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Penfolds Grange and Special Bins: a unique vertical tasting in Paris

Hosted by the Australian Ambassador to France at "an intimate dinner", it was billed as "the first ever monumental vertical tasting of Penfolds Grange and Special Bins". I was one of the ambassador's guests

This article was published in Decanter magazine in late 2011

The last time I tasted 1953 Grange – I can’t tell you how satisfying it is to be able to say that – it was outshone by the 1953 Grange Cabernet Sauvignon. That was September 2003, in Australia, at the fifth Penfolds Rewards of Patience, where we tasted all 50 vintages of Grange, from 1952 on, in a three-day tasting of nearly 400 Penfolds wines. At this summer’s tasting (2011), the 1953 Grange outlasted the Cabernet in the glass and won the day – or rather night, for this was a tasting over dinner hosted by Australian Ambassador David Ritchie in his residence in Paris. Among his 15 other guests were Jancis Robinson and singer-songwriter-winelover Mick Hucknall. The celebrated Sydney chef Tony Bilson came over to cook (and how!) but, as he pointed out, it wasn’t a food and wine matching dinner, it was about giving space for the wines to be enjoyed.

Standing on the terrace of the Australian ambassador's private residence with the Eiffel Tower behind us, our host Ambassador David Ritchie is far right next to Jancis Robinson, Penfolds' chief winemaker Peter Gago holds a glass centre stage, Mick Hucknall is sixth from left and I'm second from left

The event was billed as the inaugural Penfolds vertical across six decades and the idea was to look at (such a quaint phrase) Penfolds’ most significant Special Bins alongside the Grange of the same year – seven vintages, 16 wines, six decades. The Special Bins are made in the finest vintages only and are essentially one-offs, although Bin 60A, for example, was made in 1962 and then again four decades later in 2004. What the specials never do, according to Peter Gago, Penfolds’ chief winemaker, is cream off the best material at the expense of the three flagships – Bin 95 Grange (to give it it’s full name), Bin 707 Cabernet Sauvignon and St. Henri Shiraz: “We fix those first, then do the Special Bins if there are any.”.

The fact that we were tasting Special Bins – and a selection at that (1956, 1966 and 1973 weren’t included) – meant we were considering top vintages only, so it’s hardly surprising that there were few disappointments, although there was inevitably some bottle variation. The first bottle of 1953 Grange Cabernet was fading, the second was far superior. The weakest wine was 1967 Bin 7: a third bottle was better than the first two (problems included volatile acidity, compounded in one by an element of corkiness), but if I had any of this wine I would open it now. After that, my least favourite was the 1982 Bin 820, which had a slightly porty character, perhaps from the warm burst at the end of the growing season, and was showing its age more than some older vintages.

These two wines were both Coonawarra Cabernet-dominated (around 60 per cent). Does that suggest that Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon is the weakest link, ageing less well than Barossa Shiraz and Barossa Cabernet? It would be a neat conclusion, but it’s not that simple. The 1962 Bin 62A – often cited as the greatest Australian wine of all time and avowed favourite of Max Schubert, creator of Grange – is also 60% Coonawarra Cabernet. It showed magnificently, living up to its reputation, although not all bottles are as good, apparently. In fact it was the one vintage in which I definitely preferred the Special Bin to the Grange. So, if the tasting showed anything, other than that Grange and the Special Bins are exceptional and extraordinarily long-lived, it’s that Grange is, for me, the ne plus ultra.

The Tasting

The wines below are in tasting order. Usually, Peter Gago tastes Grange from old to young, but the Paris tasting was both a horizontal and a vertical and he put the vintages in the order he thought logical. You could argue that the Special Bins should have preceded the Grange in each pair or trio, but Grange was the yardstick, so from that point of view it made sense.

All wines were aged in new American oak hogsheads (14–18 months for Grange, 13–22 months for the Special Bins). All the Granges were predominantly Shiraz with a little Cabernet Sauvignon.

1980 Grange

Exotic, spicy nose with sandalwood and cedar; powerful, compact palate with black fruit, plum and raspberry, then chocolate, spice and touches of Marmite, soy sauce and vanilla cream; attractive, dusty tannins. Will still be going strong in 2020. 96% Shiraz and 4% Cabernet from Barossa Valley, Clare Valley, Magill (Adelaide), McLaren Vale and Coonawarra.

