Penfolds Grange is unquestionably Australia’s most famous red wine and has reached celestial heights in terms of adoration and expectation. From its experimental inception in 1951 by winemaker Max Schubert, Grange has been lovingly crafted to shine as a uniquely Australian wine of longevity, power and class.
“Grange’s aesthetic quality and remarkable aging potential is the stuff of legends.”
Andrew Caillard MW
In line with the 20-year celebration of the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival, an event was arranged that could commemorate the significance of this anniversary. Two bottles each of Penfolds Grange 1971 and 1976 (tested by the clinic in 2011) were obtained from a close friend of the owner of my workplace. The extensive museum Italian wine list was pulled out for perusal. It was like being a kid in a candy store as eight other wines were chosen that hail from Italy which would sit alongside Australia’s most iconic wine. The wines selected are classified in the upper echelon of quality and come from the most respected producers. These include rare wines such as Ceretto Bricco Rocche Barolo Brunate 1990, Produttori del Barbaresco Montefico 1985, Mastrojanni Brunello di Montalcino Schiena d’Asino 1990, Tedeschi Amarone della Valpolicella ‘Monte Olmi’ 1991, Castello di Ama Chianti Classico 1997 and even the famous Toscana IGT wine Antinori’s Tignanello 1985 and Bolgheri’s inimitable Tenuta San Guido Sassicaia DOC 1987.
In total, the combined age of these wines is over 200 years. This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and one that I feel privileged to have been able to pour at. Below is a visual diary of the evening with small commentary made as to the condition of the wines.
CASTELLO DI AMA Chianti Classico 1997
Grapes: 80% Sangioveses, 8% Canaiolo, and 12% Malvasia Nera and Merlot. This wine is the perfect example of how wonderful an expertly crafted Chianti Classico can age. The entire red-grape crop was harvested between September 25 and October 9, substantially in advance of the usual period. The wine underwent malolactic fermentation and maturation for 12 months in French barriques, of which 40% were new. Alcohol 13.20%.
I rarely get the chance to try an aged Chianti and so to try this and see how beautifully it ages, how young it still looks, was a revelation. It teased with its velvety smooth palate and a continued presence of sour cherry fruits now overlaid with herbs. It was long on the finish with that refreshing acidity maintaining its undeniable youth.
MASTROJANNI Brunello di Montalcino ‘Schiena d’Asino’ 1990
The vineyard Schiena d’Asino is situated on sparse lands with very low yields. The name comes from the landscape of the hill (shaped like the back of a donkey [asino]).
The wine is vinified in small steel tanks for 15-20 days after which is undergoes aging in small French Allier oak barrels for 3 and a half years. The wine completes its refinement in bottle for 9-12 months prior to release.
Nicholas Belfrage MW once stated that this single vineyard Riserva, Schiena d’Asino was ‘to die for…the 1990 was one of the finest Brunellos I have ever tasted‘.
This wine needed a lot of time and was super introverted after initially opening it. The overriding element on this wine was that of dried porcini mushrooms, with other earthy complexities, a long, savoury finish and an understated elegance. Polished tannins with a cocoa-like texture to the finish.
TEDESCHI Amarone della Valpolicella ‘Monte Olmi’ 1991
Monte Olmi is the name of this single vineyard cru in the heart of the classic Valpolicella zone. The vines today are on average thirty-five years old and less-densely planted than most surrounding plots. The wine is aged in large oak botti. The Tedeschi family have been making wine in the area for five generations since 1824.
The 1991 season may not have been considered as highly as 1990, but for this wine and considering it is an Amarone that has the legs to cellar for this long, I did not see a poorer vintage hindering its performance against the other wines. The nose was lifted with orange peel twists, the palate seamless with super fine tannins and an iron-like persistence.
ANTINORI Tignanello 1985, Toscana IGT
Grapes: 80% Sangioveses, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Cabernet Franc
Tignanello arises from the Chianti Classico zone. Its first vintage was in 1970 where they used Cabernet Sauvignon in the Sangiovese blend instead of classic white grapes, as well as aging the resultant wine in small oak. For this, the following vintage was declassified from Chianti Classico into Toscana IGT and has not changed back since. The wine is only made in the best vintages, 1985 clearly being one of them with ideal conditions throughout the region.
