Rewards of Patience

It would seem a bit risky for a wine producer to show 50 consecutive vintages of its wines – and yet it’s become something of a habit for Penfolds. JOANNA SIMON got the chance to taste a half-century of Grange at its fifth Rewards of Patience tasting

Few French wine producers could put on a tasting of 50 consecutive vintages. Who in Bordeaux would willingly show tasters their 1974, 1977 and 1984? And who in Burgundy would wish to show 1965, 1968 and 1975? In fact, would anyone anywhere happily show every vintage of the last half-century to outsiders? Personally, I can think of none except for Penfolds in Australia, and its Rewards of Patience tastings.

Penfolds held its first such event in 1985, aiming to assess the current state and development potential of its red wines. Chief winemaker Don Ditter lined up 200 wines, including 29 vintages of Grange and set to with his two senior winemakers, John Duval and John Bird, and wine writer John Parkinson.

I spent three days travelling to Adelaide and back for the fifth Rewards of Patience this year, seeing the inside of six international airports, in order to spend three days tasting. I missed day one, but I wouldn’t have missed the others for the world. Nor, I am sure, would the other two overseas tasters, Ch’ng Poh Tiong from Singapore and Joseph Ward from New York. We were joined by Australian wine writers James Halliday and Huon Hooke, Penfolds’ current chief winemaker Peter Gago, and Langtons auctioneer Andrew Caillard MW, who subsequently collated all our notes for Penfolds’ fifth Rewards of Patience book. There aren’t the stocks of these wines to allow for more tasters. Indeed, as Caillard put it as we settled into Grange on the final morning: ‘This is the end of an era. It’s not going to be possible to taste such a range again.’ I was mighty glad to be there – along with nearly 400 wines.

The Selection

Fifty of the wines were Grange. In the preceding days there were 44 vintages of St Henri Shiraz, over 30 each of Bin 389 Cabernet Shiraz, Bin 128 Coonawarra Shiraz and Bin 28 Kalimna Shiraz, 28 vintages of Bin 707 Cabernet Sauvignon and 20 of Magill Estate Shiraz – complete liquid histories all. There were short histories, too: RWT Shiraz and Yattarna Chardonnay notched up five and six vintages respectively. There was even a flight to follow Grange: 11 of Penfolds’ rare Special Bin reds spanning 34 years.

These began with 1956 Bin 136 Magill Burgundy – gamey, leathery, pruney, slightly rancio Shiraz, still thrilling but now gracefully declining – and included Bin 60 and the legendary Bin 60A, two 1962 blends of Coonawarra Cabernet and Kalimna Shiraz. Bin 60A, often described as the greatest Australian red ever, is in fact a re-blend of Bin 60 with added Cabernet. On this occasion Bin 60 was showing very nearly as well as 60A – both lovely, complex and sweet-fruited. Halliday reckoned he’d had better bottles of 60A.

There was also, following the St Henri tasting on the third day, a tantalising short flight titled Block 42. This started with the one and only Grange Cabernet Sauvignon, the 1953 (up to Aus$12,000 a bottle at auction). It was still a fabulous wine, very much alive with sweet, persistent fruit. It ended four wines later with an intense, youthful 1996 Cabernet, the first to be labelled Block 42. This 4-hectare block in Barossa was planted in the late 1880s and is said to be the world’s oldest Cabernet Sauvignon-producing vineyard.

Grange (Shiraz), on the other hand, had 50 vintages to taste. Starting with 1952, the first commercial bottling after an experimental batch the year before, we tasted up to 2001, thus including three vintages yet to be released.

So what did the tasting reveal? Grange’s reputation for exceptional longevity and constancy was reinforced. There was bottle variation, inevitably, and there was vintage variation. But in half a century there have been no failures, just some lesser years. Or, as Ditter put it: ‘All Grange is good, just some is better than others.’

IN THE BEGINNING

Taking the wines in 10-year flights, the modest wines of the first decade were 1957, 1958 and 1959. These were the ‘hidden Granges’, made by Max Schubert against company orders, in secret and without new oak. The 1959 had more breadth and sweetness but, like the tarry 1957 and mushroomy 1958, a drying finish. The 1954 and 1956 – fairly light years with only about nine months’ oak ageing – were gently fading. ‘The 1956 always lacked something,’ Schubert said in 1993. The 1952 had also peaked: it had some length, but the flavours were predominantly Marmitey, raisiny and tawny port-like. The 1960 and 1961 were fleshier and rounder, the 1960 with notes of vanilla, chocolate, dried fig and mushroom, the 1961 with an eau de vie de prune nose, spicy notes and a woody oak element.

