The Adelaide Oval is South Australia’s football stadium, where we’d taken the lift to the top tier and walked a long hall to the main box. It was a rainy Friday morning in spring, the stadium was empty and the scoreboard was lit with the dedicated activity of the day, Penfolds’ Rewards of Patience tasting.

This event takes place once every five years or so, when the firm’s lead winemakers, both current and ex-officio, gather with a few members of the press for a weeklong tasting. It includes most every vintage of most every major Penfolds wine, from Koonunga Hill on up the scale. Along with Penfolds recorking clinics, this project is intended to keep both the winemakers and the critics focused on how Penfolds wines age.

As any sensible company would do, Penfolds stacked the deck in the wines’ favor: The tasting was held close to the source of where the wines were grown and made, with as many backup bottles as possible. For this, the final day of the tasting, we set out to taste 53 vintages of Grange, a wine developed several miles from here in the cellars of Magill by Max Schubert, who made mostly fortified wines at what had been in the 1940s and ’50s a family company run by Herbert Leslie Hyland-Penfold.

Earlier in the week, we’d been based at Kalimna, tasting in the parlor of an old farmhouse on the vineyard in northern Barossa. Salvation jane was in bloom; the weed blankets Barossa’s paddocks in purple, a contrast to the green rows of vines. One benefit of the location was its proximity to Block 42, a small community of elder vines planted in the 1880s, believed by Penfolds to be the oldest cabernet sauvignon vines in the world.

On Wednesday morning, we had tasted a flight of six wines made from Block 42, including the first Bin 707, vintage 1964 (100 percent Block 42) and two recent special bin releases from 1996 and 2004. The wine of the day was an older bottling, an early, experimental vintage of Grange, when Schubert still, perhaps, held out some hope that his top wine could be, like Bordeaux, a cabernet sauvignon.

The 1953 Bin 9 is the only Grange labeled Cabernet Sauvignon rather than Hermitage (as in shiraz). As it was poured, Peter Gago, Penfolds chief winemaker, motioned out the window to the vines, “Just up that way,” he said, pointing up the hill to the northwest.

The wine was astonishing, the aroma still fresh–cedar, tobacco, mature cabernet at its highest level. Aristocratic in its stature. Barossa cheerful. It touched the tongue with a cloud of flavor that lasted for minutes. Ethereal and endless.

I didn’t want to taste anything after it.

As we walked across the vineyard to lunch that day, Ray Beckwith drove up in his small, late-model SUV. Now in his mid-90s, Beckwith had started working for Leslie Hyland-Penfold in the 1930s and became the company’s secret wunderkind, having tied the high spoilage rate of wine at Penfolds to pH. By monitoring and adjusting the pH, he wiped out the problem. Though it’s hard to prove definitively, Australians believe Beckwith was the first in the world to monitor pH in wine, today a basic tenet of enology.

Beckwith had worked at the winery in Nuriootpa and on occasion consulted with Schubert at Magill. On one such visit in 1947, when Schubert was beginning to experiment with dry red table wines, Beckwith had shared some of his observations about bacterial spoilage and the role of pH. “Max adopted the concept enthusiastically,” Beckwith later wrote, “carrying it forward to the later production of Grange and his other classical dry red wines.”

Meanwhile, Penfolds was trying to develop flor-fermented sherry in the 1940s and losing two-thirds of their production to fermentations gone wrong. Leslie Hyland-Penfold charged Beckwith with finding a fix in the lab, and sent Schubert to Jerez to learn how the Spanish handled flor. “Grange was a side effect of that trip,” Beckwith says, with a nonagenarian’s wry sense of humor.

In 1950, Beckwith was on board with the company goal of making great sherry. Schubert’s fascination was dry red table wine, no matter how popular sherry had become. So he took the opportunity while in Europe to stop in Bordeaux. He met with Christian Cruse, of the prominent winemaking and merchant firm, who gave him “the rare opportunity of tasting and evaluating Bordeaux wines between 40 and 50 years old that were still sound and possessed magnificent bouquet and flavour.”

Unfortunately, Schubert was not there to reminisce with Beckwith during my visit; he died in 1994. For this article, I’ve lifted Schubert’s quotes from a paper he presented at the first Australian National University Wine Symposium in Canberra in 1979. The work he undertook on his return from Bordeaux led to the first experimental vintage of Grange, 150 cases of the 1951, a wine that never made it to commercial release.

