The slow Grenache movement

Before he gets down to pruning, you could be forgiven for thinking that Marco Cirillo owns a sculpture park rather than a vineyard. Bereft of leaves, his ancient bush vines look more like upturned claws in stone than anything animate.

The Cirillo vineyards in the Barossa generate two Grenache wines, the Vincent and the premium 1850, and both provide an object lesson in the power of sustained viticulture. The oldest vines, planted in 1848, have been in production ever since their first vintage; the younger vines range from a callow 85 to a sprightly 100 years in age.

Cirillo took over from his father, who is now 78, and while the vineyard didn’t come into the family until the 1970s, Marco represents nine generations of Italian winemaking heritage. He has followed his father’s rustic, hands-on approach, but also takes advantage of modern technology, including soil and tissue testing, to monitor the needs of the vines.

He follows largely organic practices in the vineyard, making good use of mulch and natural fertiliser, but has little interest in the weird and wonderful dogma and practices of biodynamics, and is a stickler for hygiene. The one-man show makes for hard yakka – pruning the lower branches, Cirillo says, involves “about 400 squats per day”. Despite the vines’ advanced age, yields are surprisingly vigorous, reaching around two tonnes per acre.

Bush vines demand hand-picking, after which the berries are then destemmed and combined with some whole bunches and tipped into a fermenter for up to 20 days, with the juice pumped over as appropriate. The horizontal basket press is then applied at a tectonic pace. “Slow and steady wins the race for me,” Cirillo says.

After the wine has settled in a tank for a final mini-ferment, old and very old again come into play with the maturation – a third of the wine goes into 80-year old barrels, a third into 10-year old oak vats and casks and a third into stainless steel: “We don’t use a lot of oak, obviously”. Too much terroir, Cirillo says, is obscured by forests of oak.

After a year, the Vincent is allowed to settle (it’s otherwise unfiltered) and sulphured before bottling. Cirillo says he likes to keep things simple: “The more you dick around, the more chance there’ll be an issue with the wine.”

Despite an emphasis on a soft and savoury style, the Cirillo Grenaches, in back-label speak, will reward cellaring.

“I’m a bit old school – wine is something you should be able to look at in 15 to 20 years. I make everything to age, even the Vincent, which is a $20 bottle.” It was the Vincent that pocketed the number two spot in the last Hot 100 Wines SA.

Cirillo enjoys the quiet jostling between the Barossa and McLaren Vale Grenache growers, and can’t resist pointing out that the great Grenache wines of Europe tend to come from inland locales with a bit of altitude rather than seaside regions. He believes that the Barossa is and should be the true home of Grenache, and says his own venerable vines provide the evidence.

“It grew well, it tasted right, people made wine from it, and they survived for that reason. That’s why they’re there.”

In the end, though, he’s just happy to see Grenache gain some attention: as a variety he believes it will always be a bridesmaid rather than the bride, “and possibly closer to a flower-girl”.

The 2013 Vincent has pretty much sold out in the shops, but Cirillo recommends its successor.

“The 2014 is an absolute belter,” he says. “When you first open the bottle it seems more fruit driven and it’s quite bright and pretty, but if you drink it over a couple of days, it delivers some serious strength and structure in the palate.”

 Never, ever, hurry a centenarian.