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June 2009


Pride of the Aussies
By Baroness Sheri de Borchgrave



In the world of wine there are two distinct strata. Most of us are only exposed to the first, where hundreds of thousands of mostly moderately priced wines battle it out for a place on our tables. At the high end of this first level there are some true gems, of course, bottles we reserve for special occasions. Beyond that, however, there exists a far more rarefied tier beyond the reach of most mortals. I'm talking about the extravagant world of rare collectible wine dominated by a few legendary producers.

In the global game of this upper echelon, France is by far the most powerful player—propelled by DRC (Domaine de la Romanee Conti), Chateau Petrus and other first-growth Bordeaux chateaux. From the New World, only one wine really competes at that level, Penfolds Grange from Australia. This iconic wine is a lush, seductive, concentrated powerhouse made primarily from Shiraz.

Recently the 164-year-old winery behind it brought an astonishing display of its most prized wines—Grange among them (many of its other bottlings are nearly as collectible)—to New York for a daylong symposium. I was fortunate enough to be among the collectors and wine writers invited to this Penfolds: the Rewards of Patience road show. The occasion marked the release of the sixth-edition book by the same name documenting the history, heritage and evolution of these age-worthy wines. The remarkable wine that we tasted, some upwards of $1,000, had been uncorked and double decanted for two hours before we sat down to sip—and, maybe, to spit.

Famed wine critics from Europe and Asia had been flown in to lead the tasting alongside Penfolds' chief winemaker, Peter Gago. They shared their reverence for the Aussie winery's most enchanting elixirs, describing them as having chocolaty tannins and dark choco-berry notes. Some on the panel, who had tasted these same wines when they were younger, at earlier Rewards of Patience events, spoke in awe of their remarkable evolution during the intervening years.

Ch'ng Poh Tiong, publisher of The Wine Review, Southeast Asia's most prestigious wine publication, weighed in on the 1976 Penfolds Bin 389, a wine referred to as the 'Baby Grange.' He pointed out that '76 was the Year of the Dragon, a very propitious year under the Chinese Zodiac. "After 32 years, the wine is still vivacious," he said, "showing a competition between fruit and structure and freshness and tannins." He picked up, he said, notes of leather, camphor, sandalwood and red plum. Later, he compared the wine to a far more recent Penfolds vintage, the 1998 Bin 407. He described this gem of a bottle as smoldering-around-the-campfire smoky, with pronounced notes of wood spice, mocha and leather.

An excitement fell over the room when we got our chance to try the Grange Shiraz. The 1990 and the 1991 vintages, both classic years, had spent between 16 and 18 months in oak. Both had a bright hue and fresh aromas. The '90 had more length and a rounder finish, while the '91, with crisper tannins, was more edgy and muscular with a powerful finish. Although the '90, with its fantastic fruit character, had been Wine Spectator's wine of the year, all agreed that the '91, with its cedar and oak veneer, was a beautifully balanced wine that would almost certainly fetch even more if put up at auction.

As astonishing as those Granges were, the highlight of the tasting was the 1962 Bin 60A Coonawarra Cabernet Kalimna Shiraz, which fetched $2,776 a bottle at a Christie's auction last fall. It was gorgeous on the palate with a superb vigorous nose. Anthony Rose, a top wine critic from London, declared that after 46 years it sill had a seamless texture that seemed to wrap around its overripe raspberry fruit. Gago said the wine, listed in Decanter magazine as one of the 100 wines you should try before you die, would certainly live for another 20 years or more. I found that it was indeed a die-and-go-to-Heaven wine. I wondered if Max Shubert, the legendary winemaker behind Penfolds, who created Grange for the first time in 1951, was looking down at us, delighted to find huddled fans swooning over wines that had outlived him.