The New Australian Grenache - Wine & Spirits Magazine

The New Australian Grenache

This week, as part of our Wine of the Week series, we’re sharing a portion of Joshua Greene’s interview with Carla Rzeszewski and Richard Betts on their Approach to Relaxation’s 2017 Barossa Valley Sucette Grenache.

Greene conducted the interview while researching a feature for our February 2021 issue, Alternate [ Variety ] Reality, which examines the ongoing climate-change-inspired shift toward drought- and heat-resistant varieties in South Australia.

The cool, late-ripening 2017 season played right into the hands of Carla Rzeszewski and Richard Betts, the sommelier power-couple behind An Approach to Relaxation. That was the year they purchased a 12-acre parcel of dry-farmed grenache vines, mostly planted between 1860 and 1880, growing in the deep sands of Vine Vale. The vines had contributed fruit to Sucette’s 2016 vintage, and provided more than half of the 2017 (by 2019, Sucette was entirely from that estate parcel). They make the wine half a mile away, fermenting it with some whole clusters in open-top vats, then aging it in old French oak barrels. Open the bottle and pour a glass: You’ll get a blast of peppery grenache, the bright sunlight stored in the fruit immediately released. It might be worth the price of admission if the wine went south then and there, but that sunny energy and the sand-driven tannins only gain dynamism with air; the delicate strawberry, the darker black raspberry depths, the lavender fragrance and unreal length of flavor make the wine compellingly drinkable for days. A Barossa classic reimagined (think Robert O’Callaghan’s great Dry-Grown Grenache vintages at Rockford Basket Press), this is a wine that has held fast in my memory for weeks after tasting it. The only downside in buying a case is the separation anxiety you are likely to feel on opening the last bottle, and the cravings that may come after finishing it.

Broadbent Selections, Richmond, VA


An Approach to Relaxation 2017 Barossa Valley Sucette Grenache

Carla: The 2017 is one of our favorites. It’s a cooler, longer season and there’s the increased percentage of our own vineyard. In 2016, we unwittingly put 25% of our vineyard’s grapes in there, [we didn’t know it was coming from that vineyard] and we didn’t own it yet.

Richard: It’s a funny little story. We went to buy some grapes from a guy named Noel Heidenreich, from whom I used to buy grapes a long, long time ago—a great old vineyard. We went to see Noel, and he said, ‘No problem, we’ll sell you some grapes, we’ll get you five tons.’ And we said ‘Okay, great.’ He said, ‘We’ll pick and deliver,’ which is standard in the Barossa, and it’s a kilometer and a half away from where we work, it’s literally right under your nose. So, Noel shows up in the morning with the grapes as planned and they look great and we make wine. Put it away in barrel, go away.

Then next year, 2017, we’re now standing outside in the winery—the winery’s outdoors, anyone can drive right into it. And this gigantic man drives right into the winery and gets out and says, ‘Hey, where’s Richard and Carla,’ which was sort of spooky, you know—all those thoughts go through your head—but my only answer is, ‘Well, I’m Richard and this is Carla, who are you and how can we help?’ ‘Well, I’m Robert and I’ve got a problem.’ (It’s getting worse.) He quickly corrects himself and says, ‘I’m not mad at you guys but I have this issue.’ And I think, okay, well, what’s your issue. And he says, ‘Well, you know those grapes you bought from Noel Heidenreich last year?’ ‘Yeah, we just tasted the wine this morning—it’s amazing, we’re excited about it. We’re excited to get more this year.’ And he says, ‘Well, you know what? Those weren’t actually Noel’s grapes. Noel was oversubscribed last year, so he bought my grapes from me and then sold them to you as if they were his own.’ At first, I have this dual reaction, like, Fuck Noel! You know. But on the other hand, I’m like, Yay! Those were great. So, I’m torn, two directions. And I ask, ‘So, what’s the problem.’ And he says, ‘Well, Noel was going to do the same thing this year. He thought he was oversubscribed so he asked me to grow some grapes for him, and I was selling it to him and he was going to sell to you and you weren’t going to be the wiser. But he’s not oversubscribed, so I’m left holding the bag, and I’m here to see if you want any grapes.’