The stellar wines were 1953 and 1955. The former was still showing freshness on the nose, together with a gamey, sandalwood mellowness, autumnal, spicy fruit and overall concentration, length and balance. The 1955 had an even more vibrant bouquet, with red fruit and prune and hints of orange pomander, figs and sultanas. It didn’t deliver as much on the palate, but it was still mouthfilling. Interestingly, the alcohol was just 12.8% and 12.6%, respectively (compared with 14% today).

There were several magnificent wines in the next flight. The 1962 was just beaten by the 1963, 1966 and 1971 (although it took a second bottle of both the 1963 and 1971 to show it).

‘If you had to point to a wine which fulfilled all the ambitions of Grange, it would have to be the 1971,’ Schubert once said. It was exotically perfumed with black cherries, sandalwood and spice; rich and sweet on the palate, with fine, ripe tannins. ‘A tremendous family resemblance to the 1963,’ I noted, and yet the 1971 is 13% Cabernet Sauvignon and 12.3% alcohol; while the 1963 has no Cabernet and is 13.3% alcohol. The 1966, with 12% Cabernet Sauvignon, was also rich and exotic, with aromas of Chinese five spice and vanilla, fresh, ripe black fruit and a notably creamy texture. The 1962 had mature gamey notes alongside cassis, prune, blackberry jam, spice, wood and great length of flavour. 1965, 1968 and 1969 were the lesser wines of the group – none ever regarded as great Granges. 1967 was slightly mushroomy and dry on the finish, but still has life in it. Schubert believed it excellent and perennially underrated. 1964 and 1970, relatively light styles like 1967 (the 1970 only has 11.5% alcohol), are holding up, but warrant drinking.

Huon Hooke put it evocatively when he described the 1972–1981 group as ‘gruff wines’. None was more so than the 1975 – strappingly tannic with camphor and farmyard notes. The 1976 lived up to its reputation – massive, concentrated, ripe, multi-layered, with perfectly integrated oak and many years ahead. The 1980, though not initially viewed as a classic, showed very well, its sweet black fruit, violets and dark chocolate flavours reminiscent of young, top vintage port. The 1981 is a youngster – dense and tannic with ripe Victoria plum fruit. The 1972 is lighter: our bottle was a delight, but it’s not for prolonged cellaring. I found the 1978 somewhat rustic in flavour and tannins, but John Bird thought it one to watch for, ‘it may surprise’. 1974 and 1979 were relatively mature – not disappearing, but not improving – while 1977 was a bigger wine, but with a rather dry, grainy finish. Four bottles of 1973 were opened; all were problematic.

The Later Decades

In the next flight, 1984 was the least of the wines, and the sweeter, riper 1985 was thrown off balance by a wall of hard tannins. Otherwise, this was a strong line-up. 1990 and 1986 were outstanding, both notable for their richness of texture and depth of flavour. Close behind were the powerful, ripe, concentrated 1983 – the earliest harvested Grange ever – and 1991, a very promising wine whose only misfortune is to have succeeded the phenomenal 1990. 1988, with its distinctive floral, raspberry cordial character, and 1989, with its opulent cassis fruit, are medium-term Granges. 1987, regarded as a lighter year, was surprisingly muscular and tannic. Bird felt it was ‘one to watch’. The 1982 was aromatic with sweet, blackberry fruit, mint, cocoa and spicy oak: one to enjoy over the next decade.

And so to the last flight, a splendid finale. The 2000 (a difficult vintage) was voted as decidedly modest, but I liked its exotic if atypical nose of spiced red plums, rhubarb compote and raspberries, and its silky texture. It will be ready to drink more or less on release next year. In contrast, 1994, 1996, 1998 and 2001 are all destined to be among the greats, with the rich, savoury 1994 barely ready to drink and the 1996 still needing four or five years. The 1997 and 1999 are at the least very good, the 1997 from a slightly cooler year and the 1999 one of the unusual 100% Shiraz wines. The 1993 is at the other extreme, with more Cabernet than any other Grange (14%). Bigger and more concentrated than the open, sweet-scented, creamy, chocolatey 1992, the 1993 is one to enjoy over the next dozen or so years. The 1995, showing blackcurrant-leaf, spice, mocha and grilled walnuts, should, with its grainy tannins, go a little longer.

Peter Gago had described the event at the outset as ‘Penfolds, warts and all’. I found myself trawling through my notes desperately seeking warts and finding nothing more than tiny blemishes.

Joanna Simon is the wine correspondent for The Sunday Times.