John Saker: Kiwi winery's grenache project creates a lovely wine wine with a bit of chew
I tasted a wine last summer that continues to haunt me. It was a Chateau de Fonsalette Cotes du Rhone 1990, a red made by the legendary Chateauneuf du Pape producer Chateau Rayas.
Everything about it was astonishing. It was 27 years old but there was a freshness so central to the wine it was impossible to imagine it ever fading. The wine's flavours were bold in the way of reds from southern France, but the palate imprint it left was delicate to the point of being almost ghostly. You weren't aware of each mouthful ending, so long and fine was the finish.
It was a blend of three varieties, but by far the most dominant (close to 70 per cent) was grenache.
Grenache – or garnacha, the name it was given in its Spanish homeland – is a grape variety that is slowly but convincingly carving out a place for itself in wine's new order.
Over the past 20 years grenache dropped five places on the world's most planted grape varieties list. That was no bad thing. For a long time it suffered from being lumped in with an unruly posse of southern European red varieties, most of which were destined for indifferent bulk blends.
The variety began to be taken seriously thanks to the great work of southern Rhone producers. A geographical sweet spot for grenache, the region is also home to a number of quality-conscious wineries. While most of these wines are blends, some of the finest (such as the top wines from Chateau Rayas) are 100 per cent grenache.
Their rise in popularity caused a grenache rethink in other parts of the world, including Australia. The variety has been called Australian wine's best kept secret. Plantings there go back to the 19th century, and the surviving plots of those gnarly old bush vines are now coveted by a new generation of winemakers.
One you should try is Samuel's Gorge Grenache 2015 ($50) from McLaren Vale in South Australia. Made by the grenache-adoring, irrepressible Justin McNamee, this wine has a settled, harmonious old-world weight and texture. Its red fruit flavours are laced with medicinal tiger balm and orange peel notes.
The variety prefers warmer climes than our own, though that hasn't stopped Villa Maria taking it on as a project in Hawke's Bay. Results have been uneven, but a recent edition – the Villa Maria Cellar Selection Gimblett Gravels Grenache 2014 ($25) – is a very lovely wine. It's packed with bright dark fruit and there's a bit of chew to the tannins. Give it time to open up in the glass and out will come those earthy cherry flavours that are a grenache signature.