Every wine-growing nation aspires to have a flagship wine. The best-known model is France’s famous five First Growths, which inspire awe and outlandish prices at the same time.
Australia’s most iconic wine come from Penfolds. It used to be called Grange Hermitage but now it’s known simply as Grange, named after the cottage on the original property Dr Christopher Rawson Penfolds founded in 1844. Penfolds produces only 9,000 12-bottle cases a year, about half the average production of a First Growth, notes chief winemaker Peter Gago.
Gago’s comments came during a masterclass of Grange and St Henri conducted in London earlier this month. He took members of the Circle of Wine Writers through the 1986, 1991, 1998, 2004 and 2008 vintages. Only the St Henri was tasted of the 2010 vintage because that year’s Grange had yet to be released.
Grange and St Henri are similar, though the latter is less well known and only about a fifth of the price. Grange was first released commercially in 1952, and St Henri a year later. Both are mostly shiraz with a touch of cabernet sauvignon – typically 3 to 7 per cent.
The big difference is the oak treatment. Grange is always matured from 16 to 18 months in 100 per cent new American oak and barrel fermented, while St Henri rests in large 50-year-old vats and is not barrel fermented. Both are wondrous wines in their own way.
Penfolds has published The Rewards of Patience since 1986. This explains the choice of the starting vintage for the tasting, which co-incided with the release of the book’s seventh edition this month. Gago calls it, in racing parlance, “the form guide to all things Penfolds”.
Andrew Caillard MW, the book’s author, said Penfolds enjoyed “a unique currency” in the world of fine wine, noting that few labels “capture the romance of another age yet fulfil the expectations of the contemporary fine wine market”.
In the book 30 of the world’s leading wine critics assess almost every vintage of Penfolds’ classic wines since 1951. It also tells the story of how Max Schubert, chief winemaker from 1948-75, dreamed of making Australia’s greatest red after a visit to Bordeaux in 1949.
He decided to focus on warm-climate shiraz grapes – hence the original name Grange Hermitage because hermitage is another name for shiraz – and using American rather than French oak.
Penfolds ships oak logs from Missouri and barrels are made on the estate in South Australia “so there is less wastage compared with importing barrels,” Gago said. He also pointed out that Penfolds uses more French oak than American because the French wood goes into its other wines.
In 1957 the management board ordered Schubert to stop making Grange after critics said the wine was undrinkable. But Schubert continued to make the wine in secret from 1957 to 1959. These vintages became known as the “hidden years”. It was the only time Grange did not receive new oak because, Gago said, “Max could hide most things but he could not disguise the cost of new oak from the accountants.”
Schubert’s faith eventually became vindicated and Grange has become easily the most expensive and well-known Australian wine.
And the wines at the tasting? In some of the Granges tasted, oak treatment was beautifully restrained. “Personally I hate over-oaked wine,” Gago said. He has been chief winemaker since 2002.
The 1986 St Henri is drinking magnificently now but the same-vintage Grange is still perhaps too young. As The Rewards of Patience notes of the 1986 Grange, this wine “will continue to mature gracefully for another two decades”.
My experience of Grange is relatively limited but in general this is a wine that should be approached after a minimum of three decades. The Granges I have most enjoyed in recent years were made in the 1970s.
Gago believes the 2004 Grange will be one of the best, on a par with the great 1953 vintage. “It will effortlessly last at least 60 years,” he said. The wine has blackberry, liquorice and nutty aromas with flavours of coffee and chocolate plus soft and silky tannins. A glorious wine.
In some years the St Henri – remember it’s only about a fifth of the price – is performing better than the Grange. Gago noted that “the 1971 St Henri is better than the 1971 Grange”. Such has been the praise for recent vintages of St Henri that the entire 2010 vintage allocated to Australia – 10,000 12-bottle cases – sold out in six days entirely through word of mouth.
Gago said one of the “secrets” of Grange was “very careful selection of fruit”. About 40 per cent of the grapes for Grange come from estate vineyards, with the rest from growers who receive a “special premium” if their fruit is chosen.
Growers whose fruit is selected tend to publicise their success, though competition is so fierce that it is rare for grapes from the same grower to be chosen more than two or three times.
Newly-made wines are tasted blind from the barrel “to limit bias” before blending, Gago said. Grange is rare in the world of fine wine in the sense that it is a multi-region blend from South Australia rather than from one site.
Because Grange ages so well, Penfolds conducts re-corking clinics around the world. People bring their aged Grange to a centre where the wine is tasted, supplied with a new cork and the level topped up with a recent vintage. A certificate of authenticity is also issued. The first clinic in China was held in Shanghai in 2003. Another is planned for Beijing later this year.
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