Ten years ago you could not even give old vine grenache fruit away. Gnarled old vines that had survived more than a century of growing seasons were routinely ignored and passed over for young vine Shiraz, their glorious fruit often ending up in all kinds of generic blends, wasted.
It wasn’t their fault. Most local winemakers were yet to crack the code of crafting great grenache and in many cases treated it like cheap shiraz. But the tables have turned and now top-quality Grenache is in short supply.
It is a wonder grenache made it at all and we have the old growers to thank for sticking with it when times were tough. Until the 1960s grenache was the most planted variety in the country as it was handy for fortified wines. Then in the 1980s, when the government paid growers to pull out old grapevines, it was grenache that suffered most.
Old, exceptional vines were unceremoniously ripped from the ground, piled high and burnt. Knowing what we know now about the potential of Australian grenache, which has yet to be fully realised, it is one of the greatest disasters to hit the local wine industry. It was also the defining moment when grenache finally fell out of favour and shiraz rose in its place.
Rare resources well suited to the warm, dry Australian climate were rubbed out well before their true worth was known. Once making up 20 per cent of the country’s vineyards, grenache is now down to 1 per cent. Conversely, the fruit price is higher than it ever has been as its true value is finally on display. It’s been a long time coming, as belief in grenache by viticulturists and winemakers has also slowly risen in recent decades along with their effort to produce great Australian wines. Spain and Southern France have long been homes to world-class wines made from grenache and finally, Australia is coming to the party.
Grenache is in many ways similar to high-quality pinot noir. It is an expert at translating the fruit and land to give vastly different wines thanks to only small changes in the natural environment. Soil, geography and climate can all have their own unique impact on grenache.
Great grenache is also distinctly savoury, with a brooding iron heart behind its curtain of fleshy fruit. It is also a little mysterious – the best grenache does not jump out and grab you. It’s shy and sneaks up from the shadows to take your heart. So it needs a little patience, and this has always been the challenge for this variety against the likes of shiraz and cabernet sauvignon, with their Time to shine Out of the shadows, grenache is finally coming into its own immediate appeal. But it does deliver, if in a more subtle way. So much so that in a warmer and drier environment it is highly likely that in the decades to come Australian grenache will be our lead wine offering to the world.
Grenache is also in some ways like chardonnay – it’s incredibly versatile, with different winemaking styles teasing out very different sides of the variety. From the bigger, broader traditional Aussie red to fine, silky and detailed modern styles, beautifully illustrated in recent releases from the Artisans of Barossa.
The Artisans is a group of like-minded Barossan winemakers who have banded together to market, and in some cases make, wines. It boasts legendary winemakers such as John Duval, plus an eclectic mix of established names and rising stars. Their range includes the Grenache Project, where six winemakers add their own stamp to fruit taken off a single vineyard. In 2020 it was taken from a 45-year-old vineyard in the sandy soils of Light Pass, long home to some of the Barossa’s best grenache.
Winemaking was varied, from traditional extractive styles to leach out as much colour and fruit as is possible, to more nuanced approaches with whole-bunch fruit and extended maceration. It’s a fascinating exercise to line up all the wines and see each winemaker’s signature – some more obvious than others. The wines are invariably delicious and incredibly varied, showing just some of what is possible with this chameleon of a grape variety.
Artisans of Barossa Grenache Project Schwarz 2020
"The lightest and a more modern expression of grenache showing its fresh, breezy and approachable side although still laced with some serious complexity. There are strawberry and raspberry fruits topped by Chinese Five Spice and lifted by meaty, spicy layers delivering superb drinkability."
Artisans of Barossa Grenache Project Stansborough/Slade 2020
"From the Purple Hands team comes this chunky wine with lashings of blackberry, liquorice and baked earth fruits. Bold, full-bodied and fleshy, it’s a big Grenache style and a serious crowd-pleaser."
Artisans of Barossa Grenache Project Schell 2020
"A beautifully savoury and multi-layered expression of grenache with brooding dark cherry, earth and spicy aromas plus a meaty edge. The palate is dry, only mid-weight and a little shy right now, but the tail shows its serious class with layer after layer of complex fruit unfolding over a long and savoury finish."
When ‘Artisans’ formed in 2005, our aim was clearly stated; to protect and promote the art of small-batch Barossa winemaking. A positive statement of purpose, but also one implying an intent to resist the drift towards commercialisation of wine, which threatens to reduce the selection on offer to a narrow bandwidth of varietals and stylistic expressions. A beige coloured and vanilla flavoured world of wine that promises supreme reliability, but one that is frustratingly boring.
