Thursday, May 20, 2010

A Wine Journey: 1998 and 2004 Penfolds Grange

I continue to climb this mountain one step at a time.  This is truly a case of the journey, the chase, being significantly more rewarding than the actual attainment of the end point.  Two more wines from the McNamara Wines of the Decade have fallen to my resolute corkscrew.

No one was as important to the development of Penfold's Hermitage Grange (Penfold's Grange since 1990) than the then winemaker Max Schubert but the founding and nurturing of the company can be traced back to Dr. Christopher Rawson Penfold and his wife Mary, respectively.  Dr. Penfold, who was firm in his belief in the medicinal value of wine, planted some French vine cuttings around his home in Magill, Adelaide -- called the Grange -- upon his emigration to Australia in 1844.  He produced port and sherry from the resulting grapes for dispensation to his patients.  Upon his death, Mary took over the running of the winery and, in this task, she was ably assisted by her son-in-law, Thomas Hyland.  Thomas and Georgina, Mary's daughter, assumed management responsibility when Mary retired in 1884 and the family members retained control until 1976.  The company is now owned by Southcorp, a division of Australia's Foster's Group.

Penfold's wine production consisted primarily of fortified wines and brandy up until the 1950s.  Jeffrey Penfold Hyland, reacting to his perception of changing tastes, asked Max Schubert to look into the increased production of table wines.  As a part of that mandate, Schubert visited the wine-growing areas of Europe and was very impressed by the aged wines he encountered in France.  He was convinced that with the proper technique, he could produce a quality, long-lived wine in Australia and sought to put that into practice with the production of  an experimental vintage -- utilizing the Syrah grape -- of Penfold's Hermitage Grange in 1951.  The early wines were not well received.  So much so that the board, in 1957, forbade further production of the wine. Schubert continued to produce the wine in secret and as the earlier vintages stabilized, they began to receive more favorable consideration.  These favorable comments trickled back to the board and, in 1960, they authorized Schubert to resume production of the wine.  Of course, he had never stopped and, thanks to his" cheekiness," there has been an unbroken string of Penfold's Grange produced since the experimental vintage in 1951.

From the beginning Penfold's has pursued a multi-vineyard, multi-district grape-sourcing strategy bolstered by a "house style" of complete, controlled fermentation followed by aging in new American oak barrels.  The grapes for the wine are sourced from vineyards in the Barossa Valley, McLaren Vale, and Magill, all regions falling within the Adelaide "super zone."

The vintages drank for this portion of the journey were from 1998 and 2004.  The winemaker for both these vintages was Peter Gago.  The 1998 vintage was 97% Shiraz and 3% Cabernet Sauvignon aged for 18 months in new American oak.  The 2004 was 96% Shiraz and 4% Cabernet Sauvignon aged fro 16 months in new American oak.

The 1998 was experienced at a previously mentioned dinner at the home of Keith and Nancy.  We opened the bottle at around 8:30 pm and noted that it had good color.  On the nose we experienced black olives, sawdust, cigar box, sweet tobacco, sandalwood, coconut, coffee, mocha, and salt ocean spray.  On the palate there was black fruit and some salt in the finish.  This wine was balanced, smooth and silky and had a "Jordanesque" hang time in terms of finish.

The 2004 was tasted at our regular Antonio's Friday afternoon tasting.  This wine had a complex structure with cigar leaf, raw meat, cedar box, leather, coconut, salt, black pepper, cherry, and black licorice all evident on the nose.  This wine was obviously a baby but was well integrated with smooth wood tannins across the palate and a lifelong finish.  One taster felt that this wine as more exuberant than traditional Penfold's but that it would be "smoking in ten years."  The wine was tasted one hour later and at that time the alcohol had become very evident, as was the pepperiness, and the green note had now become a green chord, the acid was now dominant, and there was significant chalkiness on the tongue.  The wine exhibited its promise in the earlier tasting and then seemed to close down.

Clearly world-class wines.

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