Making it a date with Grange
On the 7th of September, 1987, I wrote a grumpy article about Grange. Why do I remember the date so well? I was on my honeymoon, and despite having worked day and night for the preceding five weeks to clear my desk, I hadn’t quite engineered a work-free holiday. So, there I was in a Sydney apartment, with tickets in one hand for a flight to France the next day, and a pen in the other. This was several years before I owned a lap-top, and if my memory is correct, this was the last article I ever had to write long-hand, without even a type-writer.
Naturally I wasn’t amused, and I was even less amused when the editor for whom I was writing told me my topic was the reason why Grange was the best wine in Australia. I didn’t think it was and I wrote down why. I called it a timepiece of a wine that hadn’t kept up with the changes: a museum-piece; an object of curiosity.
Looking back, my view has certainly altered over the years, although I have no regrets in writing what I did, which was challenged shortly thereafter by a trumpeting James Halliday in The Australian newspaper. I was 25 years of age and I had only regular experience of the Granges from 1982 back to 1971, a period that coincided with what remains by Grange standards, a pretty shoddy run. When recently I tasted all the Granges bottled to date excluding the experimental 1951 wine that was never released as a Grange, I scored these vintages at 18.0 for 1982, 16.5, 17.3, 16.2, 16.8, 17.8, 18.4, 16.7, 16.7, 15.2, 17.0 and 19.4 for the stellar 1971 wine respectively. So, I haven’t changed my opinion of those wines. Incidentally, this tasting was part of Penfolds’ Rewards of Patience tasting program for 2004, and took place in South Australia’s Parliament House.
What followed, of course, was a much better and infinitely more consistent decade in the 1980s, followed in turn by a truly stellar performance in the 1990s. Right now, on taste and quality alone, there is no better Australian wine than Grange.
There are plenty of other questions I am regularly asked about with respect to Grange.
Is it worth it?
Yes, if you can afford it.
Does it cellar as well as it is cracked up to?
Yes, possibly even better. The 1966 is drinking superbly now without a suggestion of decay. The 1971 still has time ahead of it. The 1983 will last forever, and as for the 1996! unbelievable.
How good is the 1998?
Hard to say. Excellent, no doubt, but is it a classic? Only time will tell if the wine ever comes to terms with what are indubitably some cooked and over/ultra-ripe characters, plus an unprecedented 14.5 by alcohol for Grange. It certainly tastes hot right now, and it’s the first Grange ever to do so.
Is there vintage variation?
A surprising amount, especially in the last decade. Not as much as you would see in many individual vineyard wines, but enough for vintage characteristics to really shine through. Take the 1993, which shows the same herbaceous and under-ripened characters evident in most South Australian reds of that vintage. Take the sweet, vibrant and confiture-like 1999, a classic expression of this vintage at its best. Take the drought-affected 1983, which was harvested well before the damaging rains arrived that season. If, however, you only open your Granges one at a time, there is a possibility you might think they taste quite similar, for the simple reason that over the years Penfolds’ winemakers have been unbelievably fastidious in choosing only the parcels of wine that genuinely suit the Grange style. There is such a thing as the ‘Grange stamp’, and to some degree or other, nearly all of them show it.
Is it all shiraz?
No. Other than the Granges from 1952, 1963, 1999 and 2000, all Granges have at least 1 cabernet sauvignon, most between 6-10. The vintage with the most cabernet 14 is 1993, while 1953, 1962, 1971, 1979 and 1986 each have 13.
Is it an example of the blockbuster Australian style fashioned for certain American wine writers and their followers?
Absolutely not. While the 1998 vintage weighed in at 14.5 alcohol, the next two vintages were each back to 14. Across Australia it has been the 1998, 1999 and 2000 vintages in particular that have witnessed unprecedented numbers of old vine shirazes being tailored to alcoholic strengths of 15 and well above for the US market. While I have sincere doubts about the quality of the 2000 Grange, neither it nor the 1999 vintage approach the concentration, jamminess, sweetness, portiness and microbial instability currently being feted so highly in sections of the US wine media and trade.
Did they enjoy my suggestion that perhaps the 2000 vintage should not be released as a Grange?
Not one little bit. It must be said that at the tasting I was by some margin the most critical of this wine, and that the various Penfolds winemakers past and present in attendance tended to take the view that the wine should be released, year in, year out.
Was I persuaded?
No. I still believe that irrespective of a wine’s reputation and the extent to which people enjoy collecting it, that if it’s priced around A$300 a bottle it should be very, very good. The 2000 isn’t; simple as that.