The main two grape varieties were vinified separately, with maceration lasting 12 days for the Sangiovese, and 14 days for the Cabernet at a temperature not in excess of 29’C. After the malolactic fermentation was completed the wine was then transferred to a mix of oak barriques (60% Troncais, 30% Slovonian and 10% Nevers and Alliers) for 22 months. It remained for an additional 18 months in bottle prior to its release on the market. Alcohol: 12.90%.
This Super-Tuscan is gloriously mellow with salami scents, a distinct Cabernet thread of flavour coming through and a long, delicate, fine and slightly nutted finish. Another wine which looks like someone ten years younger.
TENUTA SAN GUIDO Sassicaia 1987, Bolgheri Sassicaia DOC
Grapes: 70-80% Cabernet Sauvignon with 20-30% Cabernet Franc
A wine that had Cabernet Sauvignon as its primary component represented a radical shift from the traditional Tuscan and Piedmontese varietals of Sangiovese and Nebbiolo. Marchese Mario Incisa della Rochetta decided to plant Cabernet Sauvignon as he saw it was an area similar to Graves in Bordeaux in France. Similarly, the earth at the estate gave Sassicaia its name, which means “stony ground” in the Tuscan dialect.
This wine had the most beautiful and vibrant colour, again youthful, with a rich and complete palate of blackcurrant and black cherry flavours but in a really restrained way. Sassicaia is neither modern nor traditional in style. Sassicaia is simply Sassicaia. It has created a school of its own, has its own DOC Bolgheri Sassicaia, and was the first wine to be called a Super-Tuscan by Nicholas Belfrage MW. This wine exemplified the success that can be had from someone taking a risk over what the majority were doing in their vineyards and cellars. These two wines were made by the same famous winemaker, Giacomo Tachis. He was the spirit and the brains behind Italy’s most celebrated wines: In addition to Sassicaia and Tignanello, he also made Solaia for the Antinori family, and Santadi’s Terre Brune in Sardegna.
PRODUTTORI DEL BARBARESCO Barbaresco Riserva ‘Paje’ 1985
Cantine Produttori del Barbaresco were not only the first winery to produce the first official bottle of Barbaresco, they were also a great cooperative which changed the course of Italian winemaking. They understood at a very early time, the importance, quality and value of vineyard-designated crus.
This small vineyard stands at the point where the main ridges of Moccagatta and Rabaja’ meet the secondary ridge of Secondine. Its lovely ampitheatre is almost entirely covered by vines at an altitude that ranges from 220 to 260 metres above sea level, enclosed by the Porto and Asili municipal roads.
Nebbiolo from Paje’ has hard tannins that lend austerity to its Barbaresco but also a finesse and elegance that are reminiscent of Asili or Rabaja’. The 1985 vintage was deemed outstanding and much better than the previous two 1984 and 1983. Barbaresco received great praise this year with some proclaiming the 1985 Gaja Barbarescos were “the finest wines ever made in Italy“.
This Paje’ had the most variation amongst the bottles, but the best two were chosen in the end which displayed cedary incense and dried herb characters with an extended black cherry finish. Palatable but already beginning to loosen at the seams.
PRODUTTORI DEL BARBARESCO Barbaresco Riserva ‘Montefico’ 1985
Barbaresco is not only the village that gives its name to the wine; it is also the heart of the Barbaresco wine-growing region. This is where the great Barbaresco wines were born and where the history of the region is still maintained.
The Montefico vineyard is an 8.4 acre plot which lies east in the Barbaresco zone just north of the Montestefano vineyard and south of the Ovello vineyard. Montefico is one of the bolder Nebbiolo producing vineyards, along with Montestefano and Rabaja, which represent more powerful versions of wines that can easily age up to 20-25 years. It is one of the finest vineyards in Barbaresco and its central portion enjoys a near-perfect south-facing position that persuaded the lawyer Carlo Rocca and Professor Domizio Cavazza to become its celebrated owners.