And so I had bought a ticket and flown to Adelaide for an equally rare opportunity–to taste and evaluate Australian wines close to 60 years old. It was the most extensive Grange tasting Penfolds has conducted, 1952 through 2005. Today the wines from the 1950s have become so rare that this may have been the last complete Grange tasting Penfolds will be able to conduct.

There are other New World regions with dry red table wines that have survived the test of time. But I have not yet tasted such a complete range of wines from the New World that have as much personality as Grange from the 1950s. Schubert said, “Grange Hermitage has always been a controversial and an individual wine.” That such a wine should set the winemaking style for a large corporate winery such as Penfolds is one of the mysterious cultural phenomena of Australia.

It was not a corporate decision to produce Grange. That decision came out of Schubert’s reaction to the older wines he had been tasting in Europe–he had as his goal “the idea of producing an Australian red wine capable of staying alive for a minimum of 20 years and comparable with those produced in Bordeaux É an attempt to do something to lift the rather mediocre standard of Australian red wine in general at the time.” This was not a commercial project; it was more a scientific experiment.

Those early experimental wines–particularly the ’52, ’53 and ’55 tasted a few miles from the cellar in which they were made–are more than mere ghosts. They are present in the glass, feisty and still fresh. They haven’t unraveled in old age, they haven’t begun to separate into alcohol and tannin and acidity. Instead they glow as one complete entity. They seem to have stepped out of time.

Famously, those wines were rejected by Schubert’s contemporaries in a tasting in 1956. The company’s board, led by Gladys Hyland-Penfold, reacted by shutting down the Grange project, a decision that Schubert, known to be a company man, ignored. He did so with the full support and complicity of Jeffrey Hyland-Penfold (Leslie’s son and Gladys’s nephew), who was governing director of the firm. As Beckwith recalled, the younger Hyland-Penfold was not known for buckling to authority and was often in conflict with his father at Nuriootpa. “At one point, Jeffrey told his father what to do with the chimney on top of the winery. His father sent him down to McLaren Vale.” In any case, without a budget and with no new oak, the wines made from 1957 through ’59 are weaker and have not held up as well. As the earlier wines matured, they began to receive acceptance; Penfolds reinvested in the project with the 1960 vintage and promoted Schubert to chief winemaker.

Schubert described the process by which he made these wines in clear, logical terms–which makes one wonder why more winemakers don’t follow such simple strictures today. The selection process started with the grapes “to ensure that the grape material was sound and that the acid and sugar content was in balance consistent with the style of wine specified.” Simple enough, but, in fact, it was probably his strictest limitation. It generally ruled out cabernet sauvignon in South Australia, due to issues of quality and consistency. Instead, he looked to old-vine sources of shiraz within a narrow window of ripeness: “Using the Baumé scale, this was not to be less than 11.5 degrees and not more than 12 degrees with a total acidity of not less than 6.5 and not more than 7 grams per liter. With strict attention to detail and close surveillance, this was achieved.”

He purchased five new untreated oak hogsheads similar to the kind he had seen used in France and tested the same wine aged in the new oak and in a large, neutral oak vat.

For the winemaking, he used heading-down boards in an open-top fermenter, so the cap formed by the grape skins would remain submerged in the juice. He set out to control the pace of fermentation so it would occur at an even rate and would be completed in 12 days–a sugar conversion rate of one Baumé degree per day. “A further measure of control was achieved by using a graph system that showed the ideal fermentation line over a 12-day period compared with the actual fermentation line, which was governed by daily temperature and Baumé readings of the fermenting juice.” His plan involved extracting the optimal amount from the skins during that limited period of time by draining the tank of juice, then pumping the juice back over the skins. Using a heat exchanger as the wine was pumped, he planned to control the temperature to either speed up or slow down the fermentation.

During the later stage of fermentation, as the process slowed, he found he had achieved sufficient color, body and aroma in the wine so he drained it off the skins, some of it into the new barrels, some into the old 1,000-gallon vat, to finish fermentation and age. He pressed the remaining solids to use for topping up the barrels.

This winemaking program, established for Grange, has set the protocol for any number of variations within the Penfolds stable of red wines.

