Brightness in Barossa - Wine & Spirits Magazine

Brightness in Barossa

A New Life for Old-Vine Grenache

Like many meals in the Barossa Valley, dinner with the Canute family involves plenty of meat. First, a generous platter of smoked and cured meats from Linke’s Butcher—Germanic specialties like blutwurst (blood sausage), lachschinken (cold-smoked and aged pork loin) and mettwurst (a firm smoked pork sausage). Then grilled lamb, beef, chicken and sausages with an almost apologetic salad for the main course.

As Dennis Canute and I finish off the grilled lamb, his son, Christian—a solidly built fellow with a short beard and sly sense of humor, and the winemaker for the family’s Rusden winery—disappears and comes back with a bottle of their 1997 Christine’s Vineyard Grenache. It’s one of nine bottles they have left.

“Oh, for goodness’ sake,” says Dennis as he smells and tastes the wine. Christian recalls that they made three barrels—“the scrungiest looking barrels I’ve ever seen in my life.”

The vintage itself, he says, was ideal for grenache: warm and dry during the summer, which helped keep yields down and build flavor concentration, followed by a cool, protracted harvest season that allowed sugars to rise slowly and evenly. He harvested the grenache extraordinarily late, on June 7.

“Even if it tasted like shit, we’d think it was the best wine in the world,” says Dennis, who is, toward the end of our lengthy grenache-fueled dinner, beginning to get a bit dewy-eyed and rapturous. “Because it’s the first wine we made together.”

It does not taste like shit.

In fact, it’s still bright and mouthwatering, a savory grenache with a rosy color and a deliciously round, velvety texture.

I’d tasted a few enticing Barossa grenaches in the past year, and heard rumors that there was now a critical mass of locals making deft, transparent wines from the grape.

This 1997 was exactly the kind of wine I hoped to find here: Barossa grenache that was as elegant as it was saturated with flavor.

Grenache’s star is finally on the rise in Barossa, and the old grenache vineyards that have survived the depredations of history are finding new footing in the 21st century, growing wines with surprising elegance that still manage to be indelibly, heartily Barossan. Some of those bullish about grenache are recent arrivals hoping to shift the image of Barossa away from dark, massive wines; others are winemakers whose roots in the region go back seven or eight generations.

For much of the 1970s and 1980s, Australians thought of grenache mostly as a relic of another era—when the country’s wine industry was devoted to sweet fortified wines—a variety with high yields and little flavor that was more suitable for tawny than table wine. The large wineries were looking for red grapes with plenty of color and structure, and grenache didn’t fit the bill. While it was still the most widely planted grape in Barossa in the late 1970s, its decline was precipitous. But in the last ten years or so, a number of winemakers have come around to the idea that grenache might be uniquely suited to Barossa’s warm climate, particularly where old vines are planted in pockets of deep sand that has been deposited over the last 60 million years as the surrounding ranges eroded and the valley was periodically inundated during warm periods of high sea levels.

Christine’s Vineyard in Vine Vale
Christine’s Vineyard in Vine Vale

The world’s most famous grenache vineyard is probably the Rayas estate in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, in France’s Rhône Valley. Most vineyards in Châteauneuf are planted on fields of cobblestones—known locally as galets—growing some mix of the 13 varieties approved for the region. The Rayas estate is something of an anomaly: not only is it very sandy, but it’s one of the few vineyards in Châteauneuf completely devoted to grenache. Something about that combination, the theory goes, accounts for Rayas’s uncanny elegance—to the point that it’s sometimes compared to Burgundy.

In Barossa, though, sand was, at least until recently, sometimes considered second-rate (one exception being Penfolds’ Kalimna vineyard, a longtime source for Grange that includes a significant amount of sand). “When we first came out here, people said fruit from Vine Vale was shit,” Dennis tells me bluntly.

A voluble gentleman with a thick gray moustache, the elder Canute spent many years teaching geography at Nuriootpa High School and Faith Lutheran. His wife, Christine, came from a family that had been farming grapes in Barossa Valley for five generations. Together, they purchased a 40-acre vineyard in the parish of Vine Vale in 1979. Dennis continued teaching, and Christine took care of the vines. Above the winery’s long dining table hang several banners celebrating Christine’s victories at the Grape Picking Championships of South Australia—a local tradition that ended in 1989.

