Barossa shiraz, grenache and mourvedre

A little band of Tanunda grape-growing wine makers, dubbed the ‘Rhone Rangers’, lead the way in hand crafting wonderful, rich wines with a true Barossa thumbprint. They work mainly with grape varieties originating in France’s Rhone Valley but established in the Barossa in the mid nineteenth century.

Shiraz, the most widely planted Rhone variety, of course, needs no introduction. We’ve all enjoyed robust Barossa reds and ports made from it. But the Rhone Rangers have also seized upon another work horse variety, grenache, and are doing wonderful things with it both in its own right and in blends with shiraz and the even more obscure mourvedre (aka mataro).

On its own, Barossa grenache makes a most distinctive wine. It’s a variety achieving exceptional sugar levels – sufficient to produce table wines of 17 per cent alcohol (Barossa shiraz usually sits between 13.5 per cent to 15.5 per cent). This high sugar level makes for an ideal fortified-wine component but gives wine makers a real challenge when it comes to producing a full-bodied table wine.

Pick grenache at a more civilised alcohol potential, and the colour is too pale. In fact, as you can see and taste in Charlie Melton’s Rose of Virginia, Barossa grenache readily makes a lovely, crisp, fresh rose with a welcome touch of tannin in the finish.

Peter Schulz of Turkey Flat Vineyard says the making of fuller-bodied grenache starts in the vineyard. He says you must have mature vines managed for low yields. By ‘mature’ he means a minimum of twenty years. But in practice, the best wines being made from the variety often come from vines much older than that, some dating back to last century.

Given the right fruit – small berries with deep colour and rich, concentrated flavours – a wine maker has some chance of coming up with a decent red. Schulz has his wine made up the road from his vineyard at Robert O’Callaghan’s Rockford winery.

Now there’s a maker leading the way with grenache. According to Schulz, the secret is to make grenache to its full 17 per cent alcohol potential – thereby capturing all its unique flavour – then diluting it back to a more approachable 13 or 14 per cent.

Try Rockford or Turkey Flat grenache and you’ll be struck by the vibrant colour, notably lighter than shiraz of the same strength, and by the richly-scented floral aroma. That lovely floral character comes through on the palate as well. Despite that, these are solid reds, quite firm and sufficiently astringent to carry robust food.

While Rockford and Turkey Flat offer straight grenache, suitable material is scarce and most makers tend to serve it up blended with shiraz just as the real Rhone Valley people do in France. Charlie Melton’s Nine Popes is an excellent example of a grenache-shiraz blend with a touch of mourvedre..

If grenache offers novel flavours, shiraz still makes the ultimate Barossa reds. Though a multi-district blend, Penfolds Grange Hermitage has at its heart the phenomenally opulent aromas and flavours derived from shiraz grapes grown on very-old low-yielding vines from the Kalimna vineyard, northern Barossa.

Many other wineries now produce rich Barossa shiraz off old vines. Each offers a unique variation on the main theme.

Some of the best I encountered there recently were: Veritas Hanisch Vineyard Shiraz, Rockford Black Shiraz, Burge Family Draycott Hermitage, St Hallett Old Block Shiraz, Turkey Flat Shiraz (from a small block of vines planted in 1847), Charles Cimicky Signature Shiraz, Charles Melton Shiraz, Rovalley Old Vines Shiraz, Bethany Shiraz, Heritage Rossco’s Shiraz, Greenock Creek Shiraz, and Grant Burge Meshach 1990