Brats mellow to greats

In the mid eighties Penfolds released the first edition of The Rewards of Patience, containing reviews of Grange Hermitage (as Grange was then called), and the rest of the Penfolds red family, back to the earliest vintages, including the experimental Grange of 1951.

Grange was moving into a purple patch at the time, gaining international recognition ahead of a great flourishing — marked in particular by the release of the sensational 1990 vintage in 1995. Its price shot up. And despite increasing competition, it continued (still continues) to hold number one position in Australian wine auctions.

Its success continues despite last year’s attack by Winewise magazine, accusing Grange of being old fashioned; and a more generic urging by some writers here and in the UK for Australia to move to more elegant, lower alcohol wines. We’d heard all this before in the 1970s. And it’s just as wrong now as it was then.

Consumers roundly rejected the thin, lacking wines made from unripe grapes in the name of elegance — just as they will no doubt do should anyone be silly enough to go down that path again. But out of that error of judgement by our winemakers grew, gradually, a greater confidence in the qualities of our opulent warm climate reds, particularly shiraz.

And it turned out that elegance, in its true sense, was indeed a character of many wines from our emerging, cooler growing areas, like Mornington, Tasmania, Yarra Valley, Canberra, Margaret River and Coonawarra. Over time these grew in number and quality and joined our ever-improving warm climate styles.

And what the critics of the Penfolds style (Grange in particular) often lack is the perspective of long-term aging. For these were, and continue to be, wines that need decades of cellaring. They start as opaque, purple-rimmed wines brimming with fruit, oak and tannin. Even though these are harmonious enough, the total flavour volume and tannic grip can be overwhelming for many years.

Like a lot of others immersed in the trade, I see comparatively few wines of this style among the thousands of reds tasted each year. The market teems with lively, soft, easy to drink reds, quite often made specifically for very early drinking.

And, of course, the elegant, supple shirazes now made so beautifully in Canberra and other cool areas slip down easily in youth, even though some appear to have long-term cellaring ability. But we don’t yet have a thirty or forty year old Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier to confirm that, as we do with Grange.

What we may not see in a young Grange, unless we’ve also tasted very old vintages, is that great periods of time in the cellar render it less opaque, less tannic, less oaky, more complex and increasingly fine – and, yes, even elegant. I was reminded of this over the Christmas break when we opened two old Penfolds reds from our cellar – prompted to do so by the refreshingly cool weather. The wines were Penfolds Grange Hermitage 1982 and Penfolds Bin 80A Coonawarra Cabernet Kalimna Shiraz 1980 (inspired by Max Schubert’s legendary Bin 60A 1962).

These were like children in a way — wines that I’d come to know intimately throughout their lives, beginning when they were bold, purple, tannic oaky brats back in the eighties; and now after a couple of year’s absence moving int0 full, but not declining maturity.

I see that the Rewards of Patience is now in its sixth edition — and all but the first edition of 1986 track the progress of these two wines.

The second edition, 1990, notes Bin 80A 1980 as ‘a wine of great power and breeding with a long life in front of it — a classic in the making’. This was an opinion I shared sufficiently at the time to buy a case of it.

The same edition was equally unequivocal on the progress of Grange 1982 — “Generous, lifted ‘fleshy’ fruit is typical of the ’82 vintage. A distinctive and great Grange”. The tasters recommended a drinking window from the early 1990s and as far out as 2002.

By the third edition in 1994, the tasting panel was seeing Bin 80a 1980 as intense, concentrated, herbaceous, cedary, elegant, of remarkable structure and showing “strong Coonawarra district character”. They recommended drinking it out to 2010.

By this edition 1982 Grange was no longer one of the greats but, rather, “reflects the super-fleshy fruit characters of this vintage”. The tasters suggested regular monitoring (I think this means drinking) within a drinking window of “now to 2005”.

The tasting panel for the fourth edition in 2000 adopted more floral, less meaningful tasting notes for the Bin 80A, demoted it from the ranks of the ‘greats’ and wound back the drink window to 2007 and commented “best drunk soon”.

But the same group held a slightly higher view of the 1982 Grange, pushing the drinking window to 2008 and once again commenting on the distinctive “sweet, ripe fruit”. They thought it “might hold for many years” but not improve.

Just four years later in the 2004 fifth edition, Bin 80A was once again one of the ‘greats’ and its drinking window was now out to 2020. This once powerful red was now “a soft, well-balanced wine”.

This edition adopted a more kindly view of the now 22-year-old 1982 Grange. The tasters recommended drinking out to 2010. They described it as “a supple, refined wine with sweet cassis/cedary flavours”.

In the sixth edition in 2008, Bin 80A, now 28-years-old held its ‘great’ status and its drinking window was pushed out further to 2025. Though it had been described as a “soft, well-balanced wine” four years earlier, it was now “a well-concentrated, solid wine with attractive mature fruit and strong tannin structure”.

The reviews once again commented on Grange 1982’s rich, fleshy fruit, describing it as “idiosyncratic” and recommended drinking it by 2010.

Almost two years after the assessments made in the sixth edition, the Chateau Shanahan team noted the sweet fruitiness of the 1982 Grange. It’s been part of the wine since it was born and I recall that very early on we sometimes wondered if it would live as long as other Granges. Well at just on 28 years it’s soft, juicy, oh-so-complex and wonderfully vibrant, yet ethereal and aged. What a joy it was to drink and share with the family. It has many years to go.

The Bin 80A, too, opened wonderfully. In aroma, flavour and structure it’s still clearly led by cabernet sauvignon (two thirds of the blend) and very much a Coonawarra style — despite the Kalimna (Barossa) shiraz in the blend. This one has mellowed — having moved from power to elegance and grace in its thirty years. It, too, will age for many more years.

These are great wines. And great wine takes time.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2010