This Montefico has remained powerful with its distinctly grippier, firmer tannins over the Paje’. There were mossy sensations and levels of forest floor sitting aside more savoury vitamin B characters and leather. Still sitting within a fine drinking window and a stunning wine to see at its age.
CERETTO Bricco Rocche Barolo ‘Brunate’ 1990
The particular Bricco Rocche estate in Castiglione Falletto where this wine was made has been owned by the Ceretto family since 1973.
Brunate is located in the La Morra subzone of the Barolo winemaking area. The overal area of Brunate is about 25 hectares; of which Ceretto own 5.6 that were planted to Nebbiolo in 1974. The vineyard is a Langhe grand cru and plots here enjoy magnificent positions, facing south at Cascina Brunate and south-east further up the slope. The altitude ranges from 239 metres to 353 metres.
The 1990 vintage provided fruit with colossal tannic power. This wine was fermented in a modern style using stainless steel vats for 7-10 days followed by a one week maceration on the submerged cap. Aging took place in small 300L barrels for 30 months. Just like the Prapo vineyard in Serralunga d’Alba, 30% new oak was used for this wine, whereas the boldest vineyard Bricco Rocche in Castiglione Falletto sees 100%.
The Brunate had such gorgeous colour and its vitality was brimming from the glass. I fell for its darker side of blackcurrant and liquorice and those wonderfully masculine tannins that had me pinned down with their fantastic grip. What a ride.
PENFOLDS Grange Hermitage 1971
The 1971 vintage was a wine that sold at $11.90 on release but was also discounted under $10.00. Nowadays it can easily fetch prices up to $1500.
“If you had to point to a wine which fulfilled all the ambitions of Grange, it would have to be 1971,” said Max Schubert in 1993. “It was a great wine from a vintage that was great throughout South Australia.” It created a sensation when it won gold and topped its class at the Gault-Millau Wine Olympiad in Paris in 1979, beating the best Rhone Valley wines.
1971 saw the Grange made up of 87% Shiraz and 13% Cabernet Sauvignon sourced from Kalimna, Barossa Valley, Magill, Clare Valley and Coonawarra. The original alcohol was stated as 11.50%, but analysis reveals it is 12.30% alc. v/v.
My experience with older Grange was non-existent prior to this tasting. I have only ever had the 2005 Grange pass my lips in a tasting alongside the same vintage of Hill of Grace when working at Henschke in 2010. Suffice to say, in its youth, I preferred the HOG. However, tonight was a revelation for me as I had no idea as to the power of the fruit and its ability to age so gracefully. Sure, I had heard whispers and had wine people gloat in front of me of their numerous encounters, but the only way I can make an informed decision is by experiencing it myself. The 1971 Grange was my wine of the night and shone above the rest in its elegance with cool blueberry, blackberry fruits, light spices, gentle balsamic notes and a plush palate weight against the smooth tannins.
PENFOLDS Grange Hermitage 1976
The 1976 vintage was the first Australian wine to cost $20 upon release. Vintage conditions displayed ideal weather throughout, resulting in big, rich, concentrated wines.
“Huge, thick, unctuously textured, with extraordinary concentration but perfect harmony among all of its elements, this is a prodigious Grange.”
Robert Parker Junior, 100/100 points
This Grange was made with 89% Shiraz and 11% Cabernet Sauvignon. I picked up ripe black currants with distinctly more herbal edges and a significant jump in oak influence. It almost appeared 10 years younger than the 1971 and still too bulky in style for my personal liking. It is quite easy to see why Mr Parker gave it the kudos he did, for it is a thicker, blacker, blockier style that is in line with the wines he gives the big scores to. Not to generalise too much, but I prefer a wine with understated elegance, subtle nuances and a little mystery. For this, I chose the 1971 to be my date and we spent the rest of the night having fun and exploring the complexities within one another. Good times. Good times.