It is popular now to call Grenache “the Pinot noir” of McLaren Vale, and other parts of the South Mount Lofty Ranges where it’s too warm for good Pinot.
Which is pretty well all of them apart from Ashton Hills.
In the ’80s, when Stephen Hickinbotham, of the aptly-named Anakie winery on a volcano near Geelong, was developing his Cab Mac fermentation technique, he spoke of how the variety was misunderstood and should be made with some whole berries, and perhaps even bunches in the ferment, after the methods developed over the centuries in Burgundy and Beaujolais.
James Irvine, the Barossa veteran, was the next preacher of that same gospel later in the decade when he launched Chais Clarendon brand. Mike Farmilo, one of the old-hand Grenache Masters of McLaren Vale, recalls Jim saying that Grenache was “the Pinot of the Fleurieu”.
This writer is guilty, too, suggesting over a decade back that Grenache would be better wine if were made with some of the respect the Burgundians show their Pinot.
So. Is Grenache actually like Pinot?
Can it take the place of Pinot on the table?
Grenache is very site-reflective. It’s a sook. In McLaren Vale alone, the style changes several times in the general sense, from Doug Govan’s determined Rudderless vineyard at The Victory Hotel on Sellicks Hill on the Gulf down south, to the upland vineyards at the region’s north-eastern extreme near Clarendon.
The clays of the flats between produce workable Grenache, dark and dry and ideal for the diehard GSM blender, with admixtures of Shiraz and Mataro. Stuff grown on the dunes traversing those flats is often more floral and rosy, with less black tea. There are belts of limestone and various sandstones.
The fruit of the deep windblown sands and ironstone of Blewett Springs grows more fragrant, floral-perfumed fruit with lots of redcurrant and cherry. Further upland, the fruit seems a bit like all the above turned up to 11. While retaining a certain dignity and elan.
That’s very vague, but it’s the gist. All over the region, there are vineyards adjacent to each other whose characters are chalk and cheese.
Very generally, older vines give more complexity.
Then there’s the winemaking. The more care and attention, the more gastronomic intelligence shown, the percentage of whole bunches or berries – even stalks, the amount of time on skins, the more subtle the oak – all these variables can make very big differences.
Deep respect in the garden; rat cunning in the kitchen; all overseen by a person with unusually deep organoleptic sensitivity. No room for superimposed ego.
Grenache is very sensitive to sophistry. It loses its distinctive loveliness when pushed or blended with inappropriate varieties. It hates new oak.
Back at the beginning of vintage, I tasted 51 Grenache wines from around the district. While some were blends of various vineyards and others didn’t claim any particular source at all, I decided that attempting to sort them into sub-regions was less fair than futile, so I simply spent a day cruising through them, blind, in the perfect sanctum of the Eileen Hardy Room at Tintara.
Next day I did the same with the GSM blends, which is another story. Then I took a second sweep through all the Grenache from the day before.
Jeez it was fun.
Man with a mission: Philip White at the tasting table.
In the random order of the row, these offered particular distinction and pleasure:
Patritti Selection 181 McLaren Vale Grenache 2015 $35: After a bouquet that’s bouncing with life, like a red cherry superball, with a whiff of dry oak, this soon turns on a dark raven sulk. It’s a serious red for the cellar, with all that shiny tight whipsnake structure and tannin. Bloody gorgeous wine. Moody. Sultry.
The Old Faithful Northern Exposure McLaren Vale Grenache 2010 $60: Like the Patritti, this loveliness changes gears between the vibrant and provocative fragrance and that almost sinister palate. Here, the cherries are black and bitter and pickled, and so more savoury. A lash of good oak adds to this effect. Again, the wine’s racy and tight, but needs years or lots of decanter. Or both. A seven-year-old baaaybaaay.
Pruner’s Hut Dry Grown McLaren Vale Grenache 2015 $25: In some ways, this cuteness reminds me of some of the early, cheaper vineyard Burgundies from Domaine Dujac. This one’s paler, like much petit Pinot, and its cherries are more maraschino than marello. Raspberries, too. Then it has a shot of the grilled cashew whiff some of those wines derived from their oak. A whiff of walnut. And bits of flavour that reminded me of almond biscotti; even fresh nougat. Dainty and delightful.
Aphelion Berry McLaren Vale Grenache 2016 $29: The first of a set of Aphelion wines, all Grenache, but made in different ways, this cheeky dude was made with lots of whole berries in the ferment. Once again, it’s alive with lovely cherries, fresh ones in this instance. It has pretty estery hints, too, like musky bubblegum and banana lollies. The flavours are dead cute and alluring, and taper out to a lovely natural lemony acid.
Albright Longline McLaren Vale Grenache 2015 $26: This is the sort of Grenache that gives meaning to the notion of a polished silky sheen. It’s intense and beautiful and manages to mix many playful aromas and flavours – bubblegum; raspberry; maraschino; musk – with a shy, almost sly chassis that will carry all this wonder for years. Dribble. Rock AND roll.
