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Grange Hermitage: Balance with Power

Posted: Oct 3, 2008 4:19pm ET

I went to an amazing tasting of Penfolds Grange last night in London, organized by Marlon Abela, the well-known restaurateur who owns such high-end eateries as The Greenhouse (a Wine Spectator Grand Award winner), Morton’s Club and Umu in London as well as A Voce in New York. Abela is a long time collector of the famous Australian red and he said that he wanted to organize the tasting of 22 vintages to prove that Grange was as collectible as any of the other great, mega-buck New World wines.

“I don’t understand how Grange can sell for a fraction of the price of some of the top California Cult wines or any of the other New World collectibles,” he said while sitting next to me at The Greenhouse, where the tasting took place.

Serena Sutcliff, the head of Sotheby’s Wine Department, was sitting across the table from me, and added how Grange is a difficult wine to find in auctions because it is a "a wine for drinkers." She said that "most people who have it don’t sell it."

The vintages in the tasting included most of the classics from 1955 to 2002. The 1955 is apparently what put Grange on the map, even though the first commercially available one came out in 1952. The 1955 showed fabulous complexity on the nose and palate and layered soft tannins. It reminded me of a Côte-Rôtie 30 years younger, with its plum and chocolate character that turned to meat and game. It was made from 90 percent Shiraz and 10 percent Cabernet Sauvignon. I scored it 98 points, non-blind.

Some people preferred the 1960 that followed, which has a slightly more refined character to it. It was more polished than the 1955. I gave it 95 points, non-blind. The 1962 was bigger and richer than the 1960, with loads of dried dark fruits and raspberries, like a dry Port. 97 points, non-blind. It only had 12.2 percent alcohol, unlike the others, which were pushing 14.

We worked through the 1960s and then the 1970s. My favorite wine of the tasting was the 1971 -- a long-time favorite of Abela's, too. The wine was so rich, opulent and sexy with chocolate, carmalized bananas, licorice, crushed fruits on the nose and palate. It was full and soft yet restrained and balanced. It was a perfect wine that night. 100 points, non-blind.

Penfolds' chief winemaker, Peter Gago, came to the tasting, and he, of course, gave the rundown on the winemaking and some of the details, even legends, of certain vintages. But some of the most revealing things that he said were about the style of wine they were searching for.

"Some people expect to see Grange as Australia's most opulent wine, or most concentrated or biggest, but we are not looking for that," he said. "We are trying to find the balance. That's our pursuit."

Balance with power was an underlying theme throughout the tasting, as the dozen or so tasters worked their way through the lineup of wines over dinner. It was impressive how the wines changed in the glass as well.

I found with the old wines that first impressions were often slightly wrong . The most rich and opulent wines were often later surpassed in quality by the more reserved and balanced ones.

Grange is clearly one of the great collectible wines in the world. And it has the track record and quality to prove it. I will give you full tasting notes on Monday.

Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  October 3, 2008 6:32pm ET
Glad you enjoyed these wines, Jim. I know you have had some of them before, but it's pretty impressive how every vintage has something special to offer, and they're still very much alive. Gago's point about balance is key. Many other Aussie wines and many current California wines are much gaudier or more opulent, but few have the extraordinary range of flavor in an approachable package. I look forward to your notes.
costa mesa, ca —  October 3, 2008 6:34pm ET
James,Had the '98 Grange about a year ago. It was pretty shut down. Any developments?
James Clary
United States —  October 3, 2008 10:09pm ET
James - Love Grange, and the 1982 has always been one of my favorites and underrated, IMHO. How did you score the '82?
Matt Scott
Honolulu HI —  October 4, 2008 12:20am ET
Gotta love the Grange! I'm curious as to what you thought of the '90. I had it on my last birthday and was left speechless, however, it has a long life ahead.
Kirk R Grant
Bangor, Maine —  October 4, 2008 1:11pm ET
Wow...was this for industry people only? I bet Maynard Keenan would have liked to have been at this tasting with you.
Farhana Haque
Queens, NY —  October 4, 2008 6:31pm ET
Wow! Just went through the ratings and realized I was lucky enough to have had the highest rated Grange about 2 years ago (the 1986). Wasn't a big Shiraz fan...until then!
Bill Mccuskey
Wilmington, NC —  October 4, 2008 8:52pm ET
James,As mentioned any comments on the 98 at this time?
Massimo Marinucci
Pound Ridge, NY —  October 5, 2008 3:01am ET
"I don't understand how Grange can sell for a fraction of the price of some of the top California Cult wines or any of the other New World collectibles," he said while sitting next to me at The Greenhouse, where the tasting took place.

