The celebrated Australian wine producer Penfolds has just released its latest collection of wines – with the £575 Grange 2013 at the pinnacle of a eye-catchingly expensive range.
Penfolds head winemaker Peter Gago – who in June was made a Companion of the Order of Australia (AC), an honour equivalent to a knighthood – presented the wines to the press in London yesterday in the luxurious surrounds of Whitehall Court, a stone’s throw from Downing Street.
These events take place around the world (Gago was in Paris the day before) and are highly-orchestrated. Nothing is left to chance: the assembled hacks, for example are each presented with a Penfolds-embossed Cross ballpoint to scribble their notes.
Gago is only the fourth winemaker to make Grange, officially an Australian Heritage Icon. The story of its creation by Max Schubert has attained mythic status in Aussie wine circles.
Schubert had joined as a messenger boy in 1931 and worked his way up to be Penfolds winemaker. Determined to make a wine as ageworthy as the great vintages he tasted on a trip to Europe in the 1950s, he chose shiraz as a suitable grape and presented his first efforts to the board in 1957.
To his horror they weren’t impressed and ordered Schubert to close down the experiment. His decision to carry on making Grange Hermitage, as he called it, in secret (he hid the 1957, 58 and 59 vintages in the Penfolds cellars in Barossa) is now the stuff of legend.
Grange, Gago says, is “the original and most powerful expression of Penfolds multi-vineyard, multi-district blending philosophy.” The 2013 is 96 per cent shiraz with dash of cabernet sauvignon, with fruit that comes from a swathe of vineyards across southern Australia – from Barossa, Coonawarra, McLaren Vale and the Magill Estate in the suburbs of Adelaide.
It is a tremendously powerful, tannic wine capable of decades of ageing (Gago suggests a “peak drinking” window between 2020 and 2060). It is celebrated by collectors and critics around the world. Early vintages sell for tens of thousands of dollars – in 2004 a bottle of the first vintage, the 1951, went for AU$50,000, and a complete set from 1951 to 2012 – 62 bottles – has just sold at auction for AU$260,000.
Its price adds to the mystique. There are more expensive wines around (the latest vintage of Burgundy’s Domaine de la Romaneé-Conti’s top wine, the Romaneé-Conti, is £2,200 a bottle) but not many.
Gago himself told World Travel Guide he finds the prices difficult. “I keep away from those discussions. I used to buy these wines when I was a student. How many students can do that now?
“It’s market forces which take the prices up. But the wines sell – we can’t make enough wine – people buy it and cellar it, and they drink it.”
Some refuse to be impressed (a Perth wine merchant famously poured two bottles of the 2011 Grange down the sink because he was outraged by the price and unimpressed by the quality of the vintage) but Penfolds’ position in the pantheon of the world’s fine wines is assured.
Grange and its siblings have “a reputation and track record that rivals some of the great classified growths of Bordeaux and Burgundy,” the influential Australian wine auction guide Langton’s notes.
While Grange sits at the top of the Penfolds pyramid, its stablemates come with equally robust prices. The 2015 Yattarna chardonnay, for example, rivals top Burgundies at £140 a bottle. The Bin 707 Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 is £345, the 2015 RWT Barossa Valley Shiraz is £130, the 2014 St Henri Shiraz (a favourite amongst those who like the leaner style) is £95.
They might seem expensive, but Penfolds likes to ask its devotees to dig deep.
There was surprise verging on disbelief in 2012 when the Ampoule, a hermetically-sealed capsule of 2004 Bin 42 Kalimna Cabernet Sauvignon in a wooden display case, was released for than £100,000. Twelve were made; Penfolds said a senior member of the winemaking team would fly anywhere in the world to open the bottle when the buyer deemed the time was right.
Then last year Penfolds commissioned the ancient glassmaker Saint-Louis to make a £1200 decanter to go with the Grange 2012, and in 2014 an imperial (6 litres) of the Bin 170 Kalimna Shiraz 2010 went on sale for £33,000, in a designer case which opened when you punched in the map coordinates of the Magill Estate. It also came with a compass. “Presumably so buyers could find their way back to reality,” one wag commented.
The Penfolds Collection goes on sale globally on 19th October.