Dunne on Wine

Wine column: Australian granache is a delicious rarity in Northern California

A bottle of one of Steve Pannell’s grenaches from McLaren Vale.
A bottle of one of Steve Pannell’s grenaches from McLaren Vale.

Shiraz is the Great Barrier Reef of Australian wine, accounting for nearly a third of the country’s output. Shiraz’s impact in establishing Australia’s reputation on the world wine stage may be even greater than that.

But Australia is as rich in the diversity of its wines as it is in the range of its natural landmarks. If participants at Australia Decanted weren’t aware of that when they arrived for a series of seminars and tastings at Lake Tahoe this summer, they knew it by the time they left.

Orchestrated by the global marketing wing of the Australian wine trade, Wine Australia, the gathering taught or reminded guests that Australia’s wine portfolio also includes swashbuckling cabernet sauvignons, tightly wound chardonnays and lacy rieslings, as well as occasionally flashy takes on such outriders as pinot meunier, nebbiolo and marsanne.

But to this palate, as well as to other participants with whom I chatted, no varietal wine was more startling in its delivery of drama, grace and value than the grenache coming out of Australia today.

This was a revelation both exciting and depressing, for Australia produces very little grenache as a varietal table wine. Grenache accounts for just 1 percent of Australia’s vineyards, and much of it is made into pink wine, fortified wine, bag-in-box wine or blends with shiraz and mourvedre rather than as aspirational standalone varietal wines. As recently as 1979, Australia crushed 72,000 tons of grenache, but crushed just less than 18,000 tons last year, says Steve Pannell, owner/winemaker at S.C. Pannell Wines in South Australia’s McLaren Vale, one of the panelists at Australia Decanted.

To find fine Australian grenache in the United States, in other words, will take some digging, except for one impressive interpretation poured during Australia Decanted. That would be the rich yet juicy d’Arenberg 2013 McLaren Vale “The Derelict Vineyard” Grenache ($29), distributed by Old Bridge Cellars of Napa, which is widely available in Northern California. (The 2014 and 2015 versions of the wine also are being distributed now.)

If grenache yields such impressive wine in Australia, why isn’t more of it being grown? Well, grenache has a long but troubled history Down Under. With shiraz and mataro (mourvedre), it is one of Australia’s oldest grape varieties, with commercial plantings dating to the 1840s. Nonetheless, until relatively recently — the 1970s — the grape got lost, for the most part, in fortified wines, marketed more by style than grape variety. As recently as 1950, fortified wine accounted for 86 percent of Australia’s wine production; today it accounts for only 2 percent, says Wine Australia.

As a potential table wine, grenache early on also got knocked for its customary light color and medium body. Australian wine enthusiasts, not unlike other wine drinkers around the world, put a premium on color and power in their preferred wines, and shiraz had those advantages over grenache, thus explaining shiraz’s rise in popularity. Grenache was fine for blush wines and fortified wines but not necessarily as wines to attend customary robust dinner fare, so went conventional thinking.

Winemaker John Duval of John Duval Wines in South Australia’s Barossa Valley, one of the panelists at Australia Decanted, also noted that grenache’s prospects weren’t helped during the 1980s when Australian government officials, fretting about an over-supply and low prices for wine grapes, launched a program to thin vineyards, focusing on underperforming varieties.

“Unfortunately, the program was not tightly controlled and some old vineyards of sought-after varieties, including grenache, were pulled out also,” says Duval.

Furthermore, grenache isn’t the easiest variety to grow. Its vines are energetic, yielding large crops that must be reined in with hands-on manipulation to reduce output and to concentrate flavors. While hardy and drought-resistant, it’s also susceptible to the rot known as botrytis, notes Pannell.

Despite the government’s awkward effort to cut back on vineyards three decades ago, several older cherished grenache vineyards survive, but their yields are stingy. Thus, while Australian grenache generally delivers exceptional bang for the buck, some are too dear for every-day drinking, a reflection of their demanding and limited production.