To be an Artisan is very much about setting your own path, driven by the base human desire to explore, experiment and express ourselves. To create and share things shaped in our mind and made by our own hands from local produce for the enjoyment of others, often proffered with a simple “I made this, please enjoy”. A tinge of pride, yes, but hubris never.
Working together as a group of now eight winemakers has connected our many friends with opportunities to explore the extraordinary breadth of possibility that is Barossa wine. And through that experience, we’ve witnessed countless discoveries of new favourites along with the gradual getting of wisdom. A better understanding of what Barossa wine represents because Artisans should serve as a door to a world beyond the instant association of the terms ‘Barossa’ and ‘Shiraz’.
To this end, the Grenache Project has played a pivotal role. Not only protecting and promoting a long unsung hero of Barossa wine, but also enlightening people to the influence of a human mind and hand on the character, flavour and texture of this exciting varietal. Peter Schell from Spinifex Wines captures this beautifully;
“What we’re doing with The Grenache Project is really bloody important. It’s symbolic of the commitment of artisan winemakers and growers to exhibit the best of their craft and showcase the best expressions of the region’s ancient soils with a variety so deeply rooted in our viticultural heritage and so clearly suited to this place. The growing profile of Barossa Grenache is to me a sign of the maturing of a new generation of winemakers and wine drinkers. They respect the landscape and what it’s best able to produce, rather than imposing the will of the market upon it to yield the latest fashionable variety. By doing our best to make delicious wine, we hope to nurture new audiences for these brilliant heritage varieties.”
The Grenache Project was launched in 2017, and over the journey so far we feel our efforts along with many others in the Barossa wine community – both grower and maker – have aided in pivoting Grenache’s position from that of second-stringer to now an integral player in the presentation of Barossa wine anywhere in the world. We sense that Grenache has at last ‘made it’. The growers are being handsomely rewarded for their patience, with prices for their Grenache fruit now rivalling that of Shiraz. And with the future looking promising, new Grenache plantings are appearing across the Barossa vineyard landscape.
The Grenache Project is firstly an exercise in allocating a single row of a Barossa Grenache vineyard to each of six Artisan winemakers. From that point, they are left entirely to their own devices when it comes to what happens next. We let them off the leash, and grant free rein with a simple brief… 'Make a Grenache you'd like to drink.' This year we welcome new Artisans Craig Stansborough and Mark Slade from Purple Hands to the Project, joining John and Tim Duval, Greg and Allison Hobbs, Peter Schell, Jason Schwarz, and Corey Ryan and Simon Cowham. And is in prior years, we’ve been fortunate to access fruit from a new vineyard location – the John Vineyard – adjacent to the small village of Light Pass to the east of the central Barossa Valley floor.
The story of the 2020 Barossa vintage was very much of quality over quantity, with yields across the region down by up to 70% on the long term average. Hot dry days during flowering in late October 2019 were the main culprit. And whilst 2020 may have delivered plenty of unwanted news, that didn’t extend to the harvest conditions in Barossa which were near perfect. Through the post veraison period leading into harvest, the Barossa experienced consistently below-average day time temperatures and plenty of cool nights. The crop ripened slowly and evenly, and the quality of the fruit delivered to the wineries in March was exceptional. We have great faith in the wines made from this year’s Grenache Project vineyard, and invite you to share the experience of exploring the interpretations of six winemakers with friends around the table. For if the Grenache Project is one thing only, it is a conversation starter!
Howard Duncan - Artisans of Barossa
Suggested tasting order if tasting as a set is lightest to boldest:
- Stansborough/ Slade
- Ryan/ Cowham
The John Vineyard at Light Pass
Planted in 1976 the vineyard is sited on a slight westerly aspect adjacent to the hamlet of Light Pass, to the northeast of the town of Nuriootpa at an altitude of 295m above sea level. It was originally planted as bush vines and subsequently trellised many years later. Typical of the old Barossa Grenache vineyards, the original planting material would have been a field selection of cuttings traceable back to pre-phylloxera European heritage.
Located close to the eastern foothills of the Barossa Ranges, the east-west vine orientation of the vineyard benefits from afternoon gully winds originating in the higher Eden Valley which brings relief from the higher temperatures of the Valley floor and extends the ripening period. The soils in this section of the Barossa are classic red sandy loam tending to red clay over limestone which retains good moisture levels to sustain the vine and crop through the dry summer and early autumn to harvest. The long history of spur pruning has created an open canopy and an even distribution of sunlight onto the bunches ensuring consistent ripening.