There have been four winemakers who have headed up the Penfolds team, and if their batting average with Grange can be used to assess their overall performance, then Schubert wins, hands down. It was, after all, his creation. He was skilled in producing formidable wines with the fireworks that define Grange today, wines like the 1962, which is still a meaty shiraz, powerful and floral, with the warmth of the season. He also produced some seamless and elegant wines in less than ideal vintages, such as 1964, a wet growing season saved by a long, cool autumn. This wine, with its scents of rose petals and red currants, feels silken, a gentle preservation of finely ripened fruit. The 1966, more in the powerful mode, shows a hint of green stemminess that belies one factor underscoring Schubert’s style.

As I struggled to articulate the difference between Schubert’s wines and those that followed, James Halliday offered one hint for their remarkable integration. Halliday, a noted author and winemaker, is part of the extended company team. “One thing Schubert never did was add acid,” he said. “He relied on deliberately green-picked components. I think that’s part of the finesse of those early wines.” When we tasted the ’71, one of the top wines prior to Schubert’s retirement in ’73, Halliday pointed out another aspect of Schubert’s style. “He was deliberately inducing volatile acidity, that was part of his style.”

Ian Hickinbotham, winemaker at Wynn’s Coonawarra in the early 1950s, had made a similar comment to me several years ago. “Schubert used to encourage volatile acidity,” he said, “leaving the bungs out of the cask. He would take samples around to other winemakers and ask if it was too much.”

Gago and his team opened four bottles of the 1971, the best one still suffering a bit from that volatility. But then it opened to a beautiful range of fruit and sleek tannins. What you lose in the initial mustiness, you gain in the wild mulberry, cranberry and boysenberry flavors. It almost seems a contradiction that a wine this volatile could be this fresh. And it’s part of the idiosyncrasy that Schubert managed to champion at Penfolds.

Don Ditter took over on Schubert’s retirement in 1973, having joined Penfolds in 1942. John Duval, whose family’s vineyards at Morphett Vale in Adelaide provided half the fruit for Schubert’s first vintage of Grange, became chief winemaker in 1986. Gago took over the reins in 2002. In every case, there has been long overlap with the winemakers working together as a team.

Though there were some compelling wines in the late ’70s and ’80s, there were also more misses–including a lot more flavors of raisins and prunes. The best of Ditter’s vintages, ’76 and ’78, have more depth of fruit, more meat on the bone, than Schubert’s wines showed at their current age. 1982, which is a controversial Penfolds vintage (it held no standouts among the other Penfolds ranges at the tasting), proved to be a delicious and heady Grange, with sunny, sweet red raspberry flavor. Two of the wines from Ditter’s tenure particularly caught my attention, both from relatively cool summers–the ’75 and ’84, both integrated and still fresh.

Duval’s first vintage, the 1986, was the first wine to feel effusive–though it’s hard to separate winemaking intention from the age and maturity of the wines. The ’86 is the sort of delicious, jammy wine that inspires overwrought prose: “flowing robes of satiny fruit flavors.”

He didn’t really hit again until 1990 and ’91, a pair of vintages that inaugurated the modern Penfolds style. These were among the first vintages of Grange I had tasted on release, and though the ’90 showed dynamic bright red fruit and a lovely texture, I have always been partial to the ’91. It has the intensity that sets Grange apart in a great vintage, defining syrah as it mellows from what was once a youthful explosion to more subtle power.

The highlight of Duval’s career must be the 1996 Grange, among the top Grange vintages for its length of flavor and drive. If some of the classics from the ’50s and ’60s glowed with the taste of fraise des bois, fragile and delicate, here that flavor was amplified in its youth. It feels like it grew on perfectly balanced vines, powered by winter rains that sustained them through a mild, dry season. It hasn’t begun to show any maturity (the new oak is still present), and it looks to have the longest potential to age.

The 2002, reviewed in this issue’s tasting section, is not the first indication of Gago’s talents (he built the RWT program in the ’90s with Duval, who didn’t retire, in fact, until after the winemaking for this vintage was complete). It is, however, a great Grange, and may well mature in the mode of other cool years like 1964 and 1975, perhaps significantly better.

I asked Gago whether he thought this wine would age in the silkier mode of the early Schubert vintages, whether he imagined it with that more ethereal form of power, or with the added weight, the plump, Buck Mulligan stance of more modern Grange.

“In broad terms,” Gago said, “I think the Schubert vintages were derivatives of what climatic conditions delivered–augmented by varying types and volumes of pressings fractions, and varying percentages of cabernet sauvignon.

