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Julia Harding | October 25, 2023

A collection of tasting notes that reinforce the story Max told earlier this year in his article on the next chapter for Australian old-vine Grenache. Photo of Sands of Time vineyard in Blewitt Springs, McLaren Vale, courtesy of Giles Cooke MW.

“The majority of these wines were tasted at a masterclass held in London earlier this month as a demonstration of the changing style of Australian Grenache, including a comparison of different expressions from McLaren Vale and the Barossa Valley. A few of the wines from the latter were Grenachedominant blends.

Also in the collection below are the current releases from Alkina, which I tasted at home in London in perfect condition thanks to the very smart Coravin Vinitas sample bottles Alkina have started using, as well as a group of Willunga 100 wines tasted by Jancis, plus a few from a recent Wine Society tasting, also tasted by Jancis.

Many of the wines are made from very old vines like those in the Blewitt Springs photo above. Even older are the Grenache bush vines in the Eden Valley that provide the fruit for John Duval’s Annexus, planted in 1858, thought to be some of the oldest ungraftedGrenache vines in the world.

These are vestiges of the roller-coaster history of this variety in Australia. Said to have arrived in the 1830s or 1840s, it was found to be drought-tolerant and capable of producing high sugar levels well suited to the fortified wines that were dominant at the time and continued to be so well into the mid 20th century. By the 1960s it was the most widely planted grape variety in Australia. According to Kym Anderson’s data,*

plantings reached a peak in 1975 at 6,060 ha (14,975 acres), which was just over 15% of the total Australian vineyard area. In 2023, there are 1,829 ha remaining, representing just 1.3% of Australia’s vineyards. Lovers of fine Grenache are fortunate that some of these old vines have survived, though as Max explains in his article, their fruit is now highly sought after and increasingly expensive. Once you could barely sell the grapes. Many of the older vineyards were planted by McLaren Vale hero Bernard Smart, pictured below.

Grower Bernard Smart, who very sadly died on Sunday at the age of 90 and was responsible for planting many of the best Grenache vineyards in McLaren Vale, is seen here driving the tractor in the Charming Man vineyard in Clarendon, with Thistledown's Giles Cooke MW (© Ben McMahon).

Max’s article eloquently describes the changes in style in Australian old-vine Grenache, now with an emphasis on freshness and elegance rather than ripeness and density, often aged in vessels other than oak barrels, or in older, larger casks that allow the fruit and the vineyard characteristics to shine. 

For me this stylistic shift was most marked in the wines from McLaren Vale, where, according to Giles Cooke of UK importer Alliance Wine, creator/winemaker of Thistledown and one of the panellists at the masterclass, you can get perfectly ripe fruit but still have a low pH for greater freshness. It was most marked in the wines from Blewitt Springs and the even cooler Clarendon subregion. Cooke suggested that in many instances, old vines could be picked earlier and still be perfectly balanced, a counterpoint to the suggestion made by some producers that old vines equals concentration and power.

I asked viticulturist Dylan Grigg, who wrote his PhD thesis on old vines (and now makes an old-vine Grenache himself), if he thought Cooke was right about the earlier picking. He replied, 'The point he makes is anecdotally true in cases where the old vines are well tended ... vine balance and health is an overriding influence. That being said, independent studies on vines of different ages in Switzerland, California and Australia (my study) all found more harmony in the winemaking numbers (pH, total acidity, Baumé) in older vine fruit and then wines.'

From the Barossa, Alkina’s wines stand out for their extreme refinement. Picked early, precisely ripe, without the raisiny flavours and high alcohol of yesteryear, they are ‘transparent’, revealing not just their region of origin but their precise vineyard site – sites they have demarcated with the help of Chilean terroir-meister Pedro Parra according to soil type, and which they refer to as 'polygons'.

It's not all about freshness, though. The other distinctive feature of so many of these wines is their tannicfines se. There were nevertheless some examples, particularly from the Barossa, that had more obvious oak influence, riper, richer fruit, concomitant higher alcohol levels and thicker tannins. Based on this tasting, it seemed to me that McLaren Vale is slightly ahead of the curve but that the Barossa is taking note and not far behind”.– JULIA HARDING