I’m like, Oh, my God. My head’s just spinning. I’ve had one coffee at this point. It’s a little early. I say, ‘I don’t know, it wasn’t really in our plan.’ And he says, ‘Just come and see the vineyard.’ So, we get in this stranger’s truck and we get out the drive, make a left, make another left and another left and another left—a perfect square—and now we’re literally 1,500 meters from where we had been standing to the north, still in that Vine Vale sand. And we get out of the truck—and I gambled with our marriage… We get out of the truck, and I just say, ‘Wow, how about we just buy the vineyard,’ without having any idea how big it was, whether it was for sale, whether Carla was going to flip out at me. It just looks…

Ancient vines from the Rza Block

C: We had talked about looking for a vineyard and we had looked and there was nothing available and we’d been looking for the past few years. When Richard was working on Betts & Scholl he had been wanting a vineyard even then. And yet nothing came up that was decent, or well-priced, or where we wanted—in the sand. And so, for Richard to say, ‘Can we buy the vineyard?’ I just whipped my head around, I was, like, ‘What are we doing? We haven’t even…’ But, you know, it worked. Two days later, we were signing the paperwork.

R: So, Robert was only the farmer. He had leased the vineyard from Sammy Casciarelli, an old Italian man who immigrated from Salerno to work in the Holden car factory after the war. And he made it his little thing. 12 acres of these ancient vines and another four acres of decrepit fruit trees, bamboo, a couple of tin sheds, one of which apparently blew over last week…

C: Huge prickly pear, like 10 feet tall. Huge cactus.

R: He was ready to be done. We wanted a home for our work. So, we hit it off. We had a goat sausage, we drank a gigantic red cup of brown grenache that he had made and stored in demijohns, unsulfured, in the Australian heat. But that’s what he wanted to Cheers with, so we drank it. And we wrote him a check.

Carla and Richard Rza Betts

C: It was a romantic venture for him. We just traveled through that part of Italy for the first time [ in 2020 ], and we saw farms there that looked exactly like our property. It was so bizarre. We were, like, ‘Oh, this is exactly what his vision for that piece of property was.’ He had bought it when the old vines were already there, but he planted the vines that are now around 30 years old, and he planted all this prickly pear cactus and all these fruit trees, all this citrus and this bamboo. And it’s exactly what you see in that part of Italy. On every single farm. He took everything he knew and just brought it right over to Australia. It’s pretty cool.

A handful of soils from the property

R: Ten and a half acres were planted in the mid to late 1800s; the balance, to get to 12 acres, were planted 30 years ago, by Sammy, from his own cuttings, on their own roots. And the remaining four acres were this out of control prickly pear. So, we actually bulldozed all the prickly pear, dry planted a cover crop, and then had our own Burning Man Barossa Valley, and it was gigantic. We had a big fire, and then, a year later, planted. So, now it’s been, what, 18, 20 months? We planted the remaining four acres, with our own cuttings again, on their own roots. So, we took the cuttings, left them in the nursery for a year so they would become rootlets—so no grafts—and planted those. And did really well: We got more than a 90 percent take. We’re doing it all organically, we’ve got a great new viticulturist who’s helping us, which makes it, at least, somewhat okay that we can’t be there right now [ due to COVID travel restrictions ].

C: His name is Dylan Gregg. He’s a PhD in old vines—he’s a very impressive human being.

R: He invented that PhD.

C: He had been looking for all of this information on old vines and couldn’t find it anywhere so he decided to get a PhD, to create his own PhD in old vines, so that he could be the leading source of information.

Every week, our editors highlight a wine that intrigued them in our blind panel tastings, expanding on their tasting note in this space. These are entirely editorial choices; there are no paid placements. Subscribers can also access the original tasting note by searching here.

Joshua Greene is the editor and publisher of Wine & Spirits magazine.

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