“Back through the decades, alcohol levels vary quite profoundly, although it would be fair and accurate to acknowledge that none currently have hit the alcohol minimums of years like 1971. In the ’80s, ’90s and ’00s, [there are some] big and ‘bigger’ vintages that handle oak, phenolics and power differently.

“Perhaps Grange’s silkier, ethereal demeanor may be re-awoken in vintages like 1996, 1999, 2002, 2004–albeit retrospectively after a few decades in the bottle?”

Without mentioning the stats on the ’04 Grange, Gago does point out that both special bins from that vintage–Block 42 and Bin 60A–“sit below 13.5 percent” alcohol. The goal Schubert set of 11.5 to 12 percent has risen, but not by much; Gago and his team “still strive for 13 percent or less–without any interference, in vineyard or winery.” Such a basic limitation contradicts the impression I have carried with me for years about Grange and the source of its power. It’s not alcohol that drives the best vintages. The stamina derives from the strength of the vines.

What was once an individual winemaking style has been adopted by any number of others, including some whose caricatures of Grange may tend to blur the distinctions that set it apart. Gago, charged with maintaining those distinctions, may be the most idiosyncratic chief winemaker at Penfolds since Schubert. He’s sensitive to Schubert’s legacy, and is now charged with sustaining it as the oldest wines begin to disappear.

For those of you with Grange in your cellar, or if you're looking to purchase older vintages, here are notes on the vintages presented at the Rewards of Patience tasting in Adelaide (September 2007). Details on vintage conditions for older bottlings of Grange were sourced from Andrew Caillard, executive partner of Langton's Wine Auctions, Australia, who wrote up the fifth edition of Penfolds' Rewards of Patience tasting and will publish the latest results this year. I've rated the wines on a four-star scale; those without ratings are not recommended for purchase, most often due to the fact that they are past their prime.

denotes the best wines of the tasting

indicates great wines you will want to have in your cellar

are highly recommended wines that will offer exceptional drinking

are recommended as well made wines


 
1952 Grange Hermitage

An immediate sense of quiet power: This wine is still fresh in the middle, then dry in the end, a long trail of nut-skin bitterness and red fruit. It continues to improve in the glass, the fruit brightens and opens to crisp red cherry, a long arc of flavor that keeps getting fresher. This may have another ten years before it starts to decline. From an average season with normal rainfall; this bottle, like all the wines from the 1950s but the 1959, had been through a Penfolds recorking clinic.


1953 Bin 2 Grange Hermitage

The gentle spirit of a wine is all that remains when this is first poured, with cool cellar tones as if spices had been stored in a cave. There’s a complex ghosting of wood and fruit, equally as long as the 1952, if not as fresh. Air drives away the nutmeat scents of wood as a meaty fruit character develops. This continued to improve for several hours in the glass, the fruit increasing in strength. Near the end of its peak drinking, but still some years to go.


1953 Bin 9 Grange Cabernet Sauvignon

The aroma is still fresh–cedar, tobacco, mature cabernet at its highest level. Aristocratic in its stature. Barossa cheerful. It touches the tongue with a cloud of currant flavor that lasts for minutes. Ethereal and endless. Astonishing wine, with years ahead of it still. According to Peter Gago, this was “Block 42, 100 percent unadulterated. I’d be surprised if it wasn’t 100 percent new oak. The wine comes up at auction once every eighteen months–probably the same bottle.”


1954 Grange Hermitage

Mature and a touch volatile, this has brown spice notes and alcohol adding a peppery caress. Cheerful senescence. From a cool-to-mild season, with a mild-to-warm harvest, this wine spent only nine months in oak.


1955 Bin 95 Grange Hermitage

Everything you could hope for in a mature shiraz, plus a lot more elegance than you might expect. This wine’s tannins have gentled into silk, their dark, meaty tones contrast with bright red fruit and red spices from the wood. It leaves a lasting sense of plump red fruit on the tongue. Hints of the tailored Penfolds style to come: Power matured into grace. This began to fade in the glass in comparison with the ’52 and ’53, which started out faded and proceeded to freshen; this bottle, at least, seems to have been nearing the end of its peak drinking. Still, the most elegant of the early Granges. 1955 was a mild to warm season with above average rainfall, followed by a warm, dry vintage.


