So what is it about Grange, why is it so special? The first thing to consider is reputation, based on track record. Grange has been produced every year since 1951. Good bottles from the 1950s and 60s are still marvellous drinking. It is accepted that Grange does not even begin giving its best until 12-15 years from vintage. Grange has been regarded as Australia's finest wine, without rival, for at least 30 years.
Since the 1970s Grange has led the way in building a strong international image for Australian wine. Then comes consistency. Grange is made each year in very limited quantities (in some years less than 3000 dozen) from a certain style of ripe, intensely-flavoured fruit grown on Penfolds' own vineyards and bought from independent growers. Because Penfolds picks and chooses, with absolute ruthlessness, from a range of vineyards in various districts, the impact of vintage variation is minimised. This has led to general acceptance that Grange is the most consistent of the world's great wines. In the winery, the intrinsic quality of Grange is protected at every stage. Grange occupies millions of dollars worth of the best new, small (300 litre) American oak barrels for 18- 20 months before bottling.
Most reds come on the market two years out from vintage, but Grange is released as a five-year-old. This allows the wine's elements time for initial melding and is a direct result of the early rejection of Grange. Then there is value. Penfolds sells Grange only once. After that the market sets the price. But leaving rarity aside, the value attached to Grange is a function of quality and longevity: the fact that Grange has a 20 to 50 year lifecycle, with the best vintages - those that reach the highest peaks or live the longest - leading the way. In a roundabout way, this brings us to what may ultimately be the most significant factor in Grange achieving the status it enjoys today: the tenacity and vision of its creator, Max Schubert, who died in 1994 after a 60-year career with Penfolds, including 27 years as Chief Winemaker (1948-1975) and another 20 as 'winemaker emeritus', with an office at Magill Estate.
In 1950 Schubert went to Europe to study sherry-making in Spain. The inspirational part of the trip, however, came after this, further north, at vintage time in Bordeaux, where the brilliant 35-year-old winemaker both saw how Bordeaux reds were made and tasted great examples of what they delivered as 40 and 50 year olds. It's important to note that Australians drank port and sherry almost exclusively at this time. Table wines accounted for less than 10 per cent of the market. Today it's the other way round, and, of course, the market is enormously larger.
Schubert returned determined to make an Australian wine in the Bordeaux mould, a wine that would take at least 20 years to reach its peak. He began work immediately, using shiraz (rather than the cabernet sauvignon of Bordeaux) and American (rather than French) oak barrels for maturation. While these choices were practical, they were also inspired. Schubert recognised the remarkable affinity between shiraz and American oak and in the process almost alone established a school of Australian winemaking that flourishes to this day. His other great innovation was to mimic the cold conditions of a Bordeaux winery in October by using a simple form of refrigeration to slow Grange's fermentation.
Use of refrigeration, of course, is almost universal in winemaking today. Fast forward to late 1956, and Grange's darkest days begin. A tasting is arranged of the first six vintages for the Penfolds board, senior management and wine identities in Sydney. Schubert is not present. It is a disaster. Far from being understood, Grange is ridiculed and its maker humiliated. With a cellarful of what management considered unsaleable wine, Schubert is formally ordered to cease production just before the 1957 vintage. Licking his wounds over in Adelaide, but with his vision undimmed, Schubert determines to prove his critics wrong, and decides to keep making Grange in defiance of the directive. The 1957, 1958 and 1959 vintages are the so-called 'hidden' Granges, made in secret, without new oak as its purchase would have exposed his disobedience.
The story demonstrates dramatically how revolutionary Grange was. Prevailing opinion at the time was that it was too extracted and 'big', like a dry port. The wine had its supporters, and there were also those who wanted to wait and see, but their voices were drowned out. With wine, however, time tells, and as early Granges matured further their quality was recognised and production was, officially, resumed with the 1960 vintage.
When the 1955 won Grange's first gold medal in 1962 the wine was set on its path to Australian and world-wide recognition. Schubert had no false modesty. He was humble, but he knew the significance of what he had achieved - stubbornly and against the odds - in creating an unbroken chain of Grange vintages. Little more than a year after his death, U.S. Wine Spectator magazine also anointed Grange, naming the 1990 vintage its 1995 Wine of the Year and in 1999 including Grange in its top 12 wines of the 20th century. It is also true that Schubert lives on in Grange and the family of Penfolds reds he developed. He felt both bemused and flattered by the prices being paid for Grange, especially the 1951, because he gave away virtually all 1800 bottles!
Shiraz has had its ups and downs in Australia, but Schubert demonstrated convincingly with Grange that this variety is the most natural red-grape companion to the South Australian climate. To this day there are years (1995, for example) in which no cabernet reaches Bin 707 standard, but in every vintage, no matter how difficult, Penfolds winemakers can find enough shiraz of the right style and quality to make a commercial quantity of Grange.
*Note* Penfolds changed the name from Grange Hermitage to Grange after the 1989 vintage.
About Penfolds Grange
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8 July 2009
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