“Sod the wine, I want to suck on the writing. This man White is an instinctive writer, bloody rare to find one who actually pulls it off, as in still gets a meaning across with concision. Sharp arbitrage of speed and risk, closest thing I can think of to Cicero’s ‘motus continuum animi.’

Probably takes a drink or two to connect like that: he literally paints his senses on the page.”

DBC Pierre (Vernon God Little, Ludmila’s Broken English, Lights Out In Wonderland ... Winner: Booker prize; Whitbread prize; Bollinger Wodehouse Everyman prize; James Joyce Award from the Literary & Historical Society of University College Dublin)





29 March 2017


Unlocking Grenache in its heartland

"I understand why our region is dominated by Shiraz," says Wine Research Institute scientist and McLaren Vale/Dodgy Bros. winemaker Wes Pearson. "Grows great in this region; reliable, robust resistance to disease pressure; an easy market to sell your grapes. No brainer. But Grenache is for those growers/winemakers who like to be challenged. Along with risk comes reward, and in my opinion the rewards in McLaren Vale can be profound." 
The Dodgy Brothers: l-r Wes Pearson, Peter Somerville and Peter Bolte
A few months ago I embarked on a bigger task than the usual column: frustrated at the ever-increasing number of Australian winemakers and indeed entire wine regions laying claim to the reinvention of Grenache, I thought I'd attempt to nail the yarn once and for all, starting in McLaren Vale, the region in which I choose to live, and perhaps the region that makes the most of its unique forms of Grenache.

Part of my procedure was asking a few McLaren Vale Grenache producers to explain it from their own point of view.

"Whenever I’m talking about Grenache with the uninitiated I always explain McLaren Vale's fascination with the variety by pointing out its sensitivity to any and all inputs," Pearson says. "That starts in the vineyard: where it’s planted, row orientation, soil composition, geology, rainfall, pruning regime, et cetera."

Simple, see?

"The variety has some challenges," agrees Hardy's Tintara winemaker Paul Carpenter. "It is generally a variety that needs its youth thrashed out of it, to give it some vine age to kill off its propensity to throw big berries and crops. It can however be managed in the right hands to make very good wines from young vineyards but requires huge amounts of attention to detail. So in general it's old vine and it is a South Australian thing." 

Paul Carpenter at the annual McLaren Vale geologies tasting photo©Philip White

Carps also agrees with Pearson about the variety's capacity to reflect its particular site: "Viticulturally its a vine that truly reflects its environment," he says. "On the heavier soils it's more vigorous and requires a fair degree of input to get to the desired quality where as on some of the tougher sites it really does it itself and self regulates crop level and berry size due to the challenges of site."

Bring in Mike Farmilo, veteran whom I first met making damn fine fino sherry for Tom Angove up the River. That was a whole lifetime ago; Mike has long esconced himself in McLaren Vale where he now works as a consultant, making wines like Sue Trott's formidable Five Geese at the top of Blewett Springs. Mike knows and loves the fruit of the Fleurieu; all its nooks and crannies. His theories about the way Grenache reflects location both informs and encapsulate the thoughts of many locals.

Put very generally McLaren Vale Grenache grows mainly in the region's younger geologies: layers deposited in the embayment within the last sixty million years. Even more generally, these are of two major types: tight, dense clays, washed down in the last few million years across the looser riverine Maslin Sands put down 34-56 million years ago.

Profile behind Tim Geddes' Seldom Inn winery at the bottom (southern) end of Blewett Springs: organic stuff on top with calcrete, then wind-blown æolian sand, then a layer of alluvial ironstone pellets, and dense ferruginous clay at the bottom. If you went further down, you'd hit solid slabs of ironstone on top of the looser Maslin Sand, which covers the whole of the Embayment floor ... photo ©Philip White

When it's not covered in clay or other sand, like the very recent windblown æolian stuff, which is much finer,  this coarse Maslin sand has converted with oxidation to ironstone, which you can see here:

The rocks surrounding and underlying this recent Embayment are between 500 million and 1.6 billion years of age. 

To complicate matters further, these riverine Maslin sands, washed down as the Mount Lofty/Flinders Ranges wore away, are often capped by loose, wind-blown, or æolian sands, put there in the last few thousand years.  This is particularly so in the unique terroir of the gullies of Blewett Springs and the more rolling uplands toward Kangarilla at the vignoble's north-eastern extreme, where 'The Vales' becomes 'The Hills.' 

Southerly vista from near Sue Trott's Five Geese Vineyards, looking across the Blewett Springs gullies toward the Willunga Escarpment ... note the æolian sand in the foreground, blown in during the last few thousand years ... go down a few metres and you hit the coarser, ferruginous Maslin Sands, 34-56 million years older ... photo ©Philip White
Bring in Mike Farmilo, veteran whom I first met making damn fine fino sherry for Tom Angove up the River. That was a whole lifetime ago; Mike has long esconced himself in McLaren Vale where he now works as a consultant, making wines like Sue Trott's formidable Five Geese at the top of Blewett Springs. Mike knows and loves the fruit of the Fleurieu; all its nooks and crannies. His theories about the way Grenache reflects location both informs and encapsulate the thoughts of many locals.