1956 Bin 14 Grange Hermitage

A delicate red fruit scent carries through this wine, which has faded to hints of roasted meat and nutty tones of oxidation. Warm and soft, this wine is past its peak. It comes from a cool, mild season, and spent only nine months in oak.


1957 Grange Hermitage

After Penfolds cancelled the Grange project in 1956, Max Schubert produced the next three vintages in secret, with the support of Jeffrey Hyland-Penfold, but without a budget for new oak. This bottle of ’57 had the most perceptible tannin of the wines from the ’50s, lending structure and power to its bold red fruit. There were herbal and bell pepper edges to the fruit, and some minerality in the tannin, which was the lasting character. From a mild, dry season.


1958 Grange Hermitage

Red fruit is the first impression; this is a quiet wine, but still very much alive. The structure is soft and gentle, with fatness in the middle, melding fresh strawberry with fruit leather and red spice notes. The finish is cushioned and dry, the tannins retired. The season was mild to warm, and both this and the ’57 showed remarkably well for wines made on a limited budget.


1959 Bin 95 Grange Hermitage

This bottle was volatile, with citrus scents of volatility. A hint of red fruit emerged, but generally, the wine remained mute.


1960 Bin 95 Grange Hermitage

Perfectly knit and luscious, this wine hits with the power of its cedary spice and the juiciness of its fresh fruit. The tannins are broad and soft, enriching the middle of the wine. The spice lasts longer than the fruit in the finish, where the flavors turn more ethereal. This should continue at a high level for several years to come.


1961 Bin 95 Grange Hermitage

A powerful Grange from a hot, dry season, the tannins are more apparent here than in the wines of the prior decade. The power and the tannins are woven into the fruit, inherent in it rather than separate from it. They lend a flintiness to the lasting, bright succulence of the fruit. Still intense, feeling complete and set to last another several years.


1962 Bin 95 Grange Hermitage

Considered an ideal season, warm and dry, 1962 produced Penfolds Bin 60A, which is widely held to be one of the greatest wines ever made in Australia. This bottle of Grange is the first in the tasting to show the fireworks that often herald a younger vintage on release. It’s big and meaty, though less knit than some other vintages in its age range (the warmth of alcohol shows in the finish). It also feels substantially younger than many of its close contemporaries, with overt varietal character–a juicy, floral shiraz that should continue to develop for a decade and drink well long after.


1963 Bin 95 Grange Hermitage

100 percent shiraz from a warm, dry season, the ’63 is dark and intense, its fruit black in the mode of raisins and prunes. The texture is soft and cushioned, mature tannins adding to its silkiness. It’s harmonious, generous, coasting along on a plateau that should last another decade.


1964 Bin 95 Grange Hermitage

Following the power of the ’62 and the ripeness of the ’63, the ’64 changes course, from a wet growing season saved by fine weather through a cool autumn harvest. It heads off in an elegant direction, with delicate scents of rose petal and red berry flavors. There’s a gentle, persistent earthiness to the tannin. It feels silken, a gentle preservation of finely ripened fruit, a memory of fresh red currants off the vine. Not likely as long-lived as the ’62, but there’s still plenty of time ahead for it.


1965 Bin 95 Grange Hermitage

A blast of gamey intensity grown out of the warm, dry season, the ’65 is still tight within its oak. It has a dark fruit power that should continue to develop through 2015 or 2020.


1966 Bin 95 Grange Hermitage

The strong, savory character of this wine shows in slightly disparate elements at first: black plum, a hint of green stemminess, potent tannins. With air, is sheds some of that stemminess and turns toward a redder fruit. Gamey and built to last another decade or more. The 1966 growing season was dry, leading to a warm harvest the Penfolds team described as ideal.


1967 Bin 95 Grange Hermitage

A lovely, older wine, this is soft and mature. Its flavors show some oxidation in notes of coffee, cinnamon and molasses. There’s a hint of vegemite adding complexity to persimmon and darker tones of the fruit. Reaching the end of its peak drinking.


1968 Bin 95 Grange Hermitage

From a hot, dry vintage, this was one of the more awkward wines of the early years. It shows a lot of volatility and mouth-coating tannin. The fruit is pungent and a little weedy. Peter Gago commented on the 1968: “It always opens up like mothballs at the clinics. This bottle didn’t have it.” Past it’s use-by date, in any case.