Shottesbrooke Single Vineyard Bush Vine McLaren Vale Grenache 2015 $33: More of that heady, musky confection opens the hooter with cherry and raspberry fruit gels; the palate sneaks its power and force in beneath: creamy of texture, but with really lovely appetising tannins to guarantee a good decade of dungeon.
Twelftree California Road McLaren Vale Grenache 2014 $55: Bright and edgy, like a seaside pastorale, this one has aromas that remind me of fields of drying everlasting flowers, and lemongrass. It’s a clean and refreshing zephyr. The cherries (maraschino) and raspberries seem to creep in and rise later in the business.
Wirra Wirra The Absconder McLaren Vale Grenache 2015 $72: Another of the silky sheen school, this is right royal Grenache, creamy with chocolate and coffee and Cherry Ripe. It has lovely luxurious flesh in a frame of exquisite poise and form. Exceptional.
Geddes Seldom Inn McLaren Vale Grenache 2015 $25: Don’t forget the fruit gums, Mum. I like these blackcurrant ones! With its gentle persistent acidity, a pleasant edge of clean oak adds some neat cut to this racy, clean summertime wine.
The Old Faithful Northern Exposure McLaren Vale Grenache 2013 $60: A wine of quite some eccentric allure, this is the king of the old school, with its black tea – Earl Grey, with bergamot oil – charcoal and cooking chocolate. Lots of lignin in these old vines. I reckon this is a bit like some Barossa Grenache. It’s sombre and smug and still sinuous and stylish. It’ll live for decades.
Aphelion McLaren Vale Grenache 2016 $29: There be black cherries here but with the unlikely addition of fresh white charcuterie fats. You know what that means? That means porky comfort. But this is no couch slouch: it’s dancy and bright and delightful.
Kay Bros. Griffon’s Key McLaren Vale Grenache 2015 $45: Conservative, old-school wine of obvious reserve, this venerable-in-the-waiting nevertheless has plenty of the pretty confection and lollyshop wafting about, but then it reminds me somehow of Burgundy: perhaps the more deep and dark, tannic wines of Domaine de l’Arlot. It has that sort of long-distance tannin.
Tintara Reserve McLaren Vale Grenache 2016 $70: Another dark royal waiting for a crown, this is serious king-hell Grenache. It can fru-fru and frivvle with the most frivolous, with its cherries in lemon, but then comes the coffee and chicory and those deep dark fruits and the power of tannin glowering way below. By Bacchus it’ll be beautiful.
Yangarra High Sands McLaren Vale Grenache 2013 $130: DISCLAIMER: This wine, and its vineyard, is one of the main reasons I live in McLaren Vale. I live at the foot of the High Sands. It is made by my landlord. It has all that stuff: cherries, cherries, raspberries, lemon. That bright young Hickinbotham mentioned at the top would love its fish stock/Worcestershire umami had he lived. It has uncanny freshness and appetising life in all its venerable old vine reserve. Shut up Whitey. Okay. I won’t even mention the other ones he makes.
Serafino Reserve McLaren Vale Grenache 2015 $40: All dark chocolate and briary berries; carob; lemony oak … at first I thought this was a tad presumptuous and brash, a bright young thing of the modern school, yet to hit the deportment classes, and then I thought it was even more so. Good fun!
The Hundred Clarendon Single Vineyard McLaren Vale Grenache 2015 $30: There’s beautiful depth and glower in this, lying like a limpet below all the pretty confection, with those fruit lozenges, gels and gums. Which leads me to the wood, which is just on the edge of intrusion. Give it a few years if you can.
Penny’s Hill The Experiment McLaren Vale Grenache 2015 $35: More of the neat and racy refreshing school, this one has all the juicyfruit lollyshop pretties in the sniffer, and a real easy slurp of a palate with a tannin rise that will be all smoothly settled by spring. Drinking not thinking.
Heirloom Vineyards Alcala McLaren Vale Grenache 2016 $80: Chubby. Like puppyfat chub. No dimples, creases nor cellulite, but bouncy baby flesh. All the gels and lozenges: blackcurrant, raspberry, red currant. Then it gets really inky and thoughtful and it’s certainly not Pinot but it’s probably nothing much like what most folks thought they should expect of Grenache, either. It’s a cracker.
PS: I talk a lot about cherries in Grenache. In the vineyards around me, say from Geddes at the south end of Blewett Springs to the Clarendon vineyards over 100 metres up tward the Adelaide Hills, cherries are dominant in most of the best wines. Some are fresh, like the red cherries you can pick between Echunga and Hahndorf. Some are the semi-crystallised maraschino type, like you find somewhere between your cocktail umbrella and the floor. And many are more like the bitter, pickled black marello style.
In my usual rounds of buying items to check my tasting similies and metaphors, I recently bought a jar of marellos at the local Romeos. They were bleached and bland and buggered.
The serious Grenache makers of McLaren vale should find advantage in working with the cherry farmers and local picklers and jamsters to develop a fair dinkim pickled black cherry product that the tasting rooms can offer with their Grenache. Better than importing proper ones from Italy. And it might save my conscience from terminal guilt, having written for decades that great Grenache often tastes like marello cherries. We can do better than that.