Granges make for a rewarding tasting
THE sixth Penfolds Rewards of Patience tasting, held once every three years, was staged at various venues in South Australia towards the end of last year. In common with previous tastings, three overseas wine writers joined three Australian counterparts, with Andrew Caillard again saddled with the job of collating the panel’s tasting notes and ultimately writing TheRewardsof Patience book (running to 300 pages).
No other wine producer in the world could stage an event such as this.
The overseas judges were Britain’s Neil Beckett (editor of TheWorldof FineWine magazine), Ch’ng Poh Tiong ( TheWineReview , Singapore) and Josh Greene from New York (editor of WinesandSpiritsMagazine ). The Australian contingent was Huon Hooke ( TheSydneyMorningHerald ), author Campbell Mattinson and, for the fifth time, this writer.
Peter Gago, the perpetual-motion brilliant speaker, wine educator and winemaker, led the Penfolds side, making crucial calls on the all too many wines with cork-related problems, sometimes opening four bottles in a not always successful attempt to find a good one.
The tasting of 400 Penfolds wines followed the pattern of previous events but there was one big break with tradition: each flight included all the red wines that had been bottled but not yet released.
So, for example, we were treated to a vertical tasting of 54 Granges, starting with the ’ 52 and finishing with the unreleased ’ 03, ’ 04 and ’ 05 vintages. Needless to say, this was the high point of the four days, with so much to discuss (and enjoy) that the tasting started at 9am, with only a short morning tea break, and continued until 2.45pm.
My top wines (which largely, though not precisely, reflect the overall panel opinions) were ’ 52, ’ 53, ’ 56, ’ 62, ’ 63, ’ 66, ’ 67, ’ 71, ’ 72 (a great bottle), ’ 76, ’ 85, ’ 86, ’ 88, ’ 90, ’ 91, ’ 92, ’ 94, ’ 96 (the best since the wines of the ’ 50s), ’ 98, ’ 99, ’ 01, ’ 02 (the superb present release), ’ 04 and ’ 05.
Particularly since 1990, it was a pattern that largely repeated itself in the vertical tastings of Bin 28 Shiraz, Bin 389 Cabernet Shiraz, Bin 407 Cabernet Sauvignon, Bin 707 Cabernet Sauvignon and a resurgent St Henri. The vintages to come up trumps every time were ’ 90, ’ 96 and, excitingly, ’ 04 and ’ 05.
The weakest vintages across the board since ’ 96 were ’ 97, ’ 00 and ’ 03. Questions have been posed about the release of the ’ 00 Grange; it is relatively light-bodied (I emphasise relatively) and will mature well before the ’ 99 (when Grange was outstanding, for the first time 100 per cent Barossa) and ’ 01. On the other hand, it was clearly the best of the Penfolds reds of the ’ 00 vintage. Before passing on from the generally ordinary ’ 03 vintage, the reputation of Grange will in no way suffer from its ’ 03 release in March.
On a broader view, the late ’ 60s through to the end of the ’ 70s and early ’ 80s was not a great time for Australian red wines. The exception, especially for Penfolds, was ’ 71. The Grange of that year has always been accepted as one of the greatest, although from time to time technocrats have taken exception to its high level of volatile acidity.
The leap in quality through the ’ 90s and into this century partially reflects the large investment in new vineyards (the oldest 30 years, the youngest a little over 10 years) in the Barossa; the very high prices Penfolds pays for grapes from 100-year-old vines; and, possibly and intriguingly, the early signs of (beneficial) climate change.
But I cannot close without a tribute to the 1962 Bin 60A Cabernet Shiraz, which in a celestial tasting of the special bins and even more at the closing dinner at the Magill Restaurant — where it dispatched ’ 70 Chateau Latour, ’ 82 Latour and ’ 82 Chateau Mouton Rothschild — confirmed once again that it is the greatest Australian red wine made.