“The variety is declining in popularity. Its wines tend to lack color and tannin, particularly in the hot irrigation districts, where deficiencies of this kind are accentuated…Its low tannin content causes its wine to age quickly, and for this reason the variety has been in favor in the past for the production of commercial-grade tawny ports….It can produce Rosé wines of merit, but when used for the Claret and Burgundy styles, the wines often lack character.”

—André Simon on grenache in his 1967 book The Wines, Vineyards and Vignerons of Australia.

Vine Vale, one of Barossa’s 20-odd parishes, is located on the eastern side of the valley, where it receives some cooling influence from the more elevated Eden Valley further east; the vineyards sometimes ripen two or three weeks later than the warmer sites on Barossa’s west side. The soil at the base of the Eden Valley hills is quite sandy, with a layer of red clay under the sand that makes the Canute’s vineyard amenable to dry farming. Grenache here tends to grow lightly hued, perfumed wines, something that appealed to American sommelier Richard Betts, who reached out to the Canutes. He arrived with several bottles of Châteauneuf-du-Pape grown on sand, including Rayas, for them to taste together. Christian now makes the wine for Betts’ new project, Sucette, from a 90-year old organically farmed, own-rooted grenache vineyard across the road from Christine’s, also planted in Vine Vale sand.

“People used to think Vine Vale wouldn’t age, because it didn’t have that inky purple color,” Christian explains, before adding that the tide has shifted. “Now, you’ve got guys like Yalumba and Cirillo wanting fruit from sandy soil.”

Yalumba, in fact, is particularly invested in grenache on sand.

The firm is one of the oldest in the Barossa, founded by English immigrant Samuel Smith in 1849. Yalumba made its first varietal grenache in 1992, and has been increasing its focus on the variety ever since. But as chief winemaker Louisa Rose points out, the style of grenache they and others are making now doesn’t bear much resemblance to the wines the oldest vineyards were intended to produce.

The dining room we’re sitting in emphasizes her point: It used to be a giant storage vat, with floors and walls of wax-lined cement that held massive quantities of sweet fortified wine, which was often based on grenache. Now, the concrete has been given a glossy finish, and artful light fixtures hang from the ceiling. After World War II, the market for fortified wines slowly began to wane. Yalumba finally sold its well-known fortified brand Galway Pipe in 1993, its last significant vestige of the fortified era. (While many of these fortified wines were inexpensive, mass market bottlings, some, even today, are exceptional—Seppeltsfield, for example, releases a 100-year-old vintage tawny every year, and the current 1915 release is mind-bendingly complex, if quite dear, at $700 per bottle.)

I happen to visit Yalumba on September 18, International Grenache Day, and Rose has organized a tasting of grenache from around the world for other winemakers in the Smith family’s Negociants group of wineries. One of the wines she’s chosen to show is the 2009 Pignan, a sort of second wine from the Raynaud family of Château Rayas, also made from grenache grown on sand and similar to Rayas in elegance, its pale red hue leading into discreet herb-edged red fruit.

She pours it next to her Old Bush Vines Grenache, made from vineyards planted between 1898 and 1973, one of the few examples of Barossa grenache currently available in most international markets. Yalumba makes a few thousand cases a year—a spicy, fresh red that’s charming rather than imposing. The 2014 came in at 13 percent alcohol.

Christian and Christine Canute of Rusden Wines
Christian and Christine Canute of Rusden Wines

“There was this real love of big, rich, full-bodied reds,” Rose tells me. But she’s seen the tide shift toward the kind of grenache they’re making, partly, she thinks, due to the growing global love affair with pinot noir.

A portion of the fruit for the Old Bush Vines bottlings comes from a 54-acre vineyard on Vine Vale sand, which Yalumba purchased in 1998. Rose uses the oldest vines from that site, planted in 1889, to produce the Tri-Centenary Grenache. Her 2011, from a cool, wet vintage, is remarkably vivid and deep, with the snappy texture of fruit skin and a bright peppercorn aroma that lifts toward violets—a cool, fresh aroma that I rarely encounter in Barossa wines, a product, it seems, of both the cool vintage and sandy soils.