The combination of site, vine age and microclimatic conditions in the John Vineyard produces Grenache that is perfumed and vibrant while having concentration, complexity and length on the palate.
- Simon Cowham, Sons of Eden – Grenache Project Viticultural Lead
Jason Schwarz from Schwarz Wine Co belongs to a band of small family-owned wineries that emerged in the early 2000s to take the Barossa Grenache message to the world. Harnessing fruit from old Grenache vineyards farmed by his family, Jason has led the way in producing almost Pinot-Esque expressions of the variety. Delicately fruited, with a fine balance of savoury/grippy tannins from whole bunch fermentation and good acidity, wines such as his Thiele Road Grenache have become modern-day Barossa classics.
“Grenache as fruit is very hardy and loves the dry Barossa summers. It is a variety that really shows the characters of the soil where it is grown, and with the Barossa having such a diverse geological profile, we’re able to produce many different styles of wine. Grenache also adapts to how a winemaker wishes to make it; from crunchy whole bunch styles to traditional barrel matured styles.
My grenache was fermented as 100% whole bunch to give a lively bright style. My wine shows hints of Middle Eastern spices and toffee apple. On the palate it is generous with earthy bold broad tannins, wild plum and red apple. Texture wise it has lovely chewy ripe tannins that coat your mouth and make you want more. This style goes great on a spring day at lunchtime as it’s easy to drink with crunchy tannins and plenty of juiciness. Grenache is very easy to pair food to because of its lighter weight and softer tannic structure. If there was one pairing that always goes great with Grenache, then it’s duck - but I’ve also found that oily fish such as salmon is equally a good match.” - Jason Schwarz, Schwarz Wine Co.
Corey Ryan (winemaker) and Simon Cowham (viticulturist) are the ‘Sons of Eden’, one of Australian wine’s most impressive double acts. Their collective grasp of the Barossa vineyard landscape and the art of small-batch Barossa winemaking yields an expansive portfolio of stellar wines spanning the full gambit of Barossa wine possibilities from elegant Riesling, to full-bodied Shiraz and an emerging collection of intriguing alternate varietals.
“Our approach to making the 2020 Project Grenache from the John Vineyard was similar to previous years in that we were looking to make an expressive wine to highlight the site and the Sons of Eden winemaking style. We placed the fruit Into an egg-shaped fermenter - 50% whole bunch clusters and 50% destemmed – and after a short cold soak period of 5 days at 10C, we allowed the fruit to naturally warm to start fermentation. Natural yeast and whole bunch clusters provided elements of complexity to the wine, adding spice and texture to the palate, and daily foot-plunging provided a slow extraction of colour and flavour. The wine remained in the fermenter on skins for a total of 19 days before being pressed for maturation in seasoned 500 litres French oak puncheons. After 5 months of undisturbed maturation, the wine was naturally clarified and bottled.
Our Grenache is brightly coloured, displaying a complex array of youthful red-cherry spice aromas with a touch of perfumed violets. The palate is styled to be fleshy and rounded with good length and texture. A wine for enjoyment in its youthful but will reward short to medium term maturation.” - Corey Ryan and Simon Cowham, Sons of Eden
The father/ son winemaking team of John and Tim Duval brings over 50 years of collective experience in Barossa wine to the table. The wines released under the John Duval Wines brand are universally admired and regularly feature amongst the lists of Australia’s best. Grenache has been a constant feature since John launched his own personal wine project in 2003, playing a key role in the Plexus Red blend and also finding a new avenue of expression through the extremely rare Annexus releases.
“Our approach to the Grenache Project changes from year to year depending on the site and the season, and the 2020 Project presented a dramatically different scenario to that of its predecessor. In 2019, the warmer harvest conditions, old vines and leaner soils produced wines of significant structure and concentration. This year, slightly bigger berries, a milder ripening period and deeper soils led to a pretty wine of lifted red fruits, and a more mid-weight and free flowing palate of high drinkability.
Winemaking was also adapted to the season and site. For 2020, given the ideal ripening conditions, stems were well ripened and we confidently added 50% whole bunch to the ferment. As berry size and bunch size was decent (especially considering the low yields of the district) we were less worried about over-extraction compared to 2019, so this meant the 2020 Project wine saw more time on skins to build texture, and develop some more savoury flavours to compliment the attractive primary fruit.
