Wine Club: Open secret and enjoy

Shiraz grapes, the mainstay of Penfolds Grange
Shiraz grapes, the mainstay of Penfolds Grange
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Penfolds Grange can cost £500 a bottle, but think yourself lucky that its creator kept a stash, writes Christine Austin.

When the world’s largest winemaker starts pouring wine down the drain and makes an annual loss of £57m it is clear that things are not always rosy in the wine business. Currently the target of two takeover bids, Australian Treasury Wine Estates, whose brands include Wolf Blass, Rosemount and Lindeman’s as well as the upmarket Penfolds brand, is shedding staff and chasing new markets in an attempt to keep the books balanced.

One wine that undoubtedly won’t be poured down the drain, although there is the slim chance that prices may soften a little, is Grange.

Grange is Australia’s most famous wine. Originally called Grange Hermitage, it is the flagship wine in the Penfolds range and can cost up to £500 per bottle depending on vintage. It is also one of the few wines that has its own recorking roadshow, with winemaker Peter Gago setting up in London, Sydney, Singapore and other cities so that owners of Penfolds Grange can come and have their precious bottles checked and if necessary, the old corks taken out and a new cork put in the bottle. The bottles must be at least 15 years old, but as Gago says “this procedure also acts as an authenticity clinic”, allowing him to discover poor or counterfeit bottles.

Penfolds Grange started out as a “secret” wine made by Max Schubert in the 1950s. He was sent to Europe to learn about sherry production, and took a detour to Bordeaux to find out more about red winemaking. After tasting a range of wines from top estates that were 30 and 40 years old, he decided to try to make an Australian wine that could mature for 20 years. At that time in Australia it was just not possible to copy the Bordeaux recipe. There was not enough Cabernet Sauvignon planted in Australian vineyards and French oak was impossible to source, so he came up with a wine based mainly on Shiraz, aged in American oak and started tucking it away in cellars to mature. After a few years the owners of the company began to question what he was doing with all that stock and the order came down that this project must stop. They even tasted the wine and hated it, but Schubert ignored the command and secretly stashed bottles in the cellars. Eventually they were re-appraised and received tremendous praise and so a new wine was born.

The key to Penfolds Grange, named after the house where the founder of the company, Dr Christopher Penfold, had lived in 1844, is that it is made with the best grapes available in each vintage, selected from the best plots owned by Penfolds. Grapes may come from the Barossa, Clare Valley, McLaren Vale, Coonawarra and Adelaide Hills and the blend changes according to the climatic conditions of the year.

“We have been dealing with climate change over the last 100 years,” said Peter Gago in London when I tasted through several vintages of Grange. “In hot vintages we look to cooler areas such as Clare and Adelaide Hills to provide fresher flavours.” But selection for the final blend is done blind, with no reference to particular vineyards.

Grange is 100 per cent barrel-fermented, aged around 18 months in new oak and aged for five years before release. The blend varies between 100 per cent Shiraz and around 87 per cent Shiraz with the rest made up of Cabernet Sauvignon, but that blend is determined by taste only. And this is a wine that can age. At one of the recorking clinics, a bottle of 1959 Grange was brought along, still in good condition. Since this was one of the vintages produced in secret by Max Schubert after being told to stop production it was vindication that he certainly knew what he was doing.

Penfolds Grange is made in small quantities, with just 7,000 to 9,000 cases produced each year. “We could stretch out the production, but we couldn’t uphold the quality if we did,”said Gago.

I tasted through five vintages of Grange, plotting its maturation from 1986 to 2008. It was a fascinating tasting.

The 1986 (87 per cent Shiraz, 13 per cent Cabernet) was powerful and structured, still with tannin balancing the dark, sweet fruit. The 1991 (95 per cent Shiraz, five per cent Cabernet) was still vibrant with fruit, and that five per cent Cabernet really made a difference. Ripe, balanced and needing serious food to cope with a multitude of flavours, this was my favourite of the line-up.

1998 Grange (97 per cent Shiraz, three per cent Cabernet) was powerful and intense on the nose with structuring tannins and a long finish. 2004 Grange (96 per cent Shiraz, four per cent Cabernet) was savoury, with dark cherry fruit, layers of complexity and astonishing freshness. Gago thought that this was a vintage to last 60 years.

The 2008 vintage of Grange, (98 per cent Shiraz, two per cent Cabernet) has been given 100 per cent scores by tasters around the world which probably accounts for its £500 or so price tag. It was amazing. Gorgeous layers of fruit, still youthful but with a depth and concentration that shows it will last for decades.

I asked Gago whether he thought Schubert would recognise what his “secret” wine had become and he thought he would be pleased with the progress. “There haven’t been many stylistic changes, but perhaps more control in the vineyards.”

Penfolds Grange is probably traded far more than it is drunk, but if your wallet can’t stretch to Grange, then Penfolds St Henri is one to try. Made mainly from Shiraz, and without the expensive oak barrel ageing of Grange, it still ages fabulously well and has an opulence of fruit and flavour. At around £50 a bottle (Robersons, London) it provides a taste of top Australian wine.