“When we first came out here, people told us fruit from Vine Vale was shit.”

—Dennis Canute

It’s curious that grenache would make a successful wine in a vintage when shiraz and cabernet often struggled, since, theoretically, grenache needs more sunshine and heat to ripen than either of those varieties—yet I also tasted a few other surprisingly successful grenache-led wines from 2011 on my visit. Rose believes the old vines have the ability to buffer the effects of a challenging vintage, but also thinks sand may play a role: In a vintage where mildew was a serious problem, she says, “Deep and very well draining sandy soils kept the surfaces drier and less humid.”

One of the Barossa’s most ardent defenders of grenache is Pete Schell, a tall, tight-jawed, sardonic Kiwi who started the Spinifex winery with his wife, Magali Geli, in 2001. Geli is French, a native of Montpellier; after they moved to South Australia, where he got his winemaking degree, they spent six vintages in France, including in Provence and the Languedoc. When I meet Schell for lunch at Artisans of Barossa, a cooperative tasting room and restaurant in Vine Vale, I can still taste his 2014 Papillon, which I drank at dinner the night before. A blend of grenache and cinsault, it grows in the sandy soils of eastern Barossa in and around Vine Vale, and carries the lucid fragrance I came to associate with grenache grown in that parish: fresh ripe strawberry, a bit of savory tomato leaf and peppercorn, a tantalizing hint of something darker, like tar.

Like Yalumba, Spinifex has also gained traction with grenache-based wines—whether through leading or following a shifting Aussie palate.

“Papillon was bigger than it is now when I started with it in 2005,” he tells me, “and people thought it was weird.”

He considers grenache more than a minor sibling to Barossa’s flagship red, shiraz, and argues that it might actually be more suited to the region.

“We’re not seeing what we’ve got in front of us,” he says.

Ancient stocks of tawny at Seppeltsfi eld
Ancient stocks of tawny at Seppeltsfield

Namely: Mediterranean varieties like grenache, mourvedre, carignan and cinsault that, he feels, can often excel in the heat of the Barossa Valley, outperforming shiraz and cabernet.

“You could grub up 80 percent of Barossa shiraz” without losing anything world-class, Schell asserts.

“Grenache, mataro—you can economically dry-grow them,” he continues. Especially as climate change makes for an even warmer Barossa, he’s convinced that these varieties will be “the appropriate, suitable thing,” allowing winemakers to continue to make balanced wines with fewer additions or adjustments. (Fewer additions, not none: even the most noninterventionist winemakers in the Barossa often find it necessary to acidulate their must.)

Marco Cirillo in his family’s oldest
grenache block, planted in 1848.
Marco Cirillo in his family’s oldest grenache block, planted in 1848.

Schell picks earlier than most, ferments his reds without adding yeast, sometimes as whole bunches, and ages them mostly in concrete, stainless steel and large-format oak. Still, he attributes the transparency and high-toned aromas of his grenache-based wines to the vineyards themselves, old and mature vines grown in sand on the cooler, eastern side of the Barossa Valley. He’s reticent to identify any particular mechanism that allows sand to produce these kinds of wines in Barossa, particularly because sand is mostly silica dioxide, and therefore almost totally nonreactive. He provides a disclaimer that he might be talking from an “esoteric/fruity/emotional/hippy perspective” before asking, “Does the crystalline, light-enhancing quality of sand strengthen the expression of ethereal, high-toned aromatics and more transparent, finer fruit flavor? Seems to.”

Troy Kalleske, whose family has been growing grapes in Barossa since they arrived with the first wave of European settlers in 1853, dry farms grenache on a sandy hillside in Moppa, in the northwestern corner of Barossa. He told me that many of the old-timers seemed to plant grenache and whites on sand, and shiraz and other darker reds on heavier soils. Kalleske, who works under biodynamics (he certified his vineyards in 1998), thinks that one of the benefits of growing grenache on sand might be sand’s pale color: it reflects more sunlight back up into the canopy, helping ripen the fruit—grenache is a particularly late ripener. That reflected light also helps to keep the canopy dry, protecting the vines from mildew.

