Grenache has been around since the beginning of Australia’s winegrowing history, initially used for fortified wines. But it has only recently begun to hit its stride, playing an integral role in many red blends and increasingly showing up in single-varietal styles (James Halliday even recognised an exceptional McLaren Vale example as his 2020 Wine of the Year).
Styles do vary depending on where the grapes are grown. For example, the Spanish garnacha expression that’s produced in the warm regions of the north are normally high in alcohol (around 15 per cent) and filled with ruby-red grapefruit, cherry and liquorice characters. On the other hand, French grenache from the cooler southern Rhone produces wines with more finesse and less alcohol, highlighting herbal notes such as oregano and lavender.
Once the world’s most-planted grape variety, grenache is claimed by both Spain and Italy via the island of Sardinia, but its exact origin is uncertain. It’s an indisputable fact, however, that mutations of the grape over the centuries have led to grenache rouge, gris and blanc.
Grenache as we know it was first cultivated in the 14th century and gradually spread outwards from the province of Aragon across northern Spain and southern France. Its plantings in the south of the Rhone Valley are what set the stage for grenache in the New World, where it was first embraced by California and South Australia, and by the warmest, driest wine regions of those states.
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South Australia well and truly led the grenache charge Down Under. James Halliday believes the most important region, in terms of quality, is McLaren Vale, “although the vignerons of the Barossa and Clare Valleys may well take umbrage at this distinction between the three major dry-grown bush-vine regions,” he says. Before it became known as a veritable single varietal or component in a blended table wine (think GSM), grenache was mainly used in fortified wines and was perhaps best known as the cornerstone for the production of tawny port.