Saturday, April 04, 2009


Back in 1950, Penfold's chief wine maker, Max Schubert, travelled to Europe on a wine study tour. During his time in Bordeaux, he discovered the the magic of that region's red wines and how well they aged, some for 40 or 50 years and more.
At that time the Australian wine market consumed less than 10% table wine with the majority being sherry and port.
He returned to Australia determined to make a Bordeaux style table wine that would age gracefully.

Practicality dictated he use Shiraz rather than Cabernet Sauvignon and American oak instead of French for maturation. That affinity between Shiraz and American oak began an Australian school of winemaking which continues today.
He also used a primitive form of refrigeration to mimic the slow fermentation that was typical of a Bordeaux winery in October but definitely not that of an Australian winery in late summer.
In late 1956, a tasting was arranged of the first six vintages of the wine for the Penfold's board, senior management and wine identities in Sydney.
It was a disaster.
The Grange Hermitage (named after the French Region where Shiraz (Syrah) dominates) was ridiculed and its maker humiliated. Prevailing opinion was that it was too extracted and 'big', like a dry port. With a cellarful of what management considered unsaleable wine, Schubert was ordered to cease production just before the 1957 vintage.
But Schubert was determined to prove his critics wrong, and decided to keep making Grange in defiance of Penfold's directive. The 1957, 1958 and 1959 vintages are the so-called "hidden" Granges, made in secret, without new oak as its purchase would have exposed his subterfuge.
When the 1955 won Grange's first gold medal in 1962 the wine was set on its path to Australian and world-wide recognition.
Little more than a year after his death, U.S. Wine Spectator magazine also recognized Grange, naming the 1990 vintage its 1995 Wine of the Year and in 1999 including Grange in its top 12 wines of the 20th century.
For a more detailed account of the Grange story click:
Shiraz has had its ups and downs in Australia, but Schubert demonstrated convincingly with Grange that this variety is the most natural red-grape companion to the South Australian climate. In every vintage, no matter how difficult, Penfold's winemakers can find enough Shiraz of the right style and quality to make a commercial quantity of Grange.
The "Hermitage" nomenclature was dropped after the 1989 vintage as part of the Australian wine industry's compliance with EU law not to use names describing local wines with a foreign regional connotation.

Today a bottle of 1951 Grange, if you can find one as only 1800 bottles were made, will set you back $A55,000. A vertical tasting selection from 1951 to 2003 recently sold for $A185,000. Back in the late 1960's and early 1970's I saved up and bought one bottle of Grange a year until buying houses and raising a family took priority. Then it cost about 25% of a weekly wage. It still does today. But most people buy it for investment rather than drinking and this inflates the price of some older vintages outrageously. Over the years I have drunk all mine and determined in my old age that I would rather buy 15 bottles of $20 wine than one $300 bottle. But for my 50th birthday a good friend bought me a bottle of the 1990 vintage. We sort of assumed co ownership and have discussed a few times in the last year or two whether we should send it to auction. Indications are we would get around $600! But with the co driver's 50th birthday in April along with the 63rd of the co owner, we decided to drink it!!!!!! This is from the current Penfold's tasting notes: History will record 1990 as one of the great Australian vintages of our generation.The 1990 Penfolds Grange is one of the best yet, with the potential to eventually rival the classic vintages of 1955, 1962 and 1971. Sourced from premium vineyards in South Australia, the 1990 Penfolds Grange is predominantly Shiraz (Hermitage) with a small percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon. With its solid structure and strength of character it will age gracefully and should be carefully cellared for a bare minimum of 10 years, and preferably 25 to 30. Medium-full red/purple colour. It is a beautifully weighted and concentrated wine combining very intense, ripe plummy aromas with smoky vanillin oak. Already, the wine is supremely complex and harmonious, with ripe plum and coffee-like luscious fruit, integrated oak, fine tannins and excellent length. Alc/Vol: 13.5%.

And from Robert Parker in 1995: The 1990 is the greatest, most complete and richest Grange since the monumental 1986. It rivals the 1986, 1982, 1981, and 1980 as the finest "young" Grange. The wine's opaque purple color is followed by a sweet nose of jammy black-raspberry and cassis fruit intermingled with scents of minerals, licorice, and toasty oak. Extremely full-bodied, with that layered, multi-dimensional feel that sets a truly profound Grange apart from just an outstanding one, the wine is fabulously concentrated, unctuous, and with a finish that lasts over 50 seconds. It is oh, so young, and in need of 5-10 years of cellaring. It should last through the first two decades of the 21st century.
The three of us could only concur with the above assessments and agreed it was one of the best red wines we have ever drunk. It went perfectly with a char grilled whole fillet steak (rare) which was then thickly sliced and served with horse radish, potato casserole and slow roasted roma tomatoes garnished with freshly chopped basil.

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