Tastings come in all shapes and sizes. Take for instance a vertical, a horizontal, and a fortunate sneak peak in and around two current releases of McLaren Vale Grenache. Woven together they offer a rare insight into McLaren Vale winemaker Stephen Pannell’s passion for the region’s on-point Grenache variety.
His work with Grenache and several other desirable Mediterranean varieties since moving to McLaren Vale in the mid-1990s is well documented; when prodded he’ll leave you in no doubt of their combined regional-varietal virtues.
Grenache appears to be his number one affair of the heart.
“My love for the variety has not diminished nor has my belief in McLaren Vale Grenache’s place in the line-up of the world’s great varietal wines,” Stephen says. “It is the variety that best speaks of place in our warm climate by the sea.”
The celebrated winemaker never ceases to self-reflect what he has learned in the 25 years of his McLaren Vale experience with Grenache, and what he has given the winemaking community in terms of those learnings. “There seems to be no end to where Grenache takes me as a winemaker but the more wine I make the more I understand that to do nothing is the greatest challenge,” he says. Grenache best represents that challenge, he suggests, but in order to do nothing the fruit has to be balanced exactly, grown in the right place and managed carefully. Read that as dry-grown, old-vine, carefully managed yields and grown by people who care as much as he does. Now let’s introduce two new release S.C. Pannell 2018 Grenaches from two entirely different McLaren Vale sites.
The S.C. Pannell 2018 Old McDonald Grenache is from a 76-year-old, dry-grown vineyard he’s worked with since 2004, which he notes produces Grenache flavours unlike any other vineyard he works with. It’s a very accessible with what appears as a black cherry kind of fruit sense, perhaps that being Pannell’s recognisable flavour note following a back-taste of the previous 2017 vintage. The fruit and structure are superbly balanced and comfortable in their mid-palate marriage with juicy tannins (is that even possible?) and woven intricately. It’s a complete wine across its whole trajectory, medium-bodied, delicately savoury as well with gastronomic peppery spice for palate seasoning and extended length. Beyond satisfying from start to finish. (94/100)
The S.C. Pannell 2018 Smart Grenache on the other hand is just his second release from a 64-year- old, dry-grown, bush-vine vineyard, on the edge of the Clarendon township – the highest Grenache vineyard in the Vale on the oldest soils.
Without taking away from its own being, it perhaps provides enlightened clarity to look at this beside the Old McDonald above. This is Grenache with heightened personality, and definite evidence the variety is a great translator of terroir. Its ripening arc seems to be clearly lengthened in its cooler home ground, expressed in a confident display of fragrant crushed blueberry and blue flowers – think violet more than anything. And this perfume is a constant delight through the entire spectrum of the wine, a highlight, a driving force. Yet it’s not all that excites. There’s a red berry freshness that follows as you sip, a sticky tannin mouthfeel, and a zip and upward lift in the finish. It’s a very different wine to the Old McDonald and all power to it because of that. Without taking away from this comparison, it’s a celebration of absolute individuality. (96/100)
For further insights into these wines, we also can look at them in the context of the winemaker’s journey to this point, and also within a three-vintage vertical of the Old McDonald Grenache. In the past decade Stephen has bought 36 French oak vats ranging from 1000L to 9000L, which have, he says, become his most important winemaking tool, enabling him to dramatically reduce oxidation, evaporation and deterioration of sulphur. Which means he doesn’t need to add sulphur in nearly the same quantities as previously to preserve the wine or combat potential spoilage.
The unexpected benefit, Pannell suggests, is the preservation of aromatics that before would have been lost through oxidation. The effect on the tannins, he admits, he is yet to truly understand, but suspects it may be due to the slower ingress of oxygen.
Stephen notes the resulting wines are vibrant, energetic and unfurl gradually with airing, which is something you can see in a privileged tasting of three recent vintages of the Old McDonald Grenache, from 2017-2019. The ’17 is full bodied with solid structure and weight-bearing backbone, a wine perhaps of its vintage as well as its place on the Pannell Grenache learning curve. The ’18, the current release already covered above, is more medium bodied and drinking perfectly.
The ’19 is a sneak peak at a wine that will be released in autumn 2021. In the context of this vertical, which clearly shows the trajectory of Pannell’s Grenache passion, it is a next step into juicy, spritely and vivid Grenache, more medium-bodied than the previous iterations, promoting the aromatics even further in the black cherry mode, juicy in the sipping with superfine tannin integration suggesting this will be an absolute stunner on release. My preview indicates great excitement lies ahead.