For the love of Grenache, a tale of a winemaker's obsession

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In the concluding paragraphs of his biography, our winemaker, Mark Bulman writes he ‘has developed a love for Grenache that borders on obsessive’. Let me clarify this for you, there is nothing ‘bordering’ about it. On the scale of fondness to full-blown-rapturous-I-want-to-take-you-home obsession, Mark sits well and truly in the latter range. But what’s so special about Grenache? This is the Barossa Valley, isn’t it? You know, ‘Shiraz Country’. While Shiraz, and certainly the diversity of Barossa terroir and its effects on Shiraz are always key points of winemaking here, it’s Grenache that fuels a different fire for Mark.

Before we get into the lovey-dovey stuff, let’s have a quick look at Grenache and how it ended up in our little Valley.

The origin of Grenache is a hotly contested topic, with Spain and Italy (specifically Sardinia) battling it out for top honours. Personally, I support the Spanish claim to the throne, but that’s a blog unto itself, if you’re interested have a look at the Russian agronomist Vavilov’s ‘Studies on the Origins of Cultivated Plants” and the diversity of Grenache variants in both regions. Whatever the origin, the spread of Grenache can be attributed to trade within the Crown of Aragon. This 14th & 15th century Empire covered much of present-day Eastern Spain, South-Western France, Sardinia & across the Mediterranean as far as Greece. Here the warm and often dry climate suited the hardy Grenache vine well and plantings flourished, continuing to today where is its France’s 2nd most planted variety after Merlot. Grenache was known as Tinto Aragonés (Red of Aragon) during this time, the chosen beverage of the upper classes, something aspirational, royal, lust-worthy.

With such an esteemed reputation it was only natural that Grenache cuttings were brought to Australia in Busby’s 1832 collection. Perhaps more important to the South Australian story were those from Southern France brought in by Christopher Rawson Penfold in 1844. As we saw happen in Europe, plantings of this vine that could survive the Australian conditions boomed, becoming Australia’s most widely planted until the 1960’s, when it was surpassed by Shiraz and later Cabernet Sauvignon.

As is often the way in the New World the way in which a wine is made is markedly different to its ancestors. In the ‘old-world’ Grenache has had 2 distinct styles, a lighter, fruitier style used most commonly for dry Rosés and a dark, tannic and complex style for table red. In order to achieve this the way in which the grapes are grown are markedly different, with yield control, clone, site and the age of the vines the key contributing factors. Of course, here we’re all very familiar with Grenache based Rosé (we are Turkey Flat after all!) but the ‘table red’ version here in Australia is usually very different to the old world. Originally Grenache in South Australia was widely grown with an emphasis on producing large berries with high sugar content and low colour, making it ideal for the fortified wines that were the keystone of our fledgling wine industry. Wine styles change as time passes and when the shift to drier table wines occurred, Grenache grown in the same way translated into a lighter, fruit-forward style which is still the Australian norm today.

Enter Mark to Turkey Flat. Coming from a background of cooler-climate regions, Mark’s courtship with Grenache began here. Not content to emulate the myriad of Australian Grenache already in the market and fuelled by a desire to learn more about this fascinating variety, he began to research Grenache made from around the world (tough gig, that). The intensity of wines from Southern France, in particular Gigondas and Vacqueyras and Spain’s Navarra made him really sit up and take note. Darker, tannic, herbaceous and spicy, completely at odds with what we ‘know’ as Grenache here, a love affair was born. This ‘dance along the spectrum of herby and spicy’* shows a particular suitability to the climate in which it is grown. Happily, here in the Barossa, Mark has the tools; the climate, soils and old vines, he needs to produce that which his heart desires.

Delving back into museum stocks shows something else particularly titillating, Grenache can age beautifully. In fact, those well-made, complex and tannic varieties begin to show completely new characters as it ages. Spice, leather, honey, lavender and roasted nuts add to the raspberry and black olive notes of its youth. For a wine to twist, turn and surprise (in a good way) an educated winemaker can only be endearing. Ripeness levels are critical to the development of such complexity, and are a crucial point to crafting Turkey Flat wines. A day or so too long and the over-ripe fruit results in a jammy, tarry, one dimensional wine, not the lascivious little wonder it could have been. And so, come vintage, Mark’s focus on the vineyards and the grapes themselves is paramount. During this time it’s his passion, this obsession with crafting the perfect Grenache that drives him. You don’t get up in the wee small hours to travel out to each of your vineyards, checking row after row before a long, hard day of crushing, pressing, pumping over, digging out, personally checking on every stage of the process day after day for months unless that product really means something to you. Most tellingly, he will even miss morning tea to be out amongst his vines. If you know how sacred the ritual of the winery morning tea is you’ll understand just what that means.

The way that this more ‘traditional’ style of Grenache interacts with food definitely fanned the flames of love – you know that old thing about the way to a man’s heart. Generally speaking, food and wine matches are made by the way elements in one mimic those in the other, white wine with white meats, Shiraz with steak etc. There are some food and wine matches, however, that are about much, much more than just echoing each other. Like the couple that has been blissfully married for 60 years, they bring out better qualities in each other that otherwise are not there. Complex, tannic Grenache is one of those wines that can achieve such dizzying gastronomic heights. Try a Grenache with Manchego for example, the Grenache brings out elements of fruit, olive type characters in the cheese and the cheese cuts through the tannin, highlighting other nuances of spice, leather and fruit in the wine that are otherwise not prevalent. It is no coincidence that Grenache is grown in La Mancha, the home of Manchego. Mark believes we have a lot to learn from the way that food and wine are put together in other cultures. We’re often guilty here in Australia of believing that a wine has to stand up on its own, where the real rewards can actually come from wines that need to be consumed with the right food to bring out their best qualities. This is something the French and the Spanish do very well, it’s so ingrained into their way of life they don’t even stop to think about it. Perhaps we should.

In short, when yields are kept low, and emphasis is given to the darker edge of Grenache it is a very honest and true style of wine, reflective of the character of the dirt in which it is grown. Mark’s very sage advice is this, don’t be scared of the tannins, forget what you ‘know’ about Australian Grenache and try it with bigger, bolder flavours. Grenache can even work better with steak than Shiraz can. His picks for the top Grenache in Australia? Turkey Flat (but of course), fellow Barossa producer, Yelland and Papps, Ochota Barrels for a new take on the old style, 2012 Angoves War Boys for a concentrated, fruit-forward Australian style, and at the top of the class, S.C. Pannells from McLaren Vale, structured and true to its roots.

Cheers! Emily Hay

*thanks to Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz for that expression from ‘Wine Grapes’ Page 399, published 2012

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