Comments such as this always puzzle me, especially when coming from supposedly intelligent people. This guy organized this tasting to prove that one of his favorite wines is a collectible and it should cost more? I think it's a dumb notion on a good day but, in this economic environment and with prices heading south, it sounds even more stupid.And besides, if he's sitting with huge stockpiles of Grange he's looking to unload, his motives sound quite dubious.
October 5, 2008 6:05am ET
Has anyone tried the 1983 recently? I have heard that it is a top vintage but all the ratings I have seen indicate a 90 pointer- a fine score but not outstanding. Thank you.
James Suckling
 —  October 5, 2008 8:22am ET
Massimo. Would you mind calming down please? Abela doesn't need to unload his stocks of Grange at the moment, even under these dreadful economic conditions. I think he was speaking primarily about price comparison between Screaming Eagle and Grange.
James Suckling
 —  October 5, 2008 8:25am ET
Eric. I gave the 1983 93 points in the tasting. I loved the black olive, blackberry and licorice aromas and flavors. It was full and very velvety textured on the mid-palate and loads of dried fruit and prunes on the finish. I think it needs drinking though because it turned slightly dry with a little time in the glass.
Steve Lenzo
PHX, AZ —  October 5, 2008 10:13pm ET

Did yoou taste the 1990? Which was the WS wine of the year if I'm not mistaken. I have 5 bottles left of my 6 pack and was wondering how its holding up.
October 5, 2008 11:49pm ET
Thank you James. Will open it this Friday in a 1983 "Global Horizontal" along with a 1983 Dunn Howell Mountain and a 1983 Chateau Margaux.
Robert Zalums
Sydney, Australia —  October 6, 2008 3:36am ET
1971 Grange. To think, I bought 2 bottles of this wine upon release (as a student) for $11.99. About 1977 I think? Sadly, long since drunk. Hugely enjoyed ... but how the prices have risen!
Marc Robillard
Montreal,Canada —  October 6, 2008 8:33am ET
A little off topic here James. Solaia 2005. Is it really almost doubled in price? It is listed at $285 in one of the latest addtitons while I bought the 2004 for $160 Canadian.Is the Bordeaux trend giving others ideas?ThanksMarc
James Suckling
 —  October 6, 2008 8:39am ET
Marc. I will look into it. I am not sure that the ex-cellar price has increased that much. Most wine producers in Tuscany have held the line with their pricing considering the weakness of the dollar and the melt down of the global economy.
Tony Wood
Brighton U.K. —  October 6, 2008 5:30pm ET
Hi James, With regard to Grange the 2001 rocks!, just a little meanon your rating perhaps? What about the Bin 60A ? Not a mention.By the way Marc has a point my supplier of Solaia has confirmedthe upward trend, I paid 85Euros for the 2003,110Euros for 2004 and 135 Euros for 2005. I am informed the cost of the 2006 and 2007 will make my eyes water.
Daryl Groom
Healdsburg, California —  October 7, 2008 1:01am ET
James I got to taste the 1955 in NY in 1991. It was a darling of the tasting but the three wines that rocked were the 1971, 1976 and the 1986. One of my other personal favorites was the 1983. Drought, bush fires then flood year, but the wine is very concentrated. Very much looking forward to your notes as I still have a nice collection and its nice to know how they are performing without opening them all.
October 12, 2008 12:08am ET
Hello James,A very accurate description of the 83 Grange. Decanted for 75 minutes; the tannins soft but slightly dry- not too disimilar to the Dunn, except that the Dunn had a less complicated bouquet. The Margaux was the class of the evening. Also opened a 1983 Domaine de Chevalier- if someone needs a reasonably priced 1983, this is a good choice- much lighter in style than the other wines, but very delicious. The Palmer was nice, but I have always found that the depth and complexity rarely match the price- the 1989 is a better vintage for them.

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