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.