Mania as 1990 Penfolds Grange released

Grange mania struck this month. Even before the press releases and samples went out, Penfolds sales office and retailers began fielding calls from across the world. “Got any 1990 Grange?” is the only question asked. Most callers haven’t bothered asking for the price.

Not that the price matters if you can’t find the wine. But if you can find it and do want some, forget the official recommended retail of $130. One leading Sydney discount retailer sold his allocation at $150 within a few days of release and says he’s asking $200 for the next allocation in July.

One Double Bay retailer reports having sold a 1990 Magnum for $1500!

The big spenders (some wanting as much as 25 dozen) began ringing around the Canberra trade, too. But there was little joy there, as a quick survey shows our retailers to be looking after the punters (if we can call Grange buyers that) by limiting sales to a bottle or two.

Jim Murphy’s Market Cellars, Georgas Liquor Stable, Cand Amber, Liquorland and Farmer Bros all had stock remaining and were rationing it when I rang this week, and they were all pricing 1990 Grange at $140 to $150 a bottle. (Apologies to traders not mentioned but, don’t worry, the buyers will find you.).

Since Grange caught on in the sixties, and even more so now that its allure has spread, not only wine buffs but inveterate collectors and investors have been dragged into the increasingly expensive chase each year.

Yet, anytime anyone ventures the view that Grange has peaked in value, it moves up again, and the investors are rewarded on paper, if not in cash. For I suspect most of the Grange bought as an ‘investment’ somehow never finds itself under the auctioneer’s hammer.

It was a commonly held view in recent years as Grange hit $70, then pushed through to $100 that a natural barrier had been hit because our best-known red had finally reached parity with the second-to-top Bordeaux wines.

But the precipitate lift in price for the 1990 vintage pushes Grange beyond that rank, if not to the very top level. (Chateau Lafite Rothschild 1990, for instance, sells for around $300 a bottle). The lift follows years of hype for reds in general from that vintage; an uprecedented lift in global demand for Australian red wines; and strong recognition of a big, distinctive wine with a strong Australian accent in the U.K. and U.S.A. markets.

What we have witnessed over the last decade is the arrival of Grange on the global scene, and the recognition of its unique qualities. It may not yet be up there in price with Chateaus Lafite Rothschild, Mouton Rothshild, Latour, Haut Brion, Margaux, and Petrus of Bordeaux, nor with Burgundy’s Le Chambertin and Romanee Conti. But it has, like those enduring wines, individual aromas, flavours and cellaring propensity like no other wine on earth. Hence, its escalation from top-shelf to blue-chip status.

How do we rate Grange when it moves from cellar to pedestal? I guess many of us who cellared it in the past have to kiss it goodbye now as it flits out of reach. But, as a drink, 1990 Grange ranks with the best.

I’ve been blessed to taste all the Granges back to 1951, some vintages many times over, and most several times. The 1990, or a component of it, I first tasted from barrel towards the end of 1990 with its creator, Max Schubert. Max was old and suffering from emphysema then, but his enthusiasm for the inky-purple, embryonic Grange 1990 infected everyone sharing the experience with him.

In May this year, wine maker John Duval, unveiled the finished wine at Kalimna cottage in the Barossa Valley on the eve of its public release. It’s a wine that defies tasting notes, offering Grange’s unique, opulent ripe flavour, masses of it, with that extra succulent depth we see in great years. It lacks only one thing: maturity — and I look forward to a re-taste in my dotage sometime next century.

Released with Grange in about one fifth of the volume and at a slightly lower price, was a red I rank in the same league: Penfolds Coonawarra Cabernet Barossa Shiraz Bin 90A 1990. Retailers seem to be hiding it for themselves, but this is a sublime red modeled on the legendary Bin 60A 1962 (still drinking well) and Bin 80A 1980 (just reaching maturity).

Bin 90A combines the strength and elegance of Coonawarra cabernet sauvignon with powerful, earthy shiraz grown on the Koonunga Hill Vineyard in the Barossa Valley and, in my view, will become a collector’s item of the twenty first century.