's glossy and crunchy, offering striking primary purity for now and impeccable balance. There are a lot of sweet but tart red fruits within the raspberry/cherry spectrum, and smoothly rendered tannins provide a lot of depth and detail. Tangy, juicy and very bright acidity. Full of concentrated flesh and pulpy Grenache goodness. Superb wine. Drink now and through to 2025+.” 97 points, James Suckling.
“An assiduously detailed Grenache boasting strident vinosity across a velour of raspberry, currant and plum, macerated in dark cherry liqueur and given lift and a mediating spike by 20% whole cluster. This can only come from ancient vines. In this case, vines dating back a whopping 156 years! Filigreed, sandy tannins and a bead of zesty acidity give form to the cascade of fruit.”
98 points, Halliday’s Australian Wine Companion 2018 and a Special Value Star Rating.
This is a superb wine - one day you’ll laugh at this price.