The crown jewel of Barossa grenache may be the Cirillo family’s vineyard on the northern edge of Vine Vale. Marco Cirillo farms the valley’s oldest parcel of grenache, which he claims is also the oldest grenache vineyard in the world. Despite their age—they were planted in 1848, so this vintage is their 167th—the vines are surprisingly healthy. Phylloxera has never infected Barossa, so the vines have survived on their own roots, in six feet of sand above a layer of limestone and clay. In the ten-acre plot, only 50 of the 5,500 or so original vines are missing. The ancient vines are remarkably disease-free and they produce a consistent two tons per acre each vintage.

Basket-pruned grenache on sand in the Cirillo family’s vineyard.
Basket-pruned grenache on sand in the Cirillo family’s vineyard.

Cirillo’s father purchased the vineyard from the Graetz family in 1970 and began retraining the vines; the effect of his artful basket pruning has become increasingly braided and intricate over the years. In 2002, after a long apprenticeship, the elder Cirillo passed the task on to Marco, who began making his own commercial wine from the vineyard that year. “No one but my father and I have pruned this vineyard in the last forty years,” he tells me as we stand among the vines. He’s just come from the hospital, where his wife delivered their first child a few days before. Our shoes sink slightly into the vineyard’s pale sand. It’s mid-September, and the vines are just starting to put out bright green shoots after their winter dormancy.

While making his own grenache in Barossa, Cirillo also worked six harvests in Châteauneuf-du-Pape with the Gonnet family at Font de Michelle. “All of their best vineyards are on flat, sandy plateaus,” he tells me.

It’s taken Cirillo a while to come to terms with his own grenache. Early vintages could be headily alcoholic, he says. He now picks the vineyard in several successive passes starting when the grapes have a low potential alcohol of around 11.5 percent and continuing until they reach 15 percent. He’s moved further and further away from new oak, treats the fermenting wine more gently and adjusts the acidity with a special grape-based tartaric acid that he buys from a distillery in Italy. He “over-acidifies,” as he puts it, and gives the wine a long elevage in mostly neutral oak to allow the added acidity to integrate.

“The best grenache that I’ve ever had from Australia is that ’97 Rockford.”

—Christian Canute, Rusden Wines

At least for now, that aggressive acidification gives his 2010 a noticeably tart edge. Still, the pedigree of the fruit shows through, with judiciously ripe scents of strawberry and herbs and the supple, clean lines of grenache grown on sand. His governing theory is that the low pH will help the wine age gracefully over the next ten or 20 years. In the meantime, he makes The Vincent from younger—80- to 100-year-old—grenache vines and uses no new oak; his 2014 is completely fresh and already accessible.

Until the early 2000s, the family sold most of the fruit—for several years to Robert O’Callaghan, Cirillo tells me, suggesting that the old vines were the base of the Rockford Dry Country Grenache in the mid-1990s—wines that many still consider some of the high-water marks for Barossa grenache.

“The best grenache that I’ve ever had from Australia is that ’97 Rockford,” Christian Canute told me at our meaty dinner at the beginning of my visit to Barossa. Canute was working at Rockford during that vintage, while also making his own grenache off the family’s estate. He said that when Grant Dickson, the sommelier at fermentAsian in nearby Tanunda (and a Rockford employee), bought a case of the ’97 Rockford for the restaurant, he drank so much of it that Dickson finally had to take the wine off the list in order to save some for other guests.

Though not well known in the US, Rockford is almost universally revered in Australia. Since founding the winery in 1984, proprietor Robert O’Callaghan has built a reputation for modestly ripe Barossa reds with remarkable flavor intensity and aging ability, the vast majority sold directly to their mailing list or out of their cellar door. O’Callaghan and winemaker Chris Ringland introduced the Dry Country Grenache in 1991, demonstrating that the valley’s grenache could make a red with plenty of flavor when drawn from old vines grown without irrigation.

The Kalleske family’s hillside grenache in Moppa.
The Kalleske family’s hillside grenache in Moppa.

