Ode to Old Vine Grenache
Old Vine Grenache is one of Australia’s greatest treasures. For many years the variety sat in the back seat to Shiraz and Chardonnay however, modern times see it thrust upon the forefront of the fine wine movement as one of modern Australia’s greatest wines. The perfume is kaleidoscopic and hypnotic; a real love potion of roses, strawberries, and all things floral, musk and Turkish delight. The wines are utterly intoxicating with their multi layer attributes and the best part is, they’re ready to drink from day one and only get better with age. This is an exciting era for Aussie wines as there is no requirement for cellaring to hit a sweet spot. Just pop the cork and enjoy the ride.
While the future for this wonderful variety is ever so bright, the journey actually began some 150 years ago when James Busby and John Reynell individually travelled to the Rhone Valley, France to take cuttings and transport them back to South Australia to cultivate nurseries. The cuttings were cultivated at the famous Chateau Reynella (South Australian suburban location, Reynella suburb named after the visionary Mr John Reynell) and propagated across McLaren Vale. The bush vines represented pre-phylloxera, un genetically modified genus that would one day yield one of the most highly prized examples in the country and the world. France’s viticultural industry was obliterated by phylloxera and Australia’s old vine plantations in South Australia, whom has never had phylloxera, rate as the oldest examples of pre-phylloxera vine materials that remain. These vines should be national heritage listed.
Back in the days of the 1930’s and 1940’s the fortified market was brimming with demand and Grenache was typically made into those fortified wines with Shiraz and sent back to ‘market’ which was in fact London, UK. The market bought these fortified wines with great embrace and grenache found its first commercial output. Eventually, market evolution saw a shift in consumers’ palettes away from fortified and also sherry which were very popular back then, towards still table wines and many great vineyards languished. The marketplace initially adopted Claret and Rhine Riesling styles. As the market matured, Rhone-style wines and Burgundian styles made their way into people’s cellars and onto restaurant lists. For a while there in the 1970’s, long before Intellectual Property Laws were defined, Grange Hermitage, Clare Valley Chablis and Hunter Valley ‘Burgundy’ were famous Australian wines that adorned wine lists across the country. Grenache was virtually non-existent until the likes of a few key individuals took the variety out of retirement and saved the vines from residential housing sprawl that was fast gobbling up unused vineyard sites.
Charlie Melton began experimenting with emulating the Chateau Neuf-du-pape wines from southern Rhone in 1988, up in the Barossa. These were blended with Shiraz and Mourvedre and forged the first iterations of the famous GSM blend. In 1991 Roman Bratasiuk of Clarendon Hills began making single vineyard Grenache out of a sleepy little hollow called Blewitt Springs, where the Clarendon Hills winery is still located. Roman made Australia’s first 100% old vine grenache, single vineyard Grenache from Blewitt Springs. Roman would then dedicate the next 34 years of his life to telling the world how good Blewitt Springs Grenache is. Roman would eventually pioneer the Australian revolution of Old Vine Grenache and one day the world would widely consider Blewitt Springs as the epicentre of world-class Australian Grenache. Thanks Roman.
Grenache represents 9% of the overall vineyard plantations in McLaren Vale. It’s still a substantial minority by comparison to Shiraz’s 56% total vineyard occupation. Critically, 75% of McLaren Vale’s total Grenache is old vine. Old vine grenache is the polar opposite of young vine grenache. Young Grenache is high-yielding and thin-skinned and light on flavour and structure. These young vines typically are made into rosé. There is a long wait until young vine grenache gets to the age where it can produce something akin to old vine Grenache; circa 80 years. These magnificent, gnarly old bush vines produce more concentrated, lower yields with thicker-skinned berries that possess infinitely greater depth of flavour, colour and structure. The wine also reflects its terroir mineral environment with high fidelity due to the large surface of the old root networks. Since 1991 we’ve believed Blewitt Springs is the greatest grenache terroir in the world due to its globally unique combination of old vines, ancient soils and maritime proximity; the wines are absolutely exotic and go well beyond the norm, in the context of international examples. Blewitt Springs Old Vine Grenache is made unique due to its high ironstone prevalence and this presents as a ferrous, rusty, flinty terroir derived edge in the wines. Old Vine Blewitt Springs Grenache when its young more widely demonstrates lavender, roses and violets with delicious forrest berries and nuances of strawberry, blood orange, musk and Turkish delight across the palate. With a bit of bottle age, crushed rock, rust and ferrous-like qualities become highly evidential and eventually with 20 years bottle age the presentation of forrest floor and truffle like characters possess significant weight and charisma and are reminiscent of aged Grand Cru Burgundy.