While it will likely age gracefully, this is a grenache to enjoy young while its seductive fruit is on full display.” - John and Tim Duval, John Duval WInes
Stansborough and Slade
The Purple Hands team - winemaker Craig Stansborough and mate, and business partner Mark Slade - first appeared on the Artisans’ horizon a few years back and we welcomed them into the fold in late 2019. Their love of Barossa, a hands-on approach to making wine, and an unwavering commitment to authenticity and the fight against the waves of what Mark labelled as “so much made up crap” that floats around the world of wine these days is so obviously aligned to the philosophy that binds the Artisans together. They also make some stunning wines!
“The Barossa region has a long connection with Grenache, with the oldest vineyards dating as far back as the 1850’s. For much of that journey the variety was considered a best fit for making fortified wines, but in the last 15 - 20 years it’s been a real pleasure to be part of a winemaking generation now using Grenache to produce a broad array of medium bodied wine styles, adding another dimension to Barossa offering.
Given tannin is not abundant in Grenache, we used around 25% whole bunches in the ferment, to add some needed structure and aromatics to the wine. We also use open fermenters with header boards, and hand plunged 3 times daily over the 9 day ferment, allowing for gentle extraction towards the back end of the ferment. The wine is matured in older large format French oak and left on lees until racking to bottle. We feel this helps retain brightness, another key ingredient in our style.
Our wine is bright crimson in colour, leading to aromas of strawberry, spice, earth, and bergamot with stem hints from the whole clusters. The palate is mid weight with generous and fleshy mouthfeel, and typical gravelly tannins add balance to the texture. A perfect match for lighter red meats such as duck and lamb or with a pre-dinner charcuterie board with your favourite cheeses and cold meats.” - Craig Stansborough and Mark Slade, Purple Hands
Plenty have labelled Pete Schell, proprietor and winemaker at Spinifex Wines, a long time champion of Barossa Grenache. But we suspect that Pete would counter that Barossa Grenache never needed championing in the first place, it just required time for people to discover it. Such has been his long-held belief in the inherent qualities and deliciousness of a variety that has been core to his winemaking since arriving in the Barossa in the late 1990s.
“I’ve always loved Barossa Grenache because at a fundamental level it just works so well in this place. It’s resilient in a dry environment, and produces incredibly interesting wines across a broad spectrum of styles. Grenache holds acid really well, which is good for producing fresh but softly textured wines that have innate hedonistic appeal – in simpler terms, they taste good!.
Our approach to this wine was similar to 2019, where we placed 50% whole bunch clusters on top of 50% destemmed fruit, and then sealed the fruit in a closed fermenter for 7 days to promote carbonic maceration. After the initial 7 days, we then gently foot trod the fruit to release the juice from the berries for a further 4 days. The wine was matured in a single seasoned French oak demi-muid on light lees. It has great perfume with hints of dried herbs, leading to well ripened, punchy red berry fruits laced with spiced herbs, delicate florals and long, fine, fresh tannins.” - Peter Schell, Spinifex Wines
Husband and wife team Greg and Allison Hobbs have been producing tiny parcels of intensely flavoured reds from their own vineyard and those of friends across the Eden Valley high up in the Barossa Ranges for nearly 20 years. But Grenache plays only a minor role in the Hobbs story, with some earlier trials with fortifying old vine Grenache still maturing in barrels in their cellar. Since 2017, The Grenache Project has allowed them the opportunity to extend their connection with Grenache beyond enjoying drinking their Artisans’ mates wines to producing a wine each year – not surprisingly one of the more amply flavoured wines in the Project.
“There’s no doubt the Barossa landscape is well suited to the variety, producing elegant medium-weight wines with an intense level of flavour concentration that Greg and I really admire. As such, our approach to The Grenache Project remains to see how far we could push the boundaries of flavour concentration, without losing the innate character and appeal of Grenache.
We chose to pick our fruit around a week later than the other winemakers, seeking that additional dimension of flavour ripeness. The fruit was 100% destemmed prior to a 7-day ferment on skins in an open fermenter. Daily hand plunging and pump overs kept the ferment lively and ensured good colour and tannin extraction. The wine is at the plusher, richer end of the spectrum for Grenache showing plenty of ripe plums and spiced red fruits. The tannin lines are smooth and silky, but still quite fine-boned. We feel we met the brief comfortably because this is very much a Grenache we’d like to drink!” - Greg and Allison Hobbs, Hobbs of Barossa Ranges