The Rockford winery and tasting room occupies a complicated rabbit warren of stone-and-brick buildings south of Tanunda. O’Callaghan purchased the original building with the proceeds from the sale of his VW Kombi van, and then began collecting vintage winemaking equipment—like a crusher built by J.S. Bagshaw of Adelaide in the 1880s that runs on a Kaesler petrol engine built in 1912—before making his first wines in 1984. Above the tasting room’s raw wood rafters, shelves hold dusty, empty bottles of vintage Burgundy and Aussie classics; despite the humble façade and antique equipment, they clearly drink well here. Along with Peter Lehmann, O’Callaghan was one of Barossa’s most active defenders of the valley’s old vines. During the 1980s, when the South Australian government created the vine-pull scheme to combat oversupply and bolster ruinously low grape prices, O’Callaghan famously stood in front of tractors to block them from ripping out century-old vines, offering to contract for the fruit if the growers would agree to decline the payment from the state. He managed to save some of the best sites, but still, it apparently wasn’t uncommon to find normally stoic fourth-generation growers weeping into their pints at the local taverns, temporarily solvent if bereft of vines their great-grandfathers had planted.

Ben Radford at Rockford’s vintage crusher
Ben Radford at Rockford’s vintage crusher

Ben Radford, who took over winemaking from Ringland in 2006, explains that 1997 was the last vintage of Dry Country Grenache. It became Moppa Springs in 1998, marking a shift in the vineyard sources to the Moppa parish in northwest Barossa, and toward more shiraz and mourvedre in the blend. Prior to that, he confirms, the Cirillo fruit did indeed play a role in the wine—there are no exact records, but it likely accounted for about a third of the Dry Country Grenache blend.

“So in the beginning there was grenache, and in the end there was grenache.”

—Ben Radford, Rockford Wines

A vertical of Moppa Springs demonstrates that, even in the most capable hands, sweltering late-season weather in a vintage like 2004 can prove challenging for Barossa grenache, the fruit taking on a candied character. On the other hand, Moppa Springs turned out surprisingly well in 2011, that notoriously cool, wet vintage—another example of grenache on sand succeeding in a tough vintage in which plenty of other wines fell flat.

Then we arrive at the 1997 Dry Country Grenache. It’s surprisingly tight when first opened, showing the tension that grenache can take on when grown in great sites, pulling up the rich, deep flavors of Barossa earth into a context of floral scents and intense, tangy red fruit as it takes on air. The wine saw no new oak, so all of the flavor intensity comes from the relatively small berries delivered by old, dry-grown vines. It’s supple and warming, as a Barossa red should be, but there’s no overabundance of alcohol—the warmth feels natural and appetizing. It’s a bottle that seems to confirm Christian Canute’s assertion that 1997 was, indeed, an epic year for grenache.

After the legendary 20-year-old Dry Country Grenache, Radford ends the tasting with Rockford’s nonvintage fortified tawny, based mostly on grenache along with some riesling and semillon.

“So in the beginning there was grenache, and in the end there was grenache,” he says, pouring me a glass of their sweet, citrusy, rancio-scented version of the Barossa Valley’s most traditional wine.

Exceptions to the Rule

Sandy soil is not a prerequisite for making elegant grenache in the Barossa Valley. Jason Schwarz, who shares his winery space with Spinifex, makes his Meta Grenache from 40- to 90-year-old vines planted at his father’s Thiele Road Vineyard. The soil there is loam with river pebbles and red clay. Schwarz made his 2014 Meta with 70 percent whole bunches and it’s remarkably lifted, with aromas of fresh-cut herbs and flowers. Working with whole clusters, he says, allows him to make a grenache with “almost no added acid.”

Across the valley in the parish of Marananga, Damien Tscharke makes delicious grenache off of brown clay laced with a pink conglomerate rock of shattered and re-fused pink quartzite. A lanky, earnest winemaker with a buzz cut (and one of Barossa’s rare vegetarians), he draws on vines his grandfather planted in 1962 on a hillside above the Gnadenfrei Lutheran Church, which his family still attends. Despite being on the warmer western side of the valley, the vineyard faces east and is shaded in the afternoon. His 2012 is brilliant, silky stuff, the kind of perfectly formed red that suffuses every inch of your mouth with intense flavors without feeling weighted down. Half of the wine was fermented as whole bunches, and none of it saw new oak.

Longtime senior editor at Wine & Spirits magazine, Luke now works for the Stanford Technology Ventures Program.

This story appears in the print issue of February 2016.
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