Penfold's Grange, the "Grand" gesture

20th May 2014

Its reputedly one of the most expensive wines made in Australia, hiking its price up by a massive $100 for the 2008 vintage to $785 after a 100 out of 100 rating in the a influential wine publication. Its made almost exclusively from Shiraz and aged in new American oak. Unlike it's conterparts in many parts of the world whose grapes are sourced from single vineyards or even small regions or blocks, it takes Bordeaux blending to the extreme. Grange is made from grapes harvested from a considerably wider area than I am sure many of you are aware including Barossa Valley, McLaren Vale and Magill Estate and it comes packaged with a powerful history regarding its roots, so to speak. If ever you were in doubt of its prestige, just listen to its fans, both amateur and professional and you will be instantly convinced that this is indeed a wine to behold. It offers a fascinating history into its vintages that for some time in the 1950's and 1960's were made in secret and its Iconic status means that people will continue to hunt it out and pay it's premium prices.

Having not tasting the Grange for some considerable time and although not planning to taste, I find myself at The Wine Treasury table at the Australia Day tasting in London at the end of January. Taken expertly through a range of their wines, none of which I had tasted before, I was slightly overwhelmed and somewhat sceptical of the sheer mass of wines produced through this estate. They seemingly produce a wine for every purse and palate imaginable. As we were at a trade tasting, the products offered to taste were immediately for the more expansive pocket and they consider it the Sommelier's duty to push the more expensive wines. Without  a doubt an interesting selection of wines, new to me was their "Cellar Reserve" single varietal wines of which the Cabernet Sauvignon and the Sangiovese shone out in the selection. I guess I am a romantic at heart and it feels a little bit like a very well oiled machine that produces such a great range of wines  culminating in one of the rarest and most expensive wines to be produced in Australia. Great wine should be produced from the heart, and here, it feels more PR and branding than soul, but you cant deny that they do make very good wines.

I truly wasn't expecting to be offered the Iconic Grange so it was interesting to try the 2007 vintage. This was still very young, especially for a wine that really does become so intensly beautiful with age. It reminded me so much of the exquistley beautiful and incredibly intense 2009 Bordeaux wines I had the fortune to taste early on in 2010. The 2007 was still very much all about the fruit and the complexity for which it is sort out, had yet to do more than hint at. It seemed to be a week of Grange, as I was then in a position to taste with a client, both the 1996 and the 1999 Grange. Having tasted neither vintage for quite some time, it seemed rude to pass up on this unique opportunity, 3 different Grange vintages in one week, how lucky was I? Without a doubt the beauty of the 1999 shone out far beyond the other two. All the elements you would expect were in place here with so much concentration and complexity that you could just taste how good this was going to get for the next 10 years. THe 1996 was a little disappointing as it was clear this particularly bottle was starting to fade. Still beautiful and still a Grange, but was definitely over shadowed but the big and gloss 99. 

Penfolds Grange 1999

The wine, despite being laid on its side for at least 12 months, when opened was very cloudy. Sediment apparent throughout the wine. Dark ruby red core to tawny rim. Surprisingly still had some youthful notes of morello cherries and baked cranberries with hints of bournville chocolate, cedar wood, smoked cigars, menthol, morello cherries, and vanilla.

Palate is just as concentrated and just as complex. initial fruit on the primary palate of morello cherries and some tart cranberries. Mid palate shows a hint of age with some sweet spice and a little vegetation. The acidity is still bright and well balanced and the length is long and impressive. This wine feels beautifully integrated and very much at home being the big bold wine that it pertains to be. Will continue to age in bottle for a further 8-10 years so drink until 2024


Penfolds Grange, 1996

Appearance very similar with dark ruby red core and tawyn rim. Not as cloudy and confected with sediment when decanted. Fruit is developed on this wine, black fruits, vegetation with smoked cedar box aromas. The smokiness on this wine is more evident than the fruit giving away its age. Palate however is very different. immediate primary palate is concentrated bright red fruit of raspberries but immediately gives way to some spice and vanilla notes. the tannins are slightly tighter on this wine and the end palate whilst long and significant dominate this wine much quicker than the more paced palate development of the 1999. The acidity is very high on this wine and changes the feel of the tannins. The fruit has already started to fade and would recommend drinking in the next 3 years to before the fruit fades altogether. 


Wine Doctor's sticky dots - excerpts from FineWine Magazine issue 43

I was interested to read in my latest issue of FIne Wine (issue 43, 2014) about the wine clinic for Penfolds Grange owners having just last month tasted 3 different vintages of Penfolds Grange. This unique set up allows owners of the Iconic Penfolds Grange to get "check up" including authenticity and re-corking. 

The clinic has been going since 1991 and travels around the world but this was the first time in 5 years that the clinic was back in London. Earlier in the year, 8 wine makers had travelled around Australia offering the same service that took them 10 days and Gago comments that "By the end, we have skin peeling off our lips". London was a more reserved affair by comparison and saw just 230 bottles submitted for a check up. 

Set in the Ballroom at the Berkeley Hotel in Knightsbridge, London was blessed to have Peter Gago, head wine maker of Penfolds there to check with his team every bottle submitted. The initial test is simple and visual, based on ullage, ie how much wine has evaporated from the bottle. If the levels are still very high, the bottle will be deemed healthy and denied treatment, too low and the bottle will be judged beyond redemption and owners set off with a white dot on their bottle and a tear in their eye. 

Numerous methods are employed to extract the cork from the bottle including a 2 pronged device and the use of 2 T screw bottle openers that gently lift the cork from the bottle. About 2% is then tasted to check for authenticity. Once approved, on this visit to London, the clinic had the 100 point 2008 Grange to top up with. The remaining gap is filled with inert gas to prevent any further deterioation of the wine and recorked. It is then labeled with the date of reconditioning and a unique reference number is added that Penfolds are able to trace. 

Peter Gago comments that surprisingly, white dots, although intially dreaded, often get welcomed by their owner as effectively they have been given permission to drink the wine. Gago admits that the clinic effectively is a run very much as an altruistic clinic. The cost of bringing the wine makers over and hosting clinics in exclusive venues like the Berkeley is staggering,  but during 2013, the wines were topped with the 2008 Grange and all of this free of charge to the select few. 

But as Gago reflects, the "Recorking Clinics" are not just about getting a nice new cork in your coveted bottle of Grange, they are also about human contact. Owners get to meet some of the winemakers, sometimes several times over the lifetime of the bottle and some of the owners have incredible stories to tell about their wine as it travels with them, sometimes through decades of life before they get to open and drink it. 

My own story is far  less impressive, but I have 1 precious bottle of 1996 remaining. This bottle was purchased from a very dear friend at a time when I knew a lot less about wine but trusted his judgement on all things wine related. He died some years later after a pretty nasty battle with Cancer and my bottle always reminds me of his fortitude and brash Northern humour in my early days of wine. On that very special of days when I choose to open my 1996 Grange and embark upon its contents, his laughter and gentle wit, will no doubt be with me in every sip. 

Ella Lister reviews her extremely fortunate opportunity to taste the 2008
It has a sweet, pruney nose, displaying sugared blackcurrants, with a fresh, green aspect and a touch of licorice, followed by black cherry on the palate, which is fresh, lovely, sweet, smooth, and above all, balanced, with an intense, tannic finish.


Further reading