With the exception of five-star wine categories such as vintage Champagne or Burgundy, it is, by common consent, hard to get people to turn up for tastings. So the fact that a recent event in London comparing Australian Grenache with versions from around the world was a sell-out with top press, MWs and sommeliers fighting for seats is significant.
From Sydney to Seattle, and Aragon to Arhus, Grenache is having a moment. Moreover, it’s not doing it by being hidden in blends or in value-for-money bottles, but increasingly as a single varietal and at a premium- to ultra-premium price level.
It’s quite the turnaround. Twenty years ago, as the world planted Cabernet, Shiraz and, more recently, Pinot Noir, Grenache was as fashionable as glam rock.
Eric Aracil of the Conseil Interprofessionel des Vins de Roussillon (CIVR) says it went from being the most planted grape in the world to seventh.
So what changed to reverse this downward trajectory?
The Grenache turnaround
Australia’s story with the variety is, to an extent, representative of the wider Grenache story. A hardy, low-maintenance variety that arrived in the country in the 1830s and liked the hot, arid climate, it quickly became the mainstay of the country’s fortified production.
But as tastes shifted from fortified to table wines, Grenache struggled to make the switch. Growers kept picking it late at high alcohol. It was blowzy, unattractive, unwanted. Prices fell, and people started to pull it out.
Picked three to four weeks earlier than it used to be and given kid-glove treatment in the winery, it is producing wines of elegance, even delicacy.
Yet the problem was never with the grape itself, but how it was treated. Since the millennium, and particularly in the last ten years, there has been a scramble among Australia’s best winemakers for old vine Grenache fruit. Picked three to four weeks earlier than it used to be and given kid-glove treatment in the winery, it is producing wines of elegance, even delicacy.
The thinking has flipped completely. Where Grenache used to be picked last, once all the varieties that mattered were safely in the tank, now growers agonise about the perfect moment for harvest.
“It’s on a knife edge in terms of picking,” says Dan Coward of Alkina, which makes a stunningly beautiful — and stunningly expensive — Grenache. ‘If you’re even thinking about it, then it’s time to pick.’
Winemakers talk about “picking on balance not flavour”, about the “importance of structure”, about the variety’s “transparency” in expressing terroir. Whole-bunch is used to add spice, sappiness and zip to the mid palate.
This is language more commonly associated with Pinot Noir than Grenache, which is no coincidence. Parallels and comparisons come up again and again.
A lighter style of Grenache
In France’s south-west, Eric Aracil describes the variety as being, like Pinot, “an open window on terroir”; Corinna Wright of Olivers in McLaren Vale is just one of many winemakers who claim that Grenache “delivers what Pinot Noir promises”. In Australia it is regularly referred to as “warm climate Pinot Noir”.
On his sizable wine list in Queenstown, New Zealand, Ashish Jha puts Grenache in with Pinot Noir and Gamay in the “light-bodied reds” section.
The shift in thinking and language is instructive. Increasingly, Grenache is no longer seen as a brawny provider of sweetness and alcohol in a blend, but an expressive variety in its own right; one to be cosseted in the hope it will provide poetry.
Grenache is no longer seen as a brawny provider of sweetness and alcohol in a blend, but an expressive variety in its own right.
“The winemaking of Grenache as a variety has transformed over the last decade,” says Marie Hultin from Sweden’s Systembolaget. “Going from full bodied, dark fruited wines with high alcohol to light, red-berried, fresh wines with balanced tannins and acidity.” It’s a trend that she says fits very well with what the monopoly’s customers are looking for.
It remains the most-planted variety in Roussillon, and Aracil, too, is clear about its attributes. “Its fruitiness, its roundness, the fleshiness of the fruit,” he says. “It’s always pleasant. But there is a possibility of a big diversity of styles.”
He’s not exaggerating. In Roussillon, home to around half of the world’s Grenache, it is responsible for everything from sweet reds, blended reds, single varietal wines and whites. Single-varietal wines have grown significantly, particularly whites which now make up a third of IGP production.
