On April 30 each year, a queue of Australian wine enthusiasts converges on Penfolds Magill Estate Winery in Adelaide for a mission – to obtain a bottle of the latest Grange Hermitage release, Australia’s iconic, purple-black Shiraz, which is released on May 1.
So great is the thirst for this trophy wine that people are not only willing to camp the whole night, but also pay US $ 500.00 or more per bottle.
Long-time Penfolds legendary winemaker Max Schubert in 1951 created Grange Hermitage a year after visiting Bordeaux. There he learned that red wine fermented and matured in small, tight-grained barrels take on a flavour and quality, and improve with age.
Grange Hermitage is a long-maturing, barrel-fermented Bordeaux-style Shiraz made from small thick-skinned intensely flavoured grapes grown on the sun-baked plains of Barossa valley. It is the driest state in the driest continent.
Of the innumerable wines the New World produces in the image of great estates of Bordeaux, and Cotes du Rhone, Grange is the only one that comes close, and some say, even surpasses them.
Ever since, Hugh Johnson, the inventor of the World Wine Atlas and flowery-language British wine writer, praised its 1983 vintage, comparing it to Chateau Latour, Chateau Lafite Rothschild, Chateau Margaux, and Chateau Haut Brion, Grange has become a must-have wine for all collectors, connoisseurs and enthusiasts. Grange enjoys a cult status along with Screaming Eagle from California, and Chateau Le Pin from Bordeaux, but luckily it is available in greater quantities than either. (Screaming Eagle’s total production barely surpasses 1000 cases and that of Le Pin was 6100 in 2000).
Rich Hong Kong merchants seem to be willing to pay exorbitant prices for several cases of Grange, not so much to enjoy, but to give as gifts to their valued customers as is customary in Pacific Rim countries.
Despite Penfolds admirably egalitarian policy of selling through super markets (where selling wine is left to the private sector), getting hold of a few bottles of Grange is always difficult. In export markets quantities are allocated. L. C. B. O. gets a few cases, but surprisingly, the Finish alcohol monopoly gets more.
Taste-wise, Grange is austere, compared to mainstream Australian Shiraz wines, as it contains small amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, and pending on vintage, even some Cabernet Franc. When mature it exudes leathery, chocolaty, aromas. It is always powerful, seamless, with an excellent mouth-fell, smooth and has an extra long after taste.
Penfolds wisely releases Grange when five years old, to prevent infanticidal wine enthusiasts from consuming the venerable wine too young. Approximately 10 000 cases are produced annually and compared to Lafite’s 15,000 – 20,000 cases, Margaux’s 12,000 and Haut Brion’s 11,000, this is a respectable quantity, albeit merely not enough to make a dent in world wide demand.
Surprisingly, Penfolds wanted to discontinue the production of Grange in 1956, but luckily Max Schubert persevered and continued to produce 1957, 1958, and 1959 vintages on the sly and then presented them to one of the board of director’s members after the wine was suitably aged.
The director was incredulous! Shortly after the incident Max Schubert was declared a genius. 1951 Grange are revered like holy relics, and can fetch up to US $ 30,000.00 per bottle due to its historical and sentimental value, since it was made by the inventor.
When Grange Hermitage
was first released, the Australian wine industry was better known for fortified wines and brandies. Grange accelerated the trend towards dry table wines. Its impact still reverberates.
Since 1951 many other Australian wine makers attempted to produce outstanding Shiraz and Shiraz-blends (mainly with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot) capable of aging for long periods, as equally well balanced with depth and elegance. Mostly, they been successful in creating fine wines but were never able to duplicate the genius of Max Schubert.
Recently, I was fortunate enough to taste a 2005 Grange Hermitage.
Here are my thoughts: It offers outstanding complexity of aromas, with ripe blackberries, spice, cocoa, and nuances of tobacco. In the mouth it is very stylish, with subtle notes of fruit layers of flavours, creamy texture, and mature tannins.
A great wine that achieves perfect harmony between many characteristics of grape varieties. The aftertaste is long, pleasant and extremely rewarding.
You can enjoy it on its own, while contemplating vineyards full of ripe fruit ready to be harvested, or with flavourful and well presented dishes.