“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)





09 August 2017


Yalumba 1889 Grenache vines at Vine Vale

Grenache - a Barossa story 

I hereby declare my unrequited love for dry-grown, gnarly, termite-riddled, woody, candalabra-like old Grenache bush vines. 

Good. It's now out in the open, and whilst we have sought to drag doubters over the line of Pinot demarcation by gilding the lily of warm-area Pinot noir, these wines and vines deserve to be embraced and loved without apology or shyness. 

Like many of my  generation, I was brought up believing Grenache to be a tolerated weed and a squeaky dray: akin to Percy my favourite old Clydesdale who shared the front paddock with brother Sam's billygoat appropriately named Billy. Percy pulled the cart which contained all the prunings that were burned up the back. How we miss that aroma and the horse. Maybe there will be a reincarnation of that big head and lovely rhythm of the vineyard when we switch to a bio world. 

So in truth the Grenache workhorse and the carthorse were parked and forgotten in my youth as mechanisation arrived. 

When I was first paid at Yalumba I recall reading Rudy Kronberger's neatly-recorded notes and tasting his great tawny base wine blends. All had healthy percentages of Grenache from the Valley floor from whence they arrived at Yalumba in various-sized trailers and carts to be squashed, fermented and fortified with sugar left in the wine. 

We all ate grapes when we tossed the crop off the trucks to the screw but few ate the Grenache even though they were hellishly sweet. Mind you, in that era we didn't celebrate Shiraz or Mataro as we now do, so Grenache was no orphan. This was a time when high yields were celebrated and colour and flavour were secondary issues at the weighbridge. 

Time drifted and so did the prices paid for decent dry-grown and revered Shiraz and Grenache in the late '70s. It was a crook time for all, including the grapes! Fashion was running in the opposite direction to where these rustic old mates sat uncomfortably and unloved. 

The late Peter Lehmann began his winemaking life making Grenache port with Rudy Kronberger at Yalumba

Maybe it was comrade Lehmann that straightened my thinking at a long lunch one day, but my curiosity and respect shifted. Then the likes of O'Callaghan, Melton, Lehmann, et al, led a renaissance in the Barossa as affordable gems were being ignored by the bigger end of the village when Chardy and Riesling held the tiaras. As their budgets allowed access to these vineyard plots they siezed an opportunity as coincidental interest in fortifieds started their precipitous decline. 

A trip to Europe in '78 fortuitously had me educated on Viognier, Chateauneuf and Hermitage with the exxy best of Chateau Grillet and Rayas crossing my lips of appreciation. The soil and climate matched many of our growers' sites which I often visited. A bell rang, and was parked again. I heard from the Frogs about the fragility of excellence and true respect for the vine and in particular old vines on their own roots. We now import Guigal, Rayas, Chave and Perrin's wines. 

I also visited Delas with my old mate Kit Stevens who knew everyone very good and very bad in that part of the world. A few of those stories shall remain in the archive of my library! But Kit had a class palate and was a star character. We miss him as we do Trott. 

My life was nearly a blur through the '80s and '90s but we can fast-forward to 1999 anyway. The Graetz family offered their 23 hectare Vine Vale vineyard (click for vid) for sale and we leapt at the opportunity to bid and own it. It was a typical Barossa site in that it was planted to reflect insurance and fashion. It had Chenin blanc, Cabernet, Pinot noir and Shiraz. There were seven hectares of younger Grenache in one corner, but importantly for me it had about 900 dry-grown bush vines planted on two hectares in 1889, and though they had been managed for a a different outcome in our minds we finally had a real jewel to work with and elevate the Grenache category.

At that time we had Brian Walsh (ex-McLaren Vale), Louisa Rose (ex-Yarra) and local lad Kevin Glastonbury on board and we all believed in the possibilities. I wanted to give each 1889er a name: they were beautiful! 

Putting that aside, it's fair to say Grenache was not popular. Riesling was also on struggle street and we joked about whether their renaissance would occur in our lifetime as the tsunami of Sauvignon threatened to drown the market. 

