Penfolds Grange 2008 leads a distinguished line up

A few strokes on Lisa Perotti-Brown’s laptop – 100 points – gave the world its headline – “The perfect Grange”. And like catatonic chooks, eyes glued to a single point, the world’s editors obsessed on one wine of the seven Penfolds released on 2 May.

What a lot of fun they missed. But Grange makes the news every year one way or another. It’s always controversial and always delivers in the robust, long-lived style Max Schubert developed in the early 1950s.

Successive winemakers over the decades refined Grange, so that today its fruit is probably a bit brighter and the oak more refined. But it remains inky blank, powerful and layered with winemaking inputs that add more aroma, flavour and textural dimensions than fruit alone could give.

And it’s always released in good company nowadays – alongside remarkable wines, some inspired by Schubert, some created long after his death in 1994, but all made by winemakers who knew him and his wine styles well. Schubert retired in 1973, but he maintained an office at Magill winery for the rest of his life and enjoyed regular contact with his successors – Don Ditter, John Duval and Peter Gago.

The new red releases include St Henri, an elegant, supple counterpoise to Grange, but equally long lived and created by John Davoren, not Schubert. Bin 707, or Grange Cabernet as some call it, is essentially Grange made from cabernet sauvignon instead of shiraz. It’s Grange’s match in power and individual character and as good a wine at half the price. Schubert made the first vintage in 1964.

Max Schubert saved Magill Estate from urban subdivision. Extract from Schubert's hand-written business case presented to the board of Adelaide Steamship Company, owner of Penfolds. Document courtesy of Barrie Woodward.

In 1983, Don Ditter made the first vintage of Magill Estate Shiraz, the single-vineyard wine that saved Penfolds’ Adelaide vineyard from urban subdivision. In late 1982, Max Schubert hand wrote a business plan, including details of the wine, for a board meeting of the Adelaide Steamship Company, then owners of Penfolds. Penfolds Managing Director Ian Mackley (ISM in the document above), and General Manager Jim Williams (JLW), convinced the board to retain the vineyard on the basis of Schubert’s proposal.

RWT Barossa Shiraz arrived in 1997, following John Duval’s quest (the ‘red wine trial’, hence RWT) for an elegant, aromatic Barossa Valley Shiraz, matured in French oak. The wine contrasts starkly with the power and American oak character of Grange shiraz.

And the newest arrival, Bin 169 Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon is to Bin 707 what RWT is to Grange. Its creator, current winemaker Peter Gago, says Bin 169 and RWT take the pressure off Bin 707 and RWT. Gago believes the two new styles deflected criticism from some quarters that Grange and Bin 707 needed “modernising” – lightening up and moving from American oak to less aggressively flavoured French oak.

The lone chardonnay in the line up began as the “white Grange” project in the early nineties, under John Duval. Duval’s team sought a white equivalent of Grange. With no restrictions on grape variety or region, the winemakers initially sourced semillon, riesling and chardonnay from a diversity of regions. The search quickly narrowed to chardonnay, initially from mainland regions, including Tumbarumba, the Adelaide Hills and McLaren.

The first vintage released under the new flagship chardonnay label, Yattarna 1995, combined fruit from the Adelaide Hills and McLaren Vale. However, the continuing search for suitable fruit soon took Penfolds to Tasmania – just as Hardys had done for its flagship, Eileen Hardy. The just-released 2010 vintages combines fruit from Tasmania and the Adelaide Hills.

Penfolds St Henri Shiraz 2009 $95
Modern St Henri reveals something of Australia’s massive vineyard expansion of the nineties. Fruit from Robe and Wrattonbully on the Limestone Coast and the Adelaide Hills now joins material from the warmer, traditional Clare Valley, Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale. But the style remains unchanged. St Henri 2009 is a little lighter coloured than Grange or RWT, a tad less crimson than RWT and a tad more crimson than Grange – precisely reflecting their ages. St Henri fruit is chosen for its elegance and, as well, it’s aged in old 1,460-litre vats – meaning maturation without picking up woody flavour. St Henri seems gentle and soft compared to RWT and Grange. And its supple, sweet, plummy fruit comes layered earthy and savoury notes and fine, silky tannin. This is a big, warm St Henri but still elegant and built for long cellaring under good conditions.

Penfolds RWT Barossa Valley Shiraz 2010 $175
In 2005 I judged the Barossa Valley wine show with Huon Hooke and Lester Jesberg. Over dinner one night, we concluded Penfolds RWT 1998 was perhaps the best Barossa shiraz any of us had tasted. It now has a rival in the 2010. Tasting it alongside Grange accentuates RWT’s heady, floral aroma and opulent, chewy, juicy palate. It’s a dense and concentrated wine, saturated with aromatic shiraz character that’s beautifully complemented by sweet and spicy French oak. While it’s harmonious and easy enough to drink now, the sheer concentration and youth of the fruit flavour suggest a beautiful flavour evolution ahead.

Penfolds Grange 2008 $785
Max Schubert’s encounter with magnificent 50 year-old Bordeaux reds in 1950 inspired Grange. And tasting the inky deep, tannic wines of the new vintage, he realised Grange would have to be similarly powerful to last the half century he had in mind. He realised great wine requires more than just good fruit. And so, the 2008 Grange, like those before it combines the inky deep colour, flavour and tannins of fully ripened shiraz. And the fruit’s layered with the flavour and tannin of American oak and a distinctive hint of volatile acidity, deliberately encouraged during winemaking to give extra lift to such a huge, powerful wine. A description of the parts, though, can’t adequately convey the sense of a remarkable and unique wine. From tasting every vintage back to 1951, some of them many times, I conclude that age is perhaps the best fining agent of all. Over time Grange becomes finer – in the words of Max Schubert, “it has a similar elegance [to those ancient Bordeaux reds tasted in 1950], even after starting from a big, rough Australian red”.  2008 is a particularly powerful expression of the style, destined to evolve for decades.

Penfolds Yattarna Chardonnay 2010 $130
With Yattarna, Penfolds aim for finesse, harmony and longevity – a style inspired by the elegant chardonnays of Puligny-Montrachet, Burgundy. Suitable fruit comes from the coolest growing regions – in 2010 from Tasmania and the Adelaide Hills. Fermentation and maturation in French oak barrels, 57 per cent of them new, produced a fine, complex wine, its rich but delicate fruit meshed through with barrel-derived character. It seems very young and fresh at three years and should evolve well for another five or six years.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2013
First published 22 May 2013 in the Canberra Times and