Penfolds Grange – A Vertical Tasting of Ten Vintages
Max Schubert was bursting with ideas after returning from an extended trip to Europe. He had been sent there by his employers at Penfolds to explore developments in sherry production, but it was his time in Bordeaux that had inspired his greatest ambition. It was on the long flight back to Australia in 1950 that Max Schubert decided that he wanted to create a great Australian red wine. A wine to lift Australia out of mediocrity – a red wine of quaöity comparable to the greatest wines of the world and capable of staying alive for decades.
Grange was revolutionary at the time. Everything about the wine was over the top. The barrel ferment characters and volatile acid were greatly misunderstood and snuffed by the local pundits. After an infamous tasting of Grange by Penfolds board members and Sydney wine authorities, the company decided to cease production of Grange in 1957. Max Shubert continued to make small quantities in strict secrecy in 1957, 1958 and 1959. A second tasting with the same board members was organized in 1960 and the bottle aged 1951 and 1955 vintages were greeted with enthusiastic approval. Grange was reinstated and gradually won acceptance among the cognoscenti. Penfolds Grange has since become an Australian icon – a National Trust heritage-listed wine and its creator, Max Schubert, an Australian folk hero.
Grange is made predominantly from Shiraz and a small percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon. It is almost always a multi-district blend sourced from prime vineyards in South Australia. Significant Shiraz contributions come from the Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale while Cabernet Sauvignon comes from Coonawarra, McLaren Vale, Padthaway, Robe and Bordertown. Fermentation begins in steel tanks with wax-lined wooden header boards and is completed in oak barrels. It is matured for 18 to 20 months in new 300 litre American oak barrels. It was named after Grange Cottage, build in 1845, at Magill Estate and itself named for Mary Penfold’s family home in England. It was initially labelled Grange Hermitage to pander to Sydney society until 1989. Since the 1990 vintage it has been simply called Grange. Since 1994 it is packaged in laser-etched bottles with identification numbers to improve traceability and prevent forgery.
There have been four chief winemakers in the history of Grange: Max Shubert 1951-1975, Don Ditter 1975-1986, John Duval 1986-2002, and Peter Gago 2002- present. The winemaking philosophy has remained consistent over half a century. The style has been refined, reflecting advances in vineyard and technology. Max Shubert originally aimed to make a wine of between 11.5 and 12% alcohol and that has risen to around 13.5%. This is due to the acknowledgement of the significance of tannin ripeness as well as fruit ripeness. The level of volatile acidity has dropped and more attention is paid to the seasoning and quality of oak. Still Max Schubert’s original practices, selection of the very best ripe fruit, submerged cap vinification and completion of the fermentation in new American barrels, continues.
Upon my visit to Penfolds in November 2009, Peter Gago provided me with a list of his personal first and second choices for present tasting. With little exception, it was from this list that we were able to choose our wines for this tasting. All wines were double-decanted four hours before the tasting. This means that after the initial decanting, the bottles were rinsed clean and the wine returned again to the bottle. This eliminated the often quite considerable depot without overly exposing the wines to danger of oxidation. The corks were often in poor condition and seemed nearly glued to the inside of the bottle making their removal extremely challenging. It would not be inappropriate for a sommelier faced with the daunting task of opening an old bottle of Grange to consider the use of a heated port tong to break off the top of the bottle neck. Even for our very experience sommelier, it was not always possible to open the bottles without destroying the cork. A wine sieve was used to remove any cork particles. One wine was cork tainted.
Saturated dark rich red colour. Rich blackberry liqueur and black currant jelly, liquorice and cardamom comprise an impressively vibrant nose. Full bodied with abundant velvety tannins that have not yet begun to decay. Warm ripe dark fruit, lifted balsamic components and leather linger on the finish. Drink now to 2020. 91 points
Dark garnet ruby. Chocolate malt, dried fig and minty cedar make a rather exotic impression on the nose and are further complimented by balsamic-drenched raspberries and smoky graphite in the mouth. The tannin is now fully evolved and the wine is at the ultimate of its peak and should be drunk now and within the next 3 years (until 2013). 90 points
Deep dark ruby. Intense tobacco and leather wrapped around a core of blackberry and nougat. Fine-grained satiny mouthfeel with supple tannins. Round, ripe fruit, soft smoky nuances and dark spice linger on the finish. Good but not great. Complex but not profound. Long but eternal. Drink now to 2015. 91 points
Dark ruby. Deep ripe spiced blackberry pie. Mild acid and soft fluffy tannins. Open-hearted and lush, lacking somewhat in structure but comforting seductive in its pure dark berry fruit and butter cookie generosity. Drink now to 2020 without expectations for further development. 92 points
Dark ruby garnet. Relatively discreet plum fruit and a hint of smoked bacon, pepper, vanilla and clove. Richer and riper than expected in the mouth with spicy wild berries and chocolate coating the mouth through the finish. Elegance is expressed in the firm structure and the wine will continue to evolve advantageously for another two decades. 93 points
Deep dark ruby with garnet highlights. Evolving multi-layered intensity in the glass… liquorice and chilli-chocolate layered with plums, cassis and cedar. Heady, lush and extravagant with very tightly knit, ripe tannins. Long and intense. Still has stamina for another two decades. 95 points
Dark garnet-ruby. Abundant still firm tannins. Rich ripe sweet red berries, tobacco and nougat. Fine and precise, perhaps more classic and nearly left bank Bordeaux-like in structure. The tannins are abundant, fine-grained and firm. Red cherry, cassis and roasted coffee linger on the long finish. This wine is perhaps the best structured of the entire tasting and in my opinion one of the most underrated vintages of Penfolds Grange. 94 points
Unbelievably youthful dark ruby colour. Charred beef, dried herbs, soft fig and lovage make a savoury impression. Tannins still abundant and well-structured. Finishes somewhat astringent but long with tarragon, plum, and cassis. Drink now and within the next five years. 93 points
Cork taint. Penfolds current chief winemaker, Peter Gago, is considering a revolutionary alternative bottle closure in the future.
Brick red. Intense leather and garrique. No more fruit on the palate and the tannins have dried. Soy sauce and rustic savoury flavours remain. This wine is past its prime.