Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk | AspenTimes.com
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Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk

Kelly J. Hayes
Aspen Times Weekly

Ask a Frenchman which wine best defines his nation and he may respond “Champagne,” or “Bordeaux,” naming the important regions. Pose the same question to an Italian and you might hear “Barolo,” in reference to a certain style of wine. An Argentinean likely will answer “Malbec,” suggesting the country’s most widely planted grape, while an American might just say, “red.”

But ask any Australian what wine best represents their country and nine out of 10 – make that 99 out of 100 – will say “That’s easy, mate. Why, Grange of course.”

This past Saturday, May 1, the 2005 vintage of the iconic Penfolds Grange was released to the public. I am attending the 2010 Tasting Australia food and wine event in Adelaide, South Australia, so I just happened to be at the right place at the right time to preview the standard-bearer for the Australian wine industry.

Grange was first made in 1951 by Max Schubert, winemaker at Penfolds Magill Estate Winery outside of Adelaide. He was attempting to create, as he later wrote, “An Australian red wine capable of staying alive for a minimum of 20 years and comparable with those produced in Bordeaux.”

Rather than use Bordeaux varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, which were in limited supply, he determined that his new wine would be made from Syrah, or Shiraz, as the Australians call the grape from the famed Hermitage region of France’s Rhône River Valley.

The grape was readily available. In fact, Penfolds was growing tons of it at the winery at Magill Estate and other sites. Selecting the best grapes he could find, and employing winemaking practices that are in use to this very day, including a 12-day fermentation process and aging exclusively in new American oak barrels, he made 160 cases of an experimental wine he called the Grange Hermitage.

Schubert was convinced that he was making wines of character, but his superiors, the Penfolds board of directors, who were based in Sydney, did not like the experimental wines that Max was making with company resources. In 1956 he was ordered by the powers that be to stop production. One board member sneered that the Grange Hermitage was ” a concoction of wild fruits and sundry berries with crushed ants predominating.”

Showing pluck and perseverance, traits prized by Aussies, Schubert continued to make his wines in secret. For three years, from 1957 through 1959, he produced wines that have since become known as the vintages of “The Hidden Grange.”

Following another tasting in 1960, Penfolds’ board relented and funds were made available, allowing Schubert to make his wine. Awards began to pile up and future tastings showed that Grange was indeed a special wine, one that had, as Schubert had hoped, the ability to age like the great wines of Bordeaux. In 2001, a bottle of the 1951 Grange Hermitage sold for $52,000 Australian dollars.

Add it up and you have the perfect ingredients for a legend. Innovation, determination and vindication. It is no wonder that Penfolds Grange has become a national icon.

Ah, but how good is the wine?

My tasting of the 2005 Penfolds Grange (pressure from European Union forced the company to drop Hermitage from the name in 1989) took place in the Magill Estate Winery, where the wine was originally conceived and has been made for more than a half-century. Peter Gago, Penfolds chief winemaker and just the fourth man in the history of Grange to oversee its production, conducted the tasting. As I tried to present a professional front, the analogy that kept coming to my mind was Lambeau and Lombardi.

But once opened and poured, I could instantly grasp the quality of the wine. Deep and dark in the glass, it swirled like velvet. Bringing the wine to my nose I inhaled a dizzying array of fruits, berries, leather, a mixture of both vanilla and chocolate. In the mouth there was silk. Big, rich, deep flavors made me hungry for a rare ribeye. And no doubt, it will get better as the years progress.

This edition of Grange launches with a $549 price tag in Australia. That has caused eyebrows to arch given the tenor of the times.

“Is it worth it?” I asked its maker.

“Perhaps not,” said Peter with unabashed honesty. “But the 2004 may have been worth $1,500 a bottle. It has received near-universal high marks. And that price is not set by us; it is set by the market.

“What you are paying for isn’t just the wine in the bottle,” he continued. “You’re paying for a record spanning 50 years of a wine that has proven its ability to age.”

That, along with pluck and perseverance.


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