There are a few wine grapes that over time have been supporting players more than stars on the world stage of wine. Malbec suffered near anonymity in Bordeaux before drawing the spotlight in Mendoza. Sauvignon Blanc enjoyed regional success in the Loire Valley and Pessac-Leognan but then bolted into the big time from the Marlborough region of New Zealand. The latest variety to emerge from the wings is Grenache.
This grape variety has long stood in the shadow of Syrah in the Rhône Valley, though it has now gained modest acclaim as a contributing grape in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Similarly, the variety has been eclipsed for decades behind Tempranillo throughout Spain, where it is known as Garnacha, though followers of Spain’s “new” red wines now speak highly of the Grenache-based wines of Priorat such as those of Alvaro Palacios.
Grenache fills the bill for today’s wine consumer looking for palate-forward red wines with fresh flavors, substantial but soft tannins, excellent acidity and a long, satisfying finish. Shiraz (a.k.a. Syrah) may be Australia’s flagship red grape, but Grenache gives many Aussie “GSM” (Grenache-Shiraz-Mourvedre) blends a fruity lift and shares equal billing with Shiraz in the delightful d’Arenberg “d’Arry’s” Original Shiraz - Grenache.
McLaren Vale, a compact wine region a few miles southeast of Adelaide in South Australia, has long enjoyed a good reputation for substantial red wines made from Shiraz, Grenache and other Rhone varietals. Foremost among McLaren Vale’s collection of excellent wineries is d’Arenberg, with its line of wines bearing unusual names (Dead Arm, Stump Jump, d’Arry’s Original) and distinctive iconic labels that sport a crest and a distinctive diagonal red stripe. Three things set d’Arry’s Original apart from other d’Arenberg red wines: old vines, a fifty-fifty blend of Grenache and Shiraz, and a consumer-friendly price.
The original vineyards were planted by Joseph Osborn in 1912 in McLaren Vale and now, almost a century later, the fourth generation of the Osborn clan, Chester Osborn has taken the reins from his father, Francis “d’Arry” Osborn. Recently, I had an e-mail exchange with Chester Osborn about the status of Grenache in Australia and d’Arry’s Original, a cornerstone in the d’Arenberg line that draws much its strength and character from Grenache. Osborn gets a high percentage of grapes for d’Arry’s Original from the cooler Blewitt Springs sub-region in northeastern McLaren Vale, but also from vineyards in a sub-region around the winery. Osborn explained in that creative and sometimes obscure Australian punning that the sub-region is yet unnamed, but that he had a suggestion: “I am calling it ‘Kelly’s Undies’ because A.C. Kelly was the first to plant vines here and the surface is undulating.”
The family owns much of the vineyard land providing fruit for the wine--particularly the old vine Grenache--but they also have long-term contracts with a network of growers. “All of our growers work closely with our viticulture team and are required to tend their vineyards using the same minimal input practices that we do, with no fertilization, minimal or no irrigation, and no soil cultivation.” Why all the hands-off practices with the grapes? “We found this to be the best way to get wines that express the characters of the soils they are grown in,” explains Osborn.
Wine character and soil composition (a.k.a., the results of specific terroir) are as essential to each other in South Australia as anywhere in the world where great grapes are grown. But time and trial often determine the best match. “In the 1800s and early 1900s, when a lot of the Shiraz and Grenache vines that now contribute to d’Arry’s Original were planted, the Shiraz was generally grown on the lower slopes of McLaren Vale and the Grenache grown on the higher parts of slopes and hilltops. This positioning suits Grenache because poorer soils promote more tannin, looser bunches, and reduced vine vigor.” He does note, however, the both Grenache and Shiraz work well on different soils.
