Grenache and Garnacha redesigned

Giles Cooke MW in Smart Vineyard, McLaren Vale

Who make the best new-wave examples? There's a wide price disparity … A shorter version of this article is published by the Financial Times. Giles Cooke MW of Thistledown Wines is pictured in the ancient Smart Vineyard.

Having just tasted a dozen wines made from the fashionable Grenache grape in McLaren Vale, South Australia, I thought I’d look up what my friend James Halliday had to say about Grenache in his 1990 Australian Wine Guide. (Halliday is by quite a stretch Australia’s best-known and most-experienced wine writer. At 82 he has only just relinquished full responsibility for the annual Halliday Wine Companion, which rates virtually every wine made in Australia.)

The section at the beginning of this substantial book lists the names of 116 grape varieties including such obscurities as Montils and a grape, Troyen, no longer grown in its native Burgundy but renamed Glory of Australia in Victoria’s Great Western region apparently. But of Grenache there is no mention, so infra dig was it considered then in Australia – fit only to supply raw material for cheap fortified wine.

But what do I find heading up the introduction to the smart, full-colour brochure that accompanied the online tasting? A quote from James Halliday: ‘Grenache is McLaren Vale’s secret weapon – not merely Australia’s best, but every bit as good as that of the Rhône Valley’.

For many years Grenache was almost exclusively associated with the southern Rhône and Provence in south-east France. It is the dominant ingredient in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas, Vacqueyras, Côtes-du-Rhône and a host of other appellations in the southern Rhône Valley – as well as the tidal wave of Provençal rosé currently sweeping through the world’s wine markets, as Grenache is naturally quite pale. Typical southern Rhône reds are big and beefy – spicy, deep-coloured and rich – often thanks to blending with deeper-coloured grapes such as Syrah and Mourvèdre.

But Spain has had almost as much as France of what they call Garnacha planted and a new wave of Spanish wine producers could fairly be said to have spearheaded a new style of red wine based on the variety, one that has rejuvenated its reputation. Reds no longer need to be dark to be admired, which has opened the door for Garnacha/Grenache that is relatively transparent but fresh and sweet with floral aromas – often of roses – a sort of less-expensive alternative to delicate red burgundy.

This is the style of wine that has brought wine fame to the Gredos mountains south of Madrid, fashioned from the ancient Garnacha bush vines that can be found in so many Spanish wine regions so long as they have not been pulled out to make way for the more structured Tempranillo that has until recently been viewed by growers as superior to Garnacha. Carefully handled Garnacha fruit has yielded truly fine, and often under-priced, wines in Calatayud, La Mancha, Navarra, Cariñena, Campo de Borja and other parts of Aragon such as those being explored by Master of Wine Fernando Mora for his Frontonio label. Even in Rioja – a Tempranillo stronghold – an increasing number of wines based on the also-ran grape Garnacha are being produced – particularly from old vines.

Garnacha/Grenache is unusually resistant to the vine diseases such as esca and eutypa dieback that are plaguing growers all over the world, which explains why there are so many mature plants in the world’s vineyards. Its other viticultural strength is how well it copes with drought, another increasingly common vine-growing affliction. 

It is partly this that has led to a re-evaluation of the variety in South Africa, particularly in the unirrigated interior wine regions such as Swartland, where star performers David & Nadia (the brand name of a talented married couple) have decided to give up other red wine grapes to concentrate on the Grenache that they have seen riding out droughts and heatwaves with ease. It also produces wines with a low pH, which means stability and good acidity.

You would think this might make Grenache rather suitable for California’s many vineyards and you would be right. As Patrick Comiskey writes in his 2016 book American Rhône, ‘In the mid 1990s as the American Rhône movement kicked into high gear, producers scoured the state for bona fide Rhône varieties already planted in California. They were somewhat surprised to learn that Grenache was everywhere around them.’ The variety had rarely been identified on labels, but was instead yoked into service as raw material for plonk, high yields camouflaging the grape’s intrinsic character.

Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon was one of the first actively to celebrate California Grenache in his Clos du Gilroy from Monterey, imaginatively marketed as from ‘the garlic capital of the world’. But today truly individual interpretations of Grenache can be found throughout the state, particularly in the Sierra Foothills and the Central Coast.