But grenache’s prospects in Australia are looking up. Australians themselves, for one, have found the grape is quite capable of producing wines of layered, supple and lingering character. Louisa Rose, winemaker at the winery Yalumba, also in Barossa Valley, and director of the Australian Wine Research Institute, says that while she has been selling more of her grenache outside Australia than in the country she is seeing a turnaround.

“Grenache is quickly gaining popularity as a variety in Australia now,” Rose says.

What Australians are discovering is what Americans will find if only they can get some Australian grenache into their wine glasses — wines highly and invitingly perfumed, with fresh red-fruit flavors running to raspberries, pomegranates and strawberries, often punctuated with intriguing notes of musk and peppery spice. Acidity is refreshing, tannins forgiving. Alcohols customarily top 14 percent, but not by much.

Pannell is especially keen on grenache’s prospects both in Australia and abroad. Wine enthusiasts, he notes, are showing signs that they are tiring of bulked-up wines and are turning to releases with more buoyancy and refinement.

“The fashion of big wine is ending. I like to call the new movement the ‘fine wine’ era, where the emphasis falls back onto the word ‘fine’ and we celebrate the elegance and finesse of a wine,” says Pannell. “Thus, grenache’s perceived weakness of medium to light body is now a strength.”

The best Australian grenache will bear either a Barossa Valley or a McLaren Vale appellation, both in South Australia, a state with warm and dry weather similar to areas of France and Spain where grenache, which also goes by the names garnacha and grenache noir, thrives.

While some Australian grenaches can be opaque and muscular, others are light and lean. Through such evolving winemaking techniques as whole-berry fermentation, less oak aging and little or no filtering and fining, the drift Down Under is to a more accessible and limpid style that captures and shows off both grape and place. Australia hasn’t had much luck with pinot noir, but its grenache is showing it can provide the same sort of charm, grace, transparency and versatility.

Pannell realized that goal with two of his grenaches at Australia Decanted — the exuberant S.C. Pannell 2017 McLaren Vale “Smart” Grenache ($60), which stood out for its rolling raspberry fruit limned with peppermint, and the frankly fragrant S.C. Pannell 2017 McLaren Vale “Old McDonald” Grenache ($45), a model of poised youth, clarity and equilibrium.

The elegant, yet spirited, end of the Australian grenache spectrum also was represented with aplomb by the limber and jaunty Jauma 2016 McLaren Vale Clarendon “Ralph’s” Grenache ($50); the Bethany 2015 Barossa “Old Vine” Grenache ($30), its fine bones brushed with perfume and spice; the finely nuanced Yalumba 2013 Barossa “The Tri-Centenary” Grenache ($58); the clean and agile John Duval 2016 Barossa Valley “Annexus” Grenache ($60); and the vibrant, focused and herbal-accented Cirillo 2015 Barossa Valley “The Vincent” Grenache ($37).

At the other end, a commendable example of a lustier take on the grape was the firm and leathery Yangarra 2015 McLaren Vale “High Sands” Grenache ($100), a wine made from 72-year-old vines grown biodynamically on sandy dunes.

Anyone intrigued by recent vintages of Australian grenaches best start rounding them up now. This year’s crush of grenache in Australia was off 24 percent from a year ago, due to a dry winter, heat waves, hail storms and a smaller crop following a record 2017 harvest.

Also keep in mind that grenache has grabbed the attention of California winemakers, who as their brothers and sisters in Australia are finding it a fitting substitute for pinot noir in warmer settings. Look for grenaches from such steady producers as Lavender Ridge and Twisted Oak in Calaveras County; Holly’s Hill and Skinner in El Dorado County; Wilderotter, Legendre, Iron Hub and Easton in Amador County; Bokisch in Lodi; and Unti in Sonoma County’s Dry Creek Valley.

Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at dmichaeldunne@gmail.com.