We ask Kay Brothers winemaker Duncan Kennedy about identifying the magic in a wine and what it takes to come top in the James Halliday Grenache Challenge.
There’s surely magic in the soil, and in the touch of Duncan Kennedy, when the second vintage of the Griffon’s Key Grenache can scoop five trophies at the McLaren Vale Wine Show as well as top spot in the inaugural James Halliday Grenache Challenge. For the ambitious but modest winemaker, only in his third year at Kay Brothers, such high praise validates the trust placed in him by the custodians of the 127-year-old family winery. “It’s a massive honour to be awarded in this way and feels like a justification of the heart and soul we’ve been putting into our grenache, including a lot of hard work getting balance in the vineyard,” he explains. “We don’t enter many shows or competitions so to receive a big accolade when we do, knowing that a lot of experts have to agree for you to win, is amazing,” he adds.
While the Griffon’s Key is made using fruit from vines planted in 1999, Kay Brothers history with grenache goes back a century further and Duncan’s attention is evenly divided between honing the brand’s grenache wines and safeguarding its beloved Block 6 Old Vine Shiraz. He says: “There’s certainly a romance to the winemaking at Kay Brothers with our basket press, traditional open fermenters and stone cellars, but what that also means is it’s a very hand-on style of winemaking.”
Watch the video to find out more about the multi-award-winning Griffon's Key Grenache
Wines of royal stature
The 2016 Griffon’s Key winning the best-in-show title at last month’s McLaren Vale Wine Show (from more than 750 entries) required Duncan, together with Elspeth Kay, to don the Elizabethan-style regalia of the Bushing Monarch (pictured below). The position comes with official duties such as the ringing of Wirra Wirra’s Angelus Bell to mark the start of vintage in February, and seems an apt reflection of the winery team’s joyous passion for their profession. Duncan recalls: “It was bizarre to be in the centre of all these local winemakers singing ‘Glory to the Bushing King! All hail, wassail!’ but it is wonderful to feel part of a local tradition.”
He continues: “In the last five years there has been a big collaborative effort in McLaren Vale to raise the quality and profile of grenache, and the momentum behind the varietal proves that it’s the perfect fit for the Australian lifestyle.” With South Australian grenache also taking out this year’s Jimmy Watson trophy and best-in-show titles at the Barossa Wine Show and Australian Small Winemakers Show, Duncan hopes wine lovers of all sensibilities will come to appreciate the varietal in all seasons.
“It doesn’t have to be mid-winter for you to pull out a grenache, and it’s incredibly versatile when it comes to food pairing,” he says. “Our grenache fruit tends to be dark and powerful – as all Kay wines are – but whereas the Griffon’s Key parcel comes through with structure and weight, the fruit we use for our Basket Pressed Grenache offers a lighter, fresher experience.” While the former is a perfect match for duck, steak or a mushroom risotto, Duncan says the latter works wonderfully with an antipasto platter or even salmon.
The team also produces a gold medal-winning grenache rosé, which is the only wine in the range to rely on a small amount of bought-in fruit. Duncan says: “Like many producers in McLaren Vale the growth of our range is somewhat limited by space, but I have been eyeing up some merlot blocks to turn over to grenache.”
Vintages to remember
While this latest swathe of awards came as a surprise, Duncan says the strength of the 2016 crop from the Amery Vineyard was clear to everyone in the team early on. He explains: “Grenache is sensitive to sunburn, and when you get shrivelled berries you get that raisin-y flavour, but when the fruit was being harvested in 2016 the bunches looked absolutely pristine.” The odds are stacked in their favour, he suggests, owing to the quick-draining soil and disease-combating breezes at play in the east-facing vineyard.
Duncan is even more excited about the output of the 2017 vintage; “Because it was a cold, wet winter followed by a dry February we got that beautiful combination of above-average quality and above-average yield, the like of which we hadn’t seen since 2010."
That is not to say grenache offers an easy life to the winemaker. Duncan says: “We’ve done a lot of work to treat grenache as a variety in its own right, through things like shoot thinning and canopy positioning, and followed that up with more delicate handling in the winery, making sure not to give it too much oak or to over-extract for example.”
One of the challenges with grenache is its sensitivity to oxidation, he says, which means topping up the barrels more regularly and relying on the tannins, acid and fruit being in balance front the ground up. The gentle action of the basket press (pictured right) also helps lend an elegance to the rich primary fruit. “You have to be fastidious with grenache because of its phenolics and tannin profile,” he adds. “I also continually benchmark by tasting a lot of examples from elsewhere in South Australia as well as Spain and the Rhone Valley; you could call it a healthy obsession.”
Receiving the highest possible praise from the country's top commentators on grenache is testament to Kay Brothers' commitment to continuous improvement, says Duncan. “We decided we’d only make Griffon’s Key in the best years and the acclaim it has received so far makes me really excited about the future,” he adds.
Secure your share of the limited-release 2016 Griffon's Key Grenache now at kaybrothersamerywines.com/wines.
Next article: Kay Brothers wins inaugural Grenache Challenge