"In contrast to the more masculine central McLaren Vale Grenache," Mike Farmilo explains "which is more suited to Grenache Shiraz Mataro in my opinion, Blewitt Springs Grenache has a floral prettiness: rose petals, with dried herb complexity, spice, and even cinnamon and wormwood. In some years, it does have some of the ripe, rich raspberry character of central McLaren Vale but generally it shows an elegance and restrained ripeness. In cooler years you can see spice and white pepper."

Emmanuelle and Toby Bekkers with Tourism and Agriculture Minister Leon Bignell  at the new Bekkers winery and tasting room ... photo ©Philip White

Enter the Bekkers, Toby and Emmanuelle, both winemakers. Toby is also a viticulture consultant.

"A valley floor parcel from the gravels and clays of the Christies Beach Formation contributes density, structure and framework to our Grenache, while Blewitt Springs and Kangarilla - both Maslin Sands - fruit allows us some latitude to fine-tune the style," Toby says. 

"The lighter weight and pretty aromatics of these later ripening parcels compliment our more robust valley floor parcel." 

While perhaps reluctant to link Grenache flavour directly to geology - he suspects altitude is more significant - Bekkers is happy to use the old geological mappers' trick of adopting native flora as an above-ground indicator of geology and thence flavour. 

"One of my interests is looking at remnant native vegetation and its relationship to site - particularly elevation and soil type," he says. "Take Blewett Springs: vegetation: Pinkgum, Yakka, Banksia. Indicators of deep bleached sand over orange clay. Combined with some elevation, this results in really perfumed, slightly lighter bodied Grenache and Shiraz ... 

"Compared to Seaview? Vegetation: Mallee Box eucalypt, Casuarina, Wattle. Indicators of shallow red or grey loam over rock, calcrete and clay. Restricts access to moisture. Lower elevation and closer to coast means warmer and earlier ripening. Results in darker-fruited Grenache/Shiraz and enhanced concentration. Tannin profile is more intense/robust. 

"In our case we use some of the denser material as the core of the wine and then compliment it with some aromatic punch from Blewitt Springs or Clarendon." 

So that's a broad-brush summary of the sources in one district alone. Within McLaren Vale, Grenache, we seem to agree, is particularly deft at refecting the flavours of its source. Yet we've barely mentioned winemaking techniques; the recipes. 

Start with the crusty Farmilo: "It has been inspiring to see some of the young winemakers championing Grenache and introducing techniques such as whole bunch fermentation and carbonic maceration. Blewitt Springs Grenache, because of the more elegant and distinctive fruit character, responds so well to these techniques, adding more weight and complexity to fruit which is already interesting and producing intriguing wines that you love to sniff, finding more characters all the time as they open up." 

Paul Carpenter thinks that Grenache, "in the winery, is a variety that takes all the tricks you can throw at it. Or you can be incredibly simple in the techniques used. I am employed at Hardys but before this I always admired the pretty, somewhat elegant styles that came out of Tintara but also really respect the styles of Yalumba. There's a wave of new producers making these more feminine styles that I personally like." 

If there's a chance of rounding up this very brief introduction to what is already a long and confounding tale, I reckon we'll go back to the scientist for his winemaking secret. "Once it gets to the winery?" Wes Pearson marvels, likening the possibilities of this bit to the complexities of terroir, "Same thing: crushed or whole bunches;  stems or destemmed; chosen harvest ripeness; pre- and post-ferment maceration techniques; topping regime; oxygen ingress, et cetera. What all this sensitivity leads to is the holy grail for a lot of winemakers: a wine that can very effectively express the place that it came from." 

There is much of this yarn yet to spin. Watch this space.
The author tasting McLaren Vale Grenache in the Eileen Hardy room at Tintara ... thanks to Keith Todd and his estimable crew for permitting me the use of this beautiful tasting room ... of course the wines were first tasted blind in this two-day exercise ... I shall be adding much to this story over the next weeks, including tasting notes of the wines which caught my favour ... keep an eye out for updates by subscribing at the bottom of this scroll.


Liz Gabay said...

Fascinating! In Provence there is a gorowing interest in linking Grenache and terroir for rosé. Has anyone looked at terroir+Grenache+rose in the McLaren Vale. Vested interest here as writing a book on rose and would love to know if anyone is looking at this seriously

Philip White said...

Thanks for your interest Liz.

For years a lot of McLaren Vale's Grenache went into cheap rosé. Most of it was simple raspberry stuff and often made fairly sweet. Recently, however, with a new wave of much more serious wine being made, the true value of the variety as a proper red wine has far outweighed that pink useage, which is now mainly considered a waste.

The Grenache vineyards that produce fruit of low complexity are still used for good rosé by a few makers, but they are few.

Half an hour ago, I tasted a perfect ferment of Carignan/Cinsault rosé from baby bush vines. While that'll be a delightfully crunchy and fine wine when finished, those vines too will be used for more serious red once their roots get better established and their berries have more complex flavours.