Interest in wines produced from old vines continues to rise, along with a push to preserve the remaining vineyards. One such four hectare plot of gnarly own-rooted Grenache in Barossa Valley’s Vine Vale district was lucky Dylan Grigg found them. Having done his PhD studies on the effects of grapevine age on wine quality, Grigg is particularly well suited to the task of rejuvenating the vineyard and producing fabulous wine.
Vine Vale is in the Barossa Valley Region of the Barossa geographical indication (GI) about 80 km north of Adelaide South Australia, not far from the rural town of Lyndoch, where Grigg grew up. The world’s oldest continually producing Grenache and Shiraz vineyards lie within Barossa, planted in the mid to late 1800s by German immigrants originally for the production of fortified and port-style wines. Old vine Grenache plantings are particularly concentrated in Vine Vale.
Grigg lived with his family and managed vineyards in the Catalan region of northwest Spain, where he developed a great appreciation for Grenache. While there, he met a couple who purchased a vineyard in Vine Vale and asked him to oversee it. This small, old vine Grenache vineyard became available in 2021. He immediately negotiated to see how his family could be the new owners. Things worked out, he moved the family back, and started the process of rejuvenating the vines and making wine. Grigg calls this his ‘side job’ – he is a full-time, traveling viticulture consultant.
He named the vineyard Vinya Vella (meaning “old vineyard” in Catalan). From them, he produces an aromatically lifted and deeply colored red wine which shows off the vibrant and textural side of Grenache. Four hectares of these very old vines exist, but also another two hectares of roughly thirty-year-old vines, between which he planted new vines to fill in empty spaces.
Water in the Sand and Wind in the Vines
While Vine Vale doesn’t have its own official GI designation, its terroir is unique. More than elsewhere in the Barossa Valley, the soils in Vine Vale are very deep and sandy with a layer of sandy yellow-red clay below and a deep water table. These are important for providing both nutrients and water to the vines during the warm, dry summers.
Because of this access to water, the old vines do not need irrigation. However, when a young vine is planted to infill a space within an older vineyard, it receives specifically targeted drip irrigation for the first few years until they are strong enough to weather the season.
Sand and water aside, another plus to this area are the cooling catabatic winds from nearby hills that temper the warmth. Locally called ‘the Vine Vale nurse,’ these winds come every day helping to reduce disease pressure. They also give the vines a longer growing season for better maturity and greater diurnal temperature variation to preserve freshness. And the nearby Eden Valley hills likewise help uplift clouds from the east and squeeze out a small fraction more rainfall.
Reworking the vineyard
Grigg’s first big challenge was dealing with neglected vines that sprawled in every direction, along with an abundance of weeds. He carefully pruned the vines and trained individual shoots onto stakes to create new bush, or goblet shaped structures as commonly used in Spain. By a process called “layering” he also ran shoots from some of the older vines into the surrounding soil to propagate new roots and supportive trunks. This is only possible because these vines are “own-rooted”, meaning they grow on their own roots and do not require grafting onto rootstocks.
After viewing aerial photos of the old vines, their row spacing stood out. Many old vineyards had wider spacing (lower planting density) than typical nowadays in the Barossa. Perhaps when originally planted, this was to reduce their competition for water. In the two hectares with the thirty-year-old vines, row and vine spacing are the same as those of the old vines at about 3.6 meters by 2.8 meters respectively.
There is a growing interested in dry-farming as climate change impacts not only vineyards, but also groundwater and surface water resources. In the future, irrigation may not present a sustainable adaptation. Grigg believes matching vine density to soil and climate is best, such as the low-density bush vine plantings in the arid regions of Spain.
Just how old are those vines?
When asked about the age of his vines, Grigg says:
“Initially the oldest records we could uncover were to 1897, however recently with the help of a historian we discovered that the property was first purchased in 1853. The records at the time list the occupation of this family as viticulturist. From that we can possibly infer that planting was around this era of the mid 1850-1860s. I have seen many old vineyards and can compare the growth, structure and decay to other examples with records of age. This all is a little grey as the dates are often indirectly recorded by means of photographs, or media releases or the like. I think ours is probably 120+ years old.”
It is also interesting to note there is no recorded phylloxera in South Australia. In 1860 when it was discovered in the eastern states, South Australia enacted tough quarantine and set up an authority to protect the agriculture. South Australia remains phylloxera free which means Grigg’s old vines are own-rooted!
Is Shiraz still king?
Barossa is famous for its Shiraz. So does that overpower Grigg’s ability to market Grenache? “The huge market push of Shiraz has meant marketing Grenache is still hard [but] there has been a real interest and resurgence in Grenache lately as people are giving it the time and effort instead of blending it away. I am giving it the care and attention that an ultra-high level Pinot Noir would receive. I believe with vine balance, the quality can be really unlocked”, says Grigg.
It’s interesting, in fact, that in terms of old vines, Grenache in Barossa is not outnumbered by Shiraz. According to data from Vine Health Australia’s Vineyard Register (March 2020), Grenache vines between 70 and 100-years old (called “Survivor vines”) covered about 93 ha versus 89 ha of old Shiraz vines.
And what about the wine?
Grigg explains that the challenge for producing good fruit on his old vines is to maintain balance between vegetative and berry growth on them during the season. And because of the very different sizes of individual vines, this requires a very adapted management approach. At harvest, the challenge is to not let the fruit get too ripe, but not pick it too green.
About the style, Grigg says: “… we try not to over extract to make it too heavy in the dark fruit spectrum and don’t want the extraction to overpower the delicate sandy tannins that are in the skins.” But he goes on to say, however, that “the style may change as the vineyard improves, we learn more, try new things and grow, and also as we explore the best way to manage these vines and the fruit they produce.”
Through it all, Grigg continues collecting data to analyze vineyard performance, fruit composition, and sensory characteristics of his vines’ grapes with an eye towards balance. He has gained a lot more data and evidence since his PhD studies about how old vines react to the season and the environment differently than younger ones.
From the past to the future
Dylan Grigg’s Vinya Vella vineyard is a slice of viticultural history being rejuvenated for the good of the future. Aside from the history and the terroir that make this vineyard unique, the old-world techniques of dry farming, which served the vines so well for over a hundred years, can set an example for viticulture in a changing climate. And with a scientific background so well suited to this endeavor, Grigg will be able to advance the understanding of how to make great wines from old vines that have adapted to hot and dry climates. He brings a passion for Grenache from old-world Spain to new-world Australia.
A special thanks to Dylan Grigg for sharing his photos and information!