1969 Bin 95 Grange Hermitage

Gentle cedar and cigar tobacco scents introduce a quiet vintage of Grange. The tannins feel stiff, but it’s mostly about red fruit and the fruit lasts long. Honeyed contentment. Nearing the end of its best drinking.


1970 Bin 95 Grange Hermitage

Pungent fruit scents, like apricot fruit leather, edged by volatility. This is mature and probably past its prime.


1971 Bin 95 Grange Hermitage

The Penfolds team opened four bottles; they chose this one as the most sound (the first was a bit corky as well as volatile). James Halliday noted that the 1971 “has always been legendary for its volatility. Schubert was deliberately inducing VA; that was part of his style.” At first, the mustiness was off-putting, a pungent bottle stink of lanolin and mustard greens. Then the wine transformed with air. The volatility blew off and the flavors opened to a beautiful range of fruit–mulberry, cranberry, boysenberry–packed with flavor, remarkably fresh. The vintage condition was generally warm, described by Penfolds as ideal. Based on those conditions and the freshness of the fruit, this would appear to be at least as long-lived as those early vintages of the 1950s–which would give it another two decades.


1972 Bin 95 Grange Hermitage

A mild, dry season produced this soft, gently mature red. The fruit is black, ripe and a little soupy, the wine closing in on the end of its life.


1973 Bin 95 Grange Hermitage

Schubert retired in 1973; this is the last vintage made in open, wax-lined concrete fermenters at Magill. It tastes smoky and beefy, with some volatility and a prickle of acidity on the tongue. Generous and sweet, but tiring out; it’s not holding together as well as some of the older wines.

1974 Bin 95 Grange Hermitage

Soft and rich in texture, with light scents of peppermint tea, this is a little raisined. Volatility dominates the short finish. A wine from a wet season.


1975 Bin 95 Grange Hermitage

A beautiful, fully mature wine, this feels like it’s still on the rise. The initial aromas and lasting flavors arrive in layers of date, fig and spice cake. The tannins are sweet with an earthy spice and a lift of acidity all part of the tight weave. The freshness may derive from a cool summer and mild, dry harvest conditions. This has a decade or more ahead of it.


1976 Bin 95 Grange Hermitage

This vintage provided some of the best growing conditions during Don Ditter’s tenure as chief winemaker. He transformed the warm, dry season into a wine that’s luscious with roasted cherry flavor while still bright and zesty. There’s a generous cracked black pepper spice running through it, accented by a touch of raisin and a hint of volatility. Remarkably fresh for its age.


1977 Bin 95 Grange Hermitage

A rich and Porty style, this has a peppery bite of alcohol to cut the density of fruit in the middle of the wine. It starts off on barrel tones, then finishes on mellow red fruit flavors that last. It has another five to eight years before it may start to fade.


1978 Bin 95 Grange Hermitage

Here’s a wine that coats every flavor receptor on the tongue, blankets them in black, then red spice and red fruit. It’s not as tightly built as some vintages; instead, it feels broader and more expansive, with more meat on the bone. The pure shiraz spice gives a bright, generous impression, the finish lasts on red fruit and spice in a beautiful open weave. At its peak now and through the next decade.


1979 Bin 95 Grange Hermitage

The wet, hot growing season produced what is now a volatile, musty, somewhat tinny wine.


1980 Bin 95 Grange Hermitage

This has the plumpness of filet mignon, meaty with its richness inherent in the silky texture. There’s a gentle, mature red fruit tone that carries through the wine and lasts in a red sunset. From a warm season and a cool, late harvest, this is ready to drink now and over the next five to eight years.


1981 Bin 95 Grange Hermitage

We tasted two bottles from this hot, drought year. One was musty and pungent, the other a mature wine with gentle red and blacker prune-like flavor. Past its time.


1982 Bin 95 Grange Hermitage

During the weeklong Rewards of Patience tasting, we sampled a number of different wines from 1982, a mild season with heat during harvest. St. Henri was figgy and mature, a quiet pleasure. Kalimna Bin 28 Shiraz was well past its prime. The balance in Bins 389 and 707 was off. So it came as a surprise that the vintage was one of the best for Grange. The wine is deep and heady with delicious, succulent red raspberry flavor. The wine feels sunny in the middle, then earthier as tannins emerge from underneath the fruit, then the fresh berry flavor opens up in the end and lasts. Grange’s 1982 siblings would suggest that the freshness may not last forever, but the wine certainly feels like it has plenty of staying power.


