This year’s “Wine Stars” series—seminars highlighting one exceptional wine presented by one exceptional person—kicked off with an inside look at Australia’s most iconic red wine, Penfolds Grange. Though the first vintages were misunderstood upon their initial release, their greatness is now recognized; the wine has been “wowing” wine drinkers ever since, said Wine Spectator editor at large Harvey Steiman, as he welcomed Penfolds’ chief winemaker, Peter Gago, to the stage.
Gago told the story of Grange while presenting the 1998 vintage (99 points, $205 on release, $433 current auction price) of the highly collectible flagship Shiraz. Since taking over as winemaker in 2002, he has worked to make Penfolds’ wines more expressive and balanced. But the winery continues to produce Grange following the same formula that the late Max Schubert used when he created it in the 1950s, employing methods such as open-top fermentors with wooden header boards to submerge the grape skins. “We are true to the original stylistic template that Max created,” said Gago, only the fourth winemaker to oversee Grange.
However, Penfolds does use different vineyards than it did under Schubert’s tenure. Gago explained that the grape selection might change from year to year, depending on the vintage.
At Penfolds’ Magill winery, a team of four men with decades of experience with Grange taste the individual barrel samples blind, so they won’t be influenced by the vineyard blocks’ history or financial factors, to determine the best possible blend. The attention to detail has paid off: The wines typically rank among Australia’s best each year and are remarkably long-lived. (Steiman noted that he has never had an over-the-hill vintage of Grange.) Gago said, “Like a good Burgundy, it fattens up in bottle, the complexities increase, and there we go from there.”