Across the Pyrenees in Spain — the second most-planted country for ‘Garnacha’ in the world — Carolina de Funes says they are seeing a growth in rosés and in lighter style reds.
“Years ago we wanted full-bodied wines and barrel ageing,” she says. “Now people are looking for wines with fruit and phenolic maturity, but no wood dominating.”
De Funes works with Aracil on the EU funded Garnacha/Grenache Quality Wines Programme, designed to spread awareness of French and Spanish versions of the grape around the world.
The timing looks good.
Why Grenache, why now
Grenache has several characteristics that make it perfectly suited to the demands of wineries, retailers and consumers, so promoting it now is, to an extent, pushing at an open door.
Heat and drought resistance
For starters, from a growing perspective, Grenache responds well to heat and drought.
Old vines available
Secondly, there are still a lot of old vines in the ground. This is significant. Whereas the explosion of interest in Pinot Noir led to an upsurge in planting of new vineyards, the ‘Grenaissance’ has been driven by winemakers reappraising what is already there.
There is a big difference in quality between the fruit from old and young Grenache vines, and while wineries are desperate to buy the former, there is less interest in the latter. This probably explains why there is a tightening demand — and rising prices — for old-vine fruit, but no big increase in plantings. At least not yet.
“Despite that it’s productive and relatively easy to grow it’s hard to find it on the open market here in Paso Robles, and it’s expensive,” says Jason Haas, general manager of Tablas Creek. It’s a similar story in Australia, where 100+ year old bush vines now command a premium. In the 12 months to June 2023, the average export price per litre of Australian Grenache was more than twice that of Cabernet.
Post Sideways Pinotization
The final element in Grenache’s favour is that, stylistically, it fits with modern tastes and modern cuisine. Somewhat ironically, it’s a journey that has been made easier by Pinot Noir’s growth post Sideways.
“We are very grateful to Pinot Noir,” says Corinna Wright ironically. “People used to not like lighter style reds. But Pinot’s success has changed that.”
In line with consumers’ tastes
Doug Margerum of Margerum Wines in Santa Barbara adds that, “Consumers are looking for wines that are dry, leaner, have more verve. That pair with foods that are not so heavy, rich or overwrought.”
The fact that Pinot Noir, particularly Burgundy, has become so expensive has probably helped.
"Grenache provides heightened aromatics and that funky edge that’s popular with the hipster crowd.”
“Grenache is trendier than 10 to 20 years ago,” says Charlie Young, owner of the Vinoteca range of wine bars in the UK. “Picked earlier and with shorter maceration times, it provides heightened aromatics and that funky edge that’s popular with the hipster crowd.”
In the Netherlands, Laurent Richet, wine director at fine dining Restaurant Fitzgerald in Rotterdam, sees it working at a more upmarket level, too. Spanish wines from Gredos produced in an “elegant, characterful style” have, he says, “opened the door for the new wave.”
Jordan Ogron from FOC Hospitality in the US agrees, saying he’s been seeing “a lot more 100% Grenache wines” from the US, Spain and Australia.
“It’s always a great value buy,” he says. “I get a lot of people that ask for something slightly bigger than a Pinot, so seven times out of ten I suggest Grenache.”
Of course, there remain pockets where the grape remains underdeveloped. A sommelier at 67 Pall Mall Verbier in Switzerland remarked ruefully that trends “take five or six years to get to this market”; a wine writer in Germany told me that he “doesn’t know of any Grenache” being produced in the country.
And while Sweden’s Systembolaget is listing more Grenache than five years ago, Marie Hultin admits that it “takes some explaining”— not least because of the change in wine style in the last decade.
But generally speaking, the rebirth seems to be gathering speed worldwide.
At the London tasting, wine writer Matthew Jukes described the shift from undervalued, over-alcoholic workhorse to refined old-vine Pinot substitute as “possibly the most exciting transformation of any red grape on earth.”
The Grenaissance, it seems, has only just begun.