Here are my tasting notes, for what might well be the last time in my life I am ever invited to taste every single vintage of Grange released. My thanks to Southcorp for providing me with a truly unforgettable experience.
Penfolds Grange 1952
A big surprise, given its excellent length of fruit sweetness, structure and vitality. Moderately deep ageing brown red, with a complex, cedary and leathery bouquet of spicy walnuts, prunes, chocolates and old furniture. Slightly varnishy and raisined, but opens up to reveal a fine length of well preserved prunes, currants, molasses and vanilla still supported by slightly drying tannins and finished with still lively acids. Drink 1972-1982+.
Penfolds Grange 1953
Deepish brown red in colour, this extraordinarily complex and spritely old wine is perfumed with ethereal scents of smoked meats and camphor, chocolate and mocha, musk and cigarboxes, with underlying suggestions of smoked meats and oysters. Firm, with exceptional length of sumptuous earthy, leathery fruit, it’s plush and rounded, superbly balanced and supple, finishing long, savoury and very much together. Drink 1983-1993+.
Penfolds Grange 1954
Moderate browning red, ageing and varnishy, quite volatile, with underlying leather and chocolate, prune and earthy aromas. Forward and quite minty, with some lively licorice-like plum fruit of length and depth, framed by firm drying tannins. A leaner style now drying out to leave its tougher edges on show. Drink 1966-1974.
Penfolds Grange 1955
Not the best bottle I have tasted of this stellar wine, but one whose medium brick-red colour, complex bouquet and firm structure still reveal enough of the wine’s great class. Its nose is earthy and mushroomy, with suggestions of undergrowth, prunes, bitumen and dark chocolates. While it does open up with aeration, the palate has retained some strength and backbone, but is leaner and more sinewy than I have seen before, drying out to a small degree. Drink 1985-1995+.
Penfolds Grange 1957
Fullish mature red-brown, with earthy, varnishy aromas of currants, fruitcake and plums over suggestions of raspberries and cherries. Up-front and fruity, retaining some flavours of plums and currants with suggestions of licorice and mint, it dries out to a firm, hard-edged, tarry and tannic finish of baked fruits and meat. Drink 1969-1977+.
Penfolds Grange 1958
Fullish brown-red, rather madeirised and meaty, aged and tiring, with a pruney, port-like bouquet. Lean and lacking fruit, with light mushroomy characters lacking in brightness and oak, with a dried-out meaty finish of hard tannins. Drink 1966-1970.
Penfolds Grange 1959
Mature red brown in colour, with a meaty, autumnal fragrance of smoke and leather, polished old furniture and camphor. It’s plush and smooth, revealing excellent depth of meaty, spicy black fruits, with some reductive, cigarboxy complexity. Framed by firm, fine-grained tannins, it finishes with elegance and fresh acids, but not quite the length of the great vintages. Drink 1979-1989.
Penfolds Grange 1960
Moderate amber-brown with red tinges, this forward, more obvious and up-front Grange lacks great complexity and length. Its bright, smoky bouquet of jammy plums and raspberries is slightly cooked and treacle-like, while its palate features similarly dehydrated fruit qualities, lacking great depth and structure. Drink 1972-1980+.
Penfolds Grange 1961
Mature, but deep brick red with brown edges. Smoky, complex bouquet of cedar and walnut, chocolate and toffee, with varnishy suggestions of grape seeds and marc. Opulent and concentrated, the palate is deeply ripened and richly flavoured with plums and prunes, currants and leather. Long and savoury, it is supported by a robust backbone of firm tannin. Lacks the elegance and balance of the true classics. Drink 1991-2001.
Penfolds Grange 1962
A superb Grange, with a fullish browning red colour. Classical mature shiraz bouquet of smoke, leather and cigarboxes, with intense, penetrating aromas of vibrant fruit. Perfectly ripened, youthful black and red berry flavours with meaty, smoky undertones present a long, sumptuous and velvet-smooth palate framed by assertive, but silky-fine tannins. Finishes savoury, with lingering prune and currant flavours. Drink 1992-2002+.
Penfolds Grange 1963
Fullish browning red, with a meaty, smoky bouquet with a pruney, tarry aspect to its sweet aromas of chestnuts and chocolates. Powerful and assertive, retaining plenty of intensity and fruit sweetness, with intense, licorice-like flavours of plums and prunes finishing nutty and savoury with leathery complexity. There’s a metallic edge to the tannins, which detracts marginally. Drink 1983-1993+.