1983 Bin 95 Grange Hermitage

Others liked the fruit of this low-yielding vintage considerably more than I did. Huon Hooke described it as a “honeycomb, Violet Crumble sort of wine.” I found more bitterness than sweetness and a lot of barrel tones. The tannins need meat to assuage them while the fruit is more reticent and mature.


1984 Bin 95 Grange Hermitage

Here’s an instance where my preference for freshness in wine met a cool season with a cool, dry and late harvest. If you share that penchant for wines in which the tannins hold as much freshness as the fruit, for aromas that hold floral notes after twenty years in the bottle, than you might rank this vintage highly as well. There’s a black cherry character to the fruit and mineral edges to the tannin that set it apart. The finish is expansive and suggests a long life ahead, perhaps another two decades.


1985 Bin 95 Grange Hermitage

The texture of this wine is generous, the tannins spicy, the fruit soft and light. It comes from a cool, mild season with intermittent rain during harvest. Sleek for now, but not a long-term Grange.


1986 Bin 95 Grange Hermitage

Fine growing conditions, mild and dry, heralded the transition from Don Ditter’s tenure to John Duval’s appointment as chief winemaker. The two would have worked together on the wines before and after 1986, but this vintage marks Ditter’s retirement on a high note. Tasting the vintages from oldest to youngest, this is the first wine to show the primary richness of its oak. Delicious, jammy and meaty black fruit balances the oak–saturated with red fruit at the edges. The spices seem to flow out and over the glass. Markedly young for a twenty-year-old wine, this will begin to mature over the next twenty years.


1987 Bin 95 Grange Hermitage

Spring hail produced varied yields in this cool vintage. The wine is now meaty and black, with a ferrous character to the tannin. The blueberry fruit is relatively youthful in comparison to some of its siblings from the 1980s, sweet and approachable. This should hold for a decade or more.


1988 Bin 95 Grange Hermitage

The fruit of this wine has a tart cherry and porcini mushroom tone, its structural strength derived from the tannins. The fruit feels silken and gentle, the tannins powerful and lasting. Perhaps those tannins will sustain the wine; they remain the dominant element.


1989 Bin 95 Grange Hermitage

A warm season led to extreme heat and some rain at vintage, which might account for the sweet ripeness of this wine. The aroma is pungent, the fruit edged by prune and raisin flavors. Tarry tannins balance the sweetness of the finish. It will hold, but it’s not likely to improve.


1990 Bin 95 Grange

Noted for what Duval and his team described as a perfect, warm, dry growing season and harvest, the 1990 is a lovely textural pleasure with years of development ahead. We tasted two bottles; both were silken and fresh. The first bottle had a light cherry aroma that seemed to be magnified by the freshness of the wine; then the finish was a little muddled. The second bottle was less clear in the aroma, but finely detailed on the palate, its cherry and cassis flavors opening through a bright finish. The wine feels healthy, young and dynamic.


1991 Bin 95 Grange

A bold Grange from a warm, dry year. Ripening was early and even. It invested this wine with an explosive power that has mellowed to more subtle pleasuresÉbut the intensity has not begun to slip. Its dark, savory cherry flavor captures syrah in its purest form, complete and uncompromised. Beautiful juice. The ’90 and ’91 are approaching their maturity from different directions; both are capable of developing for another twenty years or more while offering great enjoyment along the way.


1992 Bin 95 Grange

This wine starts with high-toned cherry liqueur scents and flavors, then deepens with air. The tannins, at first dry and woody, meld with the sweet fruit. The alcohol makes it a little spirity, but the wine has some development ahead. From a cool to mild season with intermittent rain.


1993 Bin 95 Grange

The ’93 growing season was wet, then autumn turned dry and harvest was late. Cabernet sauvignon accounts for 14 percent of the blend, the highest ever for Grange (other than the 1953 Grange Cabernet Sauvignon). This wine coasts along on sweet cherry flavor, its gentle tannins and light structure not in the same league as its peers.


1994 Bin 95 Grange

The warm, dry autumn in Coonawarra led Duval to include a significant portion of cabernet in this blend (11 percent). The dry, mild vintage in Barossa accounts for a touch of treacle and spice in the finish. They blend together with density in both the fruit and the tannin–the black, mineral tannin and oak more prominent at one moment, then the meaty, blueberry flavor punching back the next. The wine has stamina and should continue to evolve for two decades or more.


