Grenache: Growing up with it.
by DREW NOON MW
When I was young we used to pick our grapes into old kerosene tins painted with special white paint before the harvest each year.
(c) Philip White
I loved to eat the fruit while we were picking, taking a bite from almost every bunch!
Our vines were Grenache. They were planted in 1934. It seemed to me as though they’d always been there, like the gum trees surrounding our block.
We pruned them back each winter and from the stumpy, gnarled trunks somehow lovely soft green shoots emerged each spring. They survived our hot summers well, producing smaller crops when the season was really dry.
But as I grew up I became aware that in our region Grenache was becoming regarded as a second rate variety. Everybody wanted Shiraz. The price the wineries were prepared to pay for Grenache was consequently lower. This was in the 1970s, at the beginning of a new era in McLaren Vale. Demand had shifted from fortified wines to table wines and Grenache made wine which was less dark in colour and tended to oxidise with barrel ageing. These characteristics were strengths for tawny port production but were considered weaknesses for producing red table wines.
And so the grapes produced by our beloved old vines suffered falling demand from winery buyers. Our neighbour BJ who purchased the vineyard at the back of our property in 1972 still keeps a hand painted sign in his shed with ‘Grenache grapes $200 per ton’ from those days.
Then things took a turn for the better. Dad was still selling our crop to local wineries (including at different times Genders, Wirra Wirra, d’Arenberg and the Southern Vales Co-op) but due to a combination of the falling demand and his experience in the south of France teaching English for a year, he decided to have a go at making his own wine.
Life was much simpler then.
It was 1975 when he produced his first few hogsheads of wine. I am fairly sure of the date because the previous year - a wet summer - we lost the crop to downy mildew, which we had never seen before. I was only a teenager and I remember the wine being pretty dry to my palate but with a sort of recognisable connection to the taste of the grapes. I was strangely quite impressed!
Over the following years, I at first accepted the wisdom of the time that Grenache was a second-rate variety. But dad was selling our Grenache wine through the cellar door with no problem. And the public who visited and tasted the wine didn’t seem to hold any such prejudices.
I spent 15 years away making wine interstate, with no Grenache and not a bush vine in sight. By the time Raegan and I returned home to take over the winery from mum and dad I looked at our old vines with a new perspective.
For the first time I saw them as unique and special rather than old fashioned and out-of-date.
I wanted to protect them and to show people what they could do. I felt sure that we could make something special from them. It was our obligation.
The Grenache crush fell from 57% of the total red nationally in 1964 to make up only 7% of McLaren Vale’s red harvest by 2015. However although these figures don’t show it, there’s been something of a revival in the last couple of years. Grenache has suddenly become fashionable - perhaps McLaren Vale Grenache in particular.
Whilst this is a welcome development, it’s also a bit of a worry for those who have worked with Grenache for a long time. I’ve learnt over the years that people are opportunists (motivated principally by the desire to make money) and therefore I expect that this renewed interest in Grenache will lead to more plantings but unfortunately not necessarily focused on quality, just on the variety.
Grenache does not lend itself to greed, hurry or the time-poor modern lifestyle. It makes its best wine in fairly hard conditions which limit its growth and yield potential. This is true of most red wine grapes but you notice this more with Grenache than say Shiraz, which is over-endowed with colour and produces wines of quite acceptable soft fruitiness even when yields are higher.
It is the fragile nature of Grenache wine which means that it reflects its terroir more transparently too, making it an excellent vehicle for transferring site-derived characters to the glass.
Old vines growing on their own roots help here.
Grenache can produce the most engaging wine that you have ever tasted. It can be profound in its depth and complexity. I love Grenache like this. But to produce such wine takes a dedication to quality in the vineyard and winery. There are no shortcuts.
I think the likening of Grenache to warm climate Pinot is a fair analogy. Both can produce wine that is as good as it gets but there is a steep cliff off which quality drops unless yields are kept limited and sites well chosen.
The fact that it isn't easy making good Grenache makes it all the more exciting.
The fact that I grew up with these vines and loved them unconditionally at first, only to discover they weren’t valued by others and then finally to uncover their potential for myself makes the connection personal.
Grenache is very close to my heart.