Penfolds Grange 1964
Very elegant and stylish, supple and fine-grained Grange in excellent condition. A fullish browning red, with assertive aromas of red plums, animal hide, coffee and chocolate, with a herbal, peppery edge. So restrained and willowy it’s almost out of style, with excellent length of fruit tightly integrated with a fine spine of mature tannins. Drink 1984-1994+.
Penfolds Grange 1965
Powerful, long-term wine with a fullish brown-red colour and a meaty, nutty and musky aroma of raisined, tarry prunes, plums and blackberries, dark chocolate and sweet malt-like vanilla oak. A little tough and blocky, but deeply and positively flavoured with a fine length of deep fruit flavours and sweetness before an astringent finish. Drink 1995-2005+.
Penfolds Grange 1966
Classic, archetypal Grange with a fully mature red-brown colour. Delicate, ethereal aromas of fivespice and sandalwood open up to reveal an underlay of black cherries, dark plums, prunes and walnuts. Plush and velvet-like, the palate has length and presence, with deep flavours of plums and dark berries interwoven with firm, drying tannins and chocolate/cigarboxy oak. Wonderful balance and harmony, with plenty of time ahead. Drink 1996-2006.
Penfolds Grange 1967
A fullish browning red, with musky, autumnal and cigarboxy aromas underpinned by sweet oak and slightly confectionary red and black berries. Beginning lively and vivacious, the palate then falls away to rather a dilute finish. Not a great vintage, but a bottle in excellent condition. Drink 1987-1997.
Penfolds Grange 1968
Lighter medium to full brown red, with a decaying bouquet of vegetal, silage-like and spiky aromas. Forward, lean and green, revealing rather an under-ripe and skinny, varnishy and vegetal palate. Drink 1976-1980.
Penfolds Grange 1969
Browning red, with a smoky, oaky bouquet of cooked and candied fruits, sweet leather and varnishy, botrytis-like suggestions of under-ripe berries. Spicy, spiky, greenish and sappy, the palate is thin, short and weedy. Drink 1974-1977.
Penfolds Grange 1970
Deepish browning red; an honest if unspectacular Grange. Its ripe, assertive aromas of red and black berries and sweet vanilla/coconut oak carry some dusty, herbal nuances. Ripe and forward, rather exotically spiced, it’s intense and rather primary, with a pleasing richness of uncomplicated red berry/plum flavours. Finishes fractionally flat and sappy. Drink 1980-1990.
Penfolds Grange 1971
A great wine at the peak of its form, with a fullish tawny red colour. Smoky, cigarboxy, spicy and earthy, its classically heady and leathery Grange bouquet suggests bonfires and seared meats beneath intense aromas of dark cherries, cassis and dark plums. An exercise in restrained power, it’s uncompromisingly rich and sumptuous, but is finely and harmoniously integrated with firm, fine-grained tannins. Finishes long, nutty and savoury. Drink 2001-2011.
Penfolds Grange 1972
Deepish, dark red-brown in colour, its smoky bouquet of chocolate and camphor, blackberries, cherries, plums and prunes reveals spicy, herbal undertones of walnut and cedar. Medium to full in body, beginning forward and intense, then drying out to a leaner, rather weedy and varnishy finish. Quite polished, too old, and lacking fruit today. Drink 1984-1992.
Penfolds Grange 1973
Moderately deep fading browning red, this thin, earthy and autumnal red reveals greenish, smoky and obviously botrytised characters of prunes and citrus fruits. Drink 1981-1985.
Penfolds Grange 1974
Rather under-ripened Grange with a full browning red colour. Pleasingly developed, its fragrant, cedary bouquet of dark chocolates, animal hide and walnut reveals a smoky underlay of tarry, raisined and meaty influences. Moderately full, lacking the structure and ripeness of the great years, it remains intact and balanced, with lingering chocolate/walnut flavours over a fine-grained spine of firm tannins. Finishes fine, if rather greenish. Drink 1986-1994+.
Penfolds Grange 1975
Full to medium browning red, a faster-maturing Grange lacking real depth and sweetness of fruit. Its ageing, smoky and autumnal aromas of prunes, licorice and meaty complexity precede a restrained, moderate palate whose fruit is drying out to leave a firm, if sappy and savoury finish lifted by sweet oak. Drink 1987-1995.
Penfolds Grange 1976
Full browning red, rather meaty, ethereal and varnishy, this may not be the best possible bottle of this wine. It’s evolved and drying out, with an intense confiture-like bouquet of blackberries, raspberries and port, while its palate is rich and ripe, but somewhat blocky and hard-edged. Assertive, powerful and savoury. Drink 1986-1996+.