In Italy Grenache is grown almost exclusively on Sardinia where it is known as Cannonau and is the most-planted grape variety. Sardinians and Spaniards vigorously dispute who grew it first, but it’s clear from wines such as Antonella Corda’s that the transparent new-wave style can be found on the island.

So what about Australian Grenache? Because they were relatively late to the modern Grenache party, the Australian winemakers who are now taking Grenache seriously have been able to learn from those who have, for example, experimented with ageing it in small, new oak barrels and realised that it much prefers large oak casks or concrete. As elsewhere, they often keep some of the grape stems in the fermentation vat to add zest to the wine. McLaren Vale is the Australian region that has most firmly decided to adopt Grenache, not least because it can boast so many old vines on the sort of sandy soils that suit Grenache well.

I asked Halliday why Grenache was missing from his 1990 list. He didn’t explain but emailed fascinating evidence of the variety’s rehabilitation in Australia, from cheap fortified wine base to the country’s most valuable ingredient for dry table wine. This year the average price of Grenache grapes at AU$1,209 a tonne was higher than for any other major grape. According to him this reversal of reputation has ‘come through specific classes in wine shows, Turkey Flats [2016 Grenache winning the important] Jimmy Watson [trophy], the recognition of Blewitt Springs [a superior subregion of McLaren Vale], and toning the alcohol down from 16% to 14.5% or less.’

Unfortunately the variety does need to notch up quite a high potential alcohol to fully express itself but two of the 12 McLaren Vale Grenaches I tasted were under 14% alcohol, and very delicious too. The lowest alcohol, 13.5%, was registered by one of three Thistledown wines made by fellow British Masters of Wine Giles Cooke and Fergal Tynan of Scottish wine importers Alliance Wine. In their quest to become ‘the authority on Australian Grenache’, they explicitly admit that they were inspired by Spanish Garnacha. 

The mystery perhaps is why the new, delicate style is so difficult to find in the grape’s French heartland, the southern Rhône.

Some delicious Grenache and Garnacha

Paniza, Terrenal 2019 Vino de España 14.5%
£6 Marks & Spencer

House of Dreams 2019 Swartland 13.5%
£9 Marks & Spencer

Los Cardones, Estancia Tigerstone 2018 Salta 14%
1,030 pesos Ozono Drinks, Buenos Aires

Frontonio, a range of Garnachas IGP Valdejalón
From £15 Winebuyers

Bernabeleva, Navaherreros 2017 Vinos de Madrid 14%
£15.19 Gauntleys, £19.99 Hay Wines, Thorne Wines, £21.99 Selfridges

Malmont 2015 Côtes du Rhône 13.5%
£19 Stannary St Wine Co

Sierra Cantabria 2016 Rioja 15%
£16.65 Exel Wines, £18.85 The Great Wine Co

Verum, Ulterior Parcela No 6 2017 Vino de la Tierra de Castilla 14.5%
£19.95 The Great Wine Co (yesterday's wine of the week)

Carsten Migliarina 2017 Wellington 13.5%
£19.95 Yapp Bros

David & Nadia 2019 Swartland 13.5%
£120 per case of 6 ib Justerini & Brooks

Birichino, Besson Vineyard Old Vines 2018 Central Coast 14%
£24.50 Vinoteca, £27.95 Field & Fawcett, £28.99 Majestic, £29.50 Butlers Wine Cellar

Ministry of Clouds 2018 McLaren Vale 13.9%
£33 RRP Master of Malt, D Vine Cellars, Elicité, Eight Stony Street, The Good Wine Shop, Theatre of Wine, Red Squirrel Wine

S C Pannell, Old McDonald 2017 McLaren Vale 14.5%
£40 RRP Cru, VINVM, Exel Wines, Lay & Wheeler

Thistledown, This Charming Man 2018 McLaren Vale and Thistledown, Sands of Time 2018 McLaren Vale both 14.5%
£44 RRP Noble Green, Hedley Wright and, by the case, The Fine Wine Co; imported into the US by Southern Starz

Whitcraft, Stolpman Vineyard 2018 Ballard Canyon 13%
£48 The Sorting Table (an online retailer launched recently by Ben Henshaw of Indigo Wine), $39.99 Apex Fine Wine, NC

Yangarra, High Sands 2017 McLaren Vale 14%
£86 RRP imported into the UK by Boutinot, many stockists in Australia

Tasting notes in McLaren Vale Grenache today. International stockists at Wine-Searcher.com