Osborn says unreservedly that McLaren Vale is the best place in Australia for growing Grenache, citing its maritime influence, soil types, and the stocks of old vines. McLaren Vale is at the center of the Fleurieu peninsula directly south of Adelaide, South Australia’s capital city that lies close to the Southern Ocean. “Low summer rain and humidity mean that Grenache always can ripen, but the moderating effect of sea breezes and cool nights are the keys to get more fragrance and acidity in the grapes,” he says. I have always found that Grenache has a fruit-forward character that is reminiscent of fresh raspberries. That component--when combined with the complimentary flavors of Shiraz--give d’Arry’s Original what Osborn calls a “lifted fragrance with fresh red and purple fruits, earthiness, spiciness, length and aging ability,”
When Grenache and Shiraz come together, like in d’Arry’s Original, Osborn gets rhapsodic in his praise. “Grenache and Shiraz work so well because they are both spicy varieties and the different tannins complement each other. Grenache tannins are quite late in the mouth while Shiraz tannins can be early and late. The fruit sweetness of the Grenache is matched well by the early Shiraz tannins but ultimately it is the spiciness that melds them together so nicely. Grenache and Shiraz is a magical partnership.” The first d’Arry’s Original was a 1959 d’Arenberg “Burgundy,” made by Chester’s father, the original ‘d’Arry’ who explained that the name was changed in the early 1990s “when the world got smaller and we could no longer use the Burgundy title.” The blend started out as 75% Shiraz, 25% Grenache, then it was flip-flopped with 75% Grenache. Twelve years ago, the blend was changed to 50% Grenache and 50% Shiraz and that’s where it has stayed, although Osborn says he will change the percentages if the vintage conditions do not suit a 50/50 blend.
Osborn also thinks that the addition of a little Mourvedre to the Grenache/Shiraz blend works very nicely and that a Grenache-Tempranillo blend works wonders on the palate. “Grenache is fantastic when blended with Tempranillo as in the reds of Rioja and in our own “Sticks and Stones” Tempranillo-Grenache-Shiraz blend. About half of the d’Arry’s Original is aged in small barrels, some of it new oak, and the other half is matured in large oak casks. The Shiraz component for d’Arry’s Original is barrel-aged for up to 22 months, while the Grenache doesn’t stay in barrels longer than 12 months. Osborn describes d’Arry’s Original as “a medium-bodied wine with very good longevity,” adding that most vintages are drinking well after 10 years, and some vintages even longer. “Some of the d’Arenberg Burgundies my father made in the ‘60s are drinking really well now.” Recent Grenache vintages that Osborn rates as “great” include 2002, 2009 and 2010.
I had occasion to taste six vintages of d’Arry’s Original recently and found a familiar thread of lively Grenache fruit coupled with the firmness of Shiraz running through all of the wines. Of particular note were the 2002 and 2003, with the ’03 offering more depth and complexity. The 2002 d’Arry’s Original was loaded with dark raspberry fruit, great texture, refined tannins and very good length and structure, while the 2003 offered all of that plus more layered fruit, texture and length. The 2004 d’Arry’s Original tasted very ripe and pruny with more evident acidity, and the 2000 was a blend of ripe prunes and berries and roasted coffee that cried out for food. According to Old Bridge Cellars, importers of d’Arenberg wines, the 2006 d’Arry’s Original is the current release, with small amounts of the 2005 still in the market.
This careful attention to McLaren Vale Grenache prompted a small group of wineries to form the Cadenzia Project in 2004 “to celebrate the beauty and highlight the diversity of MacLaren Vale Grenache as both a blending and solo variety.” The word Cadenzia derives from the musical term cadenza; an outstanding virtuoso passage or flourish toward the end of a movement to demonstrate virtuosity and creativity. As of 2009, the Cadenzia Project members include d’Arenberg, Dog Ridge, Gemtree, Oliver’s Taranga, Samuel’s Gorge, Tapestry and Yangarra. And each bottle of wine named Cadenzia will carry a new Cadenzia Certified logo.
I closed out our e-interview by asking Osborn his opinion of the future of Grenache. “I expect it will keep ticking along and start gaining more recognition.” He said that when d’Arenberg first put the varietal on the label in the 1980s, the trade balked--but consumers loved the wine. “Then in the 1990s Australian GSM (Grenache-Shiraz-Mourvedre) blends gained more recognition as serious, fine wines, partly because the wines are better than they have ever been. McLaren Vale is producing some stunning Grenache based wines so I can only see the reputation for these wines improving.” No doubt led by the iconic d’Arry’s Original.