A grape steeped in Australian winemaking history, grenache is far more than just a handy addition to a blend. With a natural sweetness and fresh, elegant taste it's no wonder grenache is enjoying a resurgence.

The hot, dry and extreme climate of Australia can offer a serious challenge to grapes, with wine production isolated to a few places that offer far more moderate conditions. It could be argued that the Barossa Valley, Margaret River and the Yarra Valley don’t play host to "traditional" Australian conditions – they’re really the exception to the rule. Move 100km away from each of these areas and the weather quickly gets inhospitable to the European vines that we rely on for our Australian wines.

But there’s one grape that not only copes with the more extreme elements of our climate – it thrives on them. For this reason it has become an integral part of the Australian winemaking landscape, and in fact could be credited with starting the industry.

That grape is grenache.

You say grenache, I say garnachaThe origins of grenache can be traced back to Aragon, an area in the northeast of Spain. It was known – and indeed still is known – as garnacha in the native Spanish tongue. While it’s unclear exactly when the grape was first used for wine, it has been confirmed when it hit the big time. In the 15th century the Crown of Aragon was a kingdom that ruled over much of the Mediterranean, from Spain through the south of France and right the way round to Italy and Sicily. During their period of rule the Aragonians planted grenache throughout the territory, where, thanks to its unmatched ability to thrive in the heat, it quickly became the backbone of the Mediterranean winemaking economy. To this day grenache plays a major role in Spanish, Southern French and Italian wines, most notably in the illustrious Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

An Australian tradition

When James Busby, the father of the Australian wine industry, imported 363 French and Spanish vine cuttings to Sydney in 1832, grenache was lucky enough to be one of the chosen few. The varieties were planted in the Sydney Botanic Gardens, where it soon became obvious that many didn’t stand up to the unfamiliar Australian climate. Grenache prospered, however, and by 1838 has made its way over to the fertile soils of McLaren Vale in South Australia, where Australia’s first grenache vineyard was planted. From there the variety went from strength to strength, becoming a mainstay thanks to the popularity of fortified wines for which the grape is perfect. In 1960 fortified wines made up no less than 80% of the wines made in Australia, with grenache serving as the backbone. The resurgence of non-fortified wines from the 1970s onwards wasn’t kind to grenache. While acreage devoted to vineyards double in the 1990s, no one was planting grenache, which saw its slice of the winemaking pie shrink to as little as 1%. But in recent years this has had some pleasant, if unintended, consequences.

The Pinot Noir of the South

Thanks to strong history and subsequent dip in popularity, the only grenache vines in Australia are old. As a general rule of thumb, the older the vine, the finer the wine. This has seen the popularity of blends like GSM (grenache/shiraz/mataro) and 100% varietal grenache wines on the rise. The grape’s lighter colour and fresh, elegant taste has seen it being labelled ‘the Pinot Noir of the South’ by many vintners who are championing its resurgence. Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale wineries who still have their original vines – such as d’Arenberg – are developing incredibly smooth, intriguing and complex wines from them. Then there are upstarts like Glaetzer who are bringing a more contemporary feel to this truly historic grape.

Tasting notes and food pairings

What flavours should one expect from 100% grenache? Its success as a fortified wine hints at its natural sweetness, with a medley of fruit and a cinnamon finish common hallmarks. Strawberry, raspberry and black cherry are predominant, with anise and citrus hints also present. Old-world wines from France and Spain can be slightly more herbal, with tobacco and dried oregano notes brought to the fore. The spice-heavy cuisine of India and Thailand can make for the perfect food pairing, as grenache will both match the abundance of flavour, and help to ease the heat of any chilli in the dish. Roast meats and vegetables sprinkled lavishly with herbs will also enhance the grenache tasting experience.

Grenache titbits

  • Leading the grenache resurgence, d’Arenberg now purchase up to half of all the McLaren Vale grenache year on year to produce both 100% varietal and GSM wines.

  • McLaren Vale winery Wirra Wirra’s famous Church Block blend was initially made with 70% grenache, but this percentage dropped until the grape was fully removed from the blend.

  • The third Friday in September is International Grenache Day – it’s the perfect opportunity to share a bottle of Australian winemaking history with friends!

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