The Nursery Vineyard is now an estate planted out to bush vine Grenache all taken from the 1889 Mother Block. We name the wine our Tri-Centenary (TCG) as it has survived over three centuries and seen off depression, booms, busts, droughts, floods, wars and wankers! 

These vines are warriors. I wonder still if they will ever get the respect they deserve as it is palpably evident that the main lovers are South Australians, employees, and in fact Riesling drinkers! 

Interstate? Hmmmm. Maybe that's why Walshy coined the phrase "Blue-collar Pinot" or "warm area Pinot" to help nurse the east coasters through nervous choice and social acceptability! 

KG is my go-to on the wine team when it comes to Grenache. He deeply cares for the vines and the wines and the oak we use. 

Fast-forward again to 2017. Yalumba now makes three single-site Grenache wines from the Barossa floor and a bush vine blend. We have lifted the Tri-centenary into our Rare and Fine folio to reflect the respect it deserves. It remains a tough sell here but is seemingly better respected in other parts of the world. 

Whilst the winemakers see its time has come, consumers seem less convinced. The Lehmanns, Meltons and O'Callaghans now have the Cirillos, Schells, Kalleskes, Canutes and others raising the flag and it is inspiring. 

Barossa Grenache revivalists: Rick Burge, Stephen Henschke, Brian Walsh, Peter Lehmann (dec.), Robert Hill Smith, Bob McLean (dec.) and Robert O'Callaghan photographed by Milton Wordley ... all other photos supplied by RHS

I tasted the Tri 2012 in many parts across Britain, America and Canada and they get it and buy it. They see its mid-weight, dense-to-medium crimson tones and savoury, spicy, juicy subtlety and value. What Pinot noir can offer this history, quality and joy? Made with such love for under $30 or $40 a bottle? 

KG is a hands-off wine man but our extreme vineyard health and biodiversity is allowing a wild ferment to start and finish and then remain on skins for 35 to 60 days. Note the 2017 had 116 days on skins post-ferment! This plays to a recent thought about elevating texture, spice and length. It then heads to older French hogsheads for around nine months. It is a thing of beauty.  

My belief is that the 2005 TCG may be the greatest wine we have made. A big call, and maybe just one, but memorable and cherished. 

Grenache has so many incarnations and annually reflects its vintage and maybe the speed of a simpler life. In 1889 Banjo Patterson wrote Clancy of the Overflow

We hope Australians will invite classy Grenache with a story to tell in the glasses forever. It deserves to be, and I remain weak-kneed and thrilled at the possibility and proud to be part of the brotherhood! 

We just need an old vine register and a new generation of drinkers to see where real love lies in a glass.


1 Intro: McLaren Vale Grenache: A Study 
2 Out my back door: picking the High Sands 
3 Grenache: Drew Noon's love story 
4 Grenache: the Italian Connection 
5 Out my back door: finishing High Sands
6 Grenache and upland geology: top of the bottom 
7  Thistledown for the Spanish: Grenache from Tres Hombres
8 Grenache from Blewett Sands Mike Farmilo and Sue Trott 
9 One Grenache; one Pinot  are there similarities?
10 Echidnas return to Yangarra after nine years without poison

Rob Hill Smith, Norty Schuter and Charlie Melton at PL's wake ... 
Grenache lovers all ... photo by DRAGAN


Suzy Q said...

They probably pulled the Pinot out. Would have been good to try a Grenache Pinot!

Frank said...

The Chatterton Bros were 70's pioneers of old vine Grenache, Mataro and Shiraz. This sadly forgotten. Brian was a cracker Ag minister too.

Philip White said...

I remember going to Gomersal to interview Brian in maybe Dunstan's premiership? He was one of the first environmentally-aware (nascent) grape-growers I met.

Michael Twelftree said...

Great read Robert, well done
We have planted Grenache at 506m on Joel Mattchoss's highest hill in Eden Valley, we think it could be the highest Grenache in Australia and we have it at 498m on Bob McLeans beloved Barreden, that we just purchased
I am so sick on the warm climate Pinot reference, it so much more than that
MT.......Reporting live from Bar Torino drinking a lovely McLaren Vale 100% Grenache
Fun times ahead
Michael Twelftree