Celebrating 150 years’ wine making last week, Penfolds turned on eleven vintages of Grange Hermitage in magnums. Magnum bottling commenced only in 1979, so this was an opportunity to appraise the lot. The tasting was held in Michael Hill-Smith’s Universal Wine Bar at 9 a.m.
My impressions of the wines from magnum were consistent with tastings from bottles of the same vintages over the past year, though, with some, I thought perhaps the magnums wines were a little less mature. Interestingly, Grange’s creator, the late Max Schubert, told me just two years ago that he’d always been against putting Grange in large containers “because it takes so bloody long to come around” even in normal bottles.
Nevertheless, magnums are scarce and fetch amazingly high prices at auction. For what they are worth, these are my impressions of vintage 1979 to 1989 ex magnum.
Penfolds Grange 1979
Just like several ordinary bottles enjoyed in recent months, a tough, very firm red showing the amazing range of intriguing flavours unique to old Grange. Without tasting magnums and bottles side by side, I fancied a sweeter, slightly fresher fruit character in the magnum. But apart from that smidgin (perhaps imaginary) of difference definitely the same wine and quite drinkable now.
Penfolds Grange 1980
To my taste a bigger and slower developing Grange than either the 1979 or 1981 flanking it. Under the tough, chewy tannins lurks sweet, ripe fruit which I suspect will permeate the wine more with time. Confirms earlier impressions of the wine. Of all vintages, this one seemed the most different to my recollection of standard-size bottles.
Penfolds Grange 1981
Less advanced than the 1979 but showing similar characteristics of sweet, aging fruit and firm, chewy tannins. Needs more time.
Penfolds Grange 1982
A wonderful Grange that’s been approachable since it was quite young because of the sweet, succulent fruit characteristic of the 1982 vintage in general. To my taste an under-rated Grange because of this easy approachability while young. The lush fruit is underpinned by quite firm tannins and the colour and richness at twelve years of age suggests to me those pundits urging us to drink it now will be proved wrong. Chateau Shanahan boasts 10 bottles of this wondrous drink and I’m in no hurry to see it off. As Len Evans pointed out at the tasting, the 1962 drank easily when young, and it’s still a wonderful wine.
Penfolds Grange 1983
The most strikingly powerful and tannic of all eleven vintages tasted — a thunder-in-the-brain red inspiring images of the drought and bush fires of the vintage that spawned it. But from the tough nut of tannin, sweet shoots of fruit-flavour bud a little more with each passing year. This will always be a controversial Grange, but I suspect in another ten years its underlying beauty will have revealed itself.
Penfolds Grange 1984|
The youngest wine in the line-up to reveal maturing, bottle-aged aromas and flavours. It’s unusual for the many flavour and aroma components of Grange to converge so early, but here we have it: age, sweetness, firm tannins, and a heady, buoyant aroma unique to Grange — a combination of mature fruit, oak, bottle age, and a higher than average level of volatile acidity. Great drinking now, but shows the strength to keep for another decade easily. These wines stay on a plateau for many years if well cellared.
Penfolds Grange 1985
Grange at a transition stage of development, showing neither the raw freshness of youth nor the mellowness of age. At the moment very full and tannic with hints of the sweet fruit ready to burst through. A very good Grange needing another five years, I suspect, to reach the stage already achieved by the 1984.
Penfolds Grange 1986
Glorious, opulent Grange as we might see once a decade — has a simply amazing rich, supple, glorious, elegant depth of aromas and flavours with firm, persistent tannins totally integrated with the fruit flavours. A very great wine by any measure and bound to grow in drinking enjoyment and stature for several decades.
Penfolds Grange 1987
Shows the opaque, brilliant colours of youth, yields little on the nose, but possesses a steely-taut palate with ripe fruit and tannins ready to explode into Grange in another seven or eight years.
Penfolds Grange 1988
A wine that’s rounder and sweeter than the 1987 but a chunky little fella nevertheless and, like the 1987, needs many more years in the cellar.
Penfolds Grange 1989
The latest release and already showing a striking, sweet — what I describe as ‘mulberry’ — aroma. This shows up as intense, sweet fruit bobbing around in all the tannin and oak flavours on the palate. Another quite distinctive vintage and needing extended cellaring — but may be approachable early, like the 1984.