1995 Bin 95 Grange

Black and extravagant, this wine’s flavors are tied to its tannins, which feel juicy, smoky and earthy. The structure is tight and firm, with a hint of gingerbread in the finish. From a drought year, marked by spring frosts and a warm, dry autumn that cooled into a drizzly harvest. It’s unclear where the tannin will take this wine, but it feels as if it won’t reach peak drinking for another five to ten years and should hold well beyond that.


1996 Bin 95 Grange

What began as drizzles at harvest in 1995 turned to winter rains, replenishing the soil moisture and setting the stage for a mild, dry season in 1996. The vintage produced the best wines of Duval’s career at Penfolds, including a Kalimna Block 42 and this Grange, one of the best bottles of the day. The wine is at a perfect moment of its evolution, still bright and succulent, with dynamic flavors that incorporate the presence of new oak as one complex element in its extraordinary length. Darker tones of blueberry highlight potent, muscular red fruit, as if fraise de bois were amplified from tiny wild berries to monumental flavor that doesn’t stop. Delicious to drink now, this should be delicious to drink in 2046.


1997 Bin 95 Grange

A complicated growing season, this started with a wet winter and late spring rains, a burst of heat then cooler, rainy conditions followed by a warm, dry harvest. The ’97 has impressive power, the fireworks of alcohol without all the stuffing needed to support it. The wine feels muscular, warm and a little bony, with sweet red fruit that lasts. Probably at its best in five to ten years.


1998 Bin 95 Grange

Hot, dry weather marked this wine’s tannins, which feel chunky rather than sleek, with espresso-roast richness. One bottle tasted was filled with super-ripe flavors edging toward prune. A second, fresher bottle had generous fruit, in a plum and blueberry mode, with new oak adding to its voluptuous feel. Modern Grange, this is sweet, bright and big.


1999 Bin 95 Grange

Though the winter was dry, rain came in the spring and the fall. Penfolds noted that the vineyards with good drainage performed well in this vintage. The selection for Grange, 100 percent Barossa shiraz, is clearly high level. It has a mineral edge to its tannin, like the spark of gunflint. The fruit is juicy and primary, dense blueberry flavors inhibited by the youth of the wine. This will probably enter its drinking window around fifteen years from the vintage, this should continue to develop through 2030 or 2035.


2000 Bin 95 Grange

A difficult vintage produced less than a quarter of the average volume of Grange, making this a collectible wine, though not a particularly long-lived one. Black currant and red currant flavors join with baking spice in soft structure. Not particularly sturdy.


2001 Bin 95 Grange

Winter rains readied the vines for the extreme heat of this season; harvest temperatures were cooler. The heat produced a black, extracted wine, with a touch of volatility to the blueberry flavors. It has Christmas cookie spice and fruitcake richness. A super-ripe style of Grange.


2002 Bin 95 Grange

The 2002 is another great Grange from a transitional year–this one the last for Duval, who retired after the vintage and turned over responsibilities for aging the wine to Peter Gago. Tasted in Adelaide, the wine showed tension in its structure, with substantial tannin to amplify the blueberry flavor, enhancing the fruit without abrading it. The wine finishes dry, earthy, subtle and engaging. Beautiful juice.

Here’s my note for the same wine tasted in New York (it appeared in the February 2008 issue, reviewed with 95 points): The summer of 2002 was one of the coldest on record, the autumn warm and dry: the season clearly branded this vintage of Grange with beautiful cool fruit and extremely long flavors. A selection of Penfolds’ top shiraz (with one percent cabernet sauvignon), the fireworks that Grange can produce are subtle in ’02, exploding out in all directions while leaving a sense of elegance. Its power continues to build over the course of several days, almost electric with coffee, mocha, plum and red berry flavors. Graceful Grange? Yes, and sure to be long-lived as well.

Tasters were asked not to comment on the 2003 through 2005 vintages, as they have not yet been released. Suffice it to say that in 2004, Gago and his team saw fit to produce a wine from Kalimna Block 42, as well as a wine they labeled Bin 60A, after the famous 1962. Both wines are at the highest level of Penfolds’ historical output, and readers can surmise that the Grange from such a year would be at the same level. We also tasted a number of great Penfolds wines from 2005, which, taken together, show Gago’s team on an impressive roll.