Penfolds Grange 1977
Deep brick red in colour, with a spicy, meaty and gamey bouquet of prunes and dark chocolates, blackberries and plums. Sumptuously laden with a treacle-like thickness of dark berries, plums and prunes, it is a long-term wine with a firm spine of blocky tannins and a lingering savoury, fruitcake-like finish, but without the elegance and balance of the great wines. It might yet surprise me in years ahead. Drink 1997-2007.
Penfolds Grange 1978
Fullish red-brown, this fragrant, spicy and complex wine has a delicate cinnamon-like aroma of cloves and chocolate, dark black and red fruits, with sweet vanilla oak. Beginning forward and quite rich, it then disappoints on the palate with a tough, bitter finish lacking sufficient fruit to complement its substantial extract. Drink 1990-1998+.
Penfolds Grange 1979
Its amber-tinged red colour and its sweet, confectionary and varnishy aroma of boiled raspberries, plums and vanilla oak suggest an atypical Grange. Lacking richness and ripeness, it’s simple and smooth, entirely un-Grange-like and disappointing. Drink 1991-1999.
Penfolds Grange 1980
Perhaps an ordinary bottle of this wine; fullish red with brown edges in colour. Closed and rather greenish, its meaty, varnishy aroma of confection-like small berries, cherries and plums has a hint of treacle. Smooth and creamy, with green-tinged flavours of mulberries, cassis and plums, it’s obviously a cooler season Grange wrapped around by sappy tannins and sweet oak. It opens up better after time in the glass, but on reflection, this wine should have been better. Drink 2000-2010.
Penfolds Grange 1981
Fullish red, this sweet and rather spiky, confection-like red lacks Grange’s customary depth and balance. Simple red and black berry aromas and varnishy coffee/chocolate oak precede a plump, juicy and straightforward palate whose green-edged fruit is bound by sappy, but very astringent tannins. Drink 2001-2011.
Penfolds Grange 1982
Deep dark red. A fresh, youthful aroma of slightly confiture-like blackberries, raspberries and plums is enhanced with sweet vanilla oak. Fresh, youthful and primary, the palate is intense and juicy, finishing fine-grained, elegant and smoky, with lingering flavours of mulberries and cedar. A finer, more elegant and restrained Grange. Drink 2002-2012.
Penfolds Grange 1983
Deep brick red with brown edges, this smoky, meaty, cigarboxy and slightly varnishy Grange reveals a powerful bouquet of developed leathery complexity. Tannic, thickly structured and muscular, its deep, briary flavours of licorice, plums and cassis culminates in a drying, lingering finish. A powerful, still rather closed wine with a very long future indeed. Drink 2023-2033.
Penfolds Grange 1984
Fullish red-brown, with a dusty, smoky bouquet of black and red berries, vanilla/coconut oak over spicy, rather herbal undertones. Lacking a real core of fruit, quite developed and herbal, with sweet chocolate/vanilla oak lending an impression of fruit sweetness. Restrained, more elegant wine lacking the customary stamp of Grange. Drink 2004-2014.
Penfolds Grange 1985
Fullish red-brown, this robust, sinewy Grange has a sweet and varnishy bouquet of black cherries, blueberries and dark plums, with undertones of smoky, cedary oak, confection and mint. Initially plush and smooth, its very ripe expression of tarry, prune and currant-like fruit is underpinned by a powerful extract of blocky tannin. Drink 2005-2015.
Penfolds Grange 1986
Deep, slightly browning brick red, this very balanced, long-term Grange has a smoky, slightly reductive, earthy and leathery bouquet of sweet saddle leather, cedar and vanilla beneath some rather penetrative and focused blackberry, raspberry and cassis-like fruit. Very sumptuous, youthful and astringent, built on some high quality fruit underpinned by sweetly integrated oak. Drink 2016-2026.
Penfolds Grange 1987
Forward, earlier drinking Grange with a deepish red-brown appearance and a spicy, dusty, herbal bouquet of slightly cooked prunes, raisins and licorice. Beginning juicy and plummy, it then dries out leaving shrivelled fruit flavours and a rather raw and green-edged finish. Lacks great depth. Drink 1999-2007.
Penfolds Grange 1988
Deep red, with rather jammy, minty and baked aromas of sweet ripe plums, blackberries and vanilla oak. Sweet forward flavours of cassis and mulberries then leaves a slightly thin, cooked and raw finish with over-ripe undertones. Hasn’t the structure or genuine fruit ripeness of the best vintages. Drink 2000-2008+.
Penfolds Grange 1989
With a fullish, slightly browning red colour and a complex, dusty, spicy and herbal bouquet of sweet raspberry and blackberry jam, this is a more restrained, polished and Rh
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