1980 Bin 80A Coonawarra Cabernet Kalimna Shiraz

Coonawarra Cabernet (61%) really makes its present felt in the graphite, mint and intense cassis on the nose. Notably silky texture with supple tannins and flavours of tobacco, spice and toffee cream. Pretty and graceful and should get to 2020 in good shape.

1982 Grange

Full, rich and spicy with very sweet fruit backed by savoury, meaty flavours. Broader and blowsier than 1980 Grange – 13.5% abv against 12.5% and 18 months in oak against 14 – perhaps because of the warmth at the end of the vintage. A 94% Shiraz blend from Kalimna (Barossa), Barossa Valley, Clare Valley, Magill and the now disappeared Modbury (Adelaide).

1982 Bin 820 Coonawarra Cabernet Shiraz

An all-Coonawarra blend. Very sweet, plummy nose, almost over-ripe, porty fruit on the palate redeemed by spicy depth and Cabernet mintiness. Seems more obviously Shiraz than 1980 Bin 80A, although at 43% Shiraz there’s only 4% more, so probably more a reflection of vintage.

1953 Grange

The second commercial vintage and still a stunner. Complex, many layered, lasts in both mouth and glass. Darker than the 1953 Cabernet; very aromatic; a spicy, gamy backbone, still-vibrant fruit, mocha, toast and vanilla flavours. 87% Shiraz from Magill, Morphett Vale (Adelaide) and Kalimna. Labelled Bin 2, not Bin 95.

1953 Grange Cabernet Bin 9

A superb second bottle: supple but structured, rich and silky with cassis, dark chocolate, cedar and graphite; multi layered like the Grange, but it didn’t last as long in the glass. All fruit was from Kalimna Block 42, planted around 1888 and said to be the world’s oldest Cabernet vines. Originally Max Schubert thought it would be a source for Grange, but yields and consistency were too limited.

1962 Grange

Same blend and ageing as the 1953, but slightly different fruit sources – Magill, Barossa Valley and Adelaide Hills. A scent of roses together with creamy, nutty, coffee-and-spice aromas; deep, plummy fruit, gamy/meaty maturity, but a delicate minty freshness. On top form thanks to its balance.

1962 Bin 60A Coonawarra Cabernet Kalimna Shiraz

A 60:40 blend, oak-aged for 22 months and never commercially released. Intense, sleek and complete; cedary, creamy, spicy flavours; supple but firm. Like a first-growth Bordeaux in a great vintage. Peter Gago says good bottles (like this) look better after three hours double-decanted.

1967 Grange

Relatively elegant and fragrant; more about creamy sweetness and spice than richness and weight, although 13.3% abv is quite high for the era. One to drink sooner rather than later. Fruit from Barossa Valley, Clare Valley and Magill; 94% Shiraz.

1967 Bin 7 Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon Kalimna Shiraz

Two faulty bottles, a better third bottle with Cabernet grip and blackcurrant, cedar and black olive flavours, but dry and not entirely harmonious.

1990 Grange

The young wines start here! Ripe, rich and biscuity with the sweetness and aromatic intensity of apricots; succulent fruit, spicy mocha notes and supple tannins. Deliciously drinkable, but will last decades ¬– iron fist in a velvet glove. 95% Shiraz; fruit from Barossa Valley, Clare Valley and Coonawarra.

1990 Bin 90A Coonawarra Cabernet Barossa Shiraz

A 68:32 blend, with the Shiraz component from the Koonunga Hill vineyard. Cabernet black fruit dominates the nose, but plummy, spicy Shiraz comes through on the palate together with oak and ripe tannins. Barely ready, but a long future.

1990 Bin 920 Coonawarra Cabernet Shiraz

Slightly closed nose, but a piercing, minty-herbal, black fruit Coonawarra Cabernet signature, just starting to blossom and richen with some creaminess and spice from the 35% Shiraz. Drink over the next two decades.

1996 Grange

A youngster packed with succulent, primary, plummy black fruit edged with spice, chocolate, mocha and a hint of peppermint. Super-smooth ripe tannins and texture. Sumptuous. Fruit from Kalimna, McLaren Vale and Magill; 94% Shiraz. A great future.

1996 Block 42 Kalimna Cabernet Sauvignon

Fruit from the same source as the 1953 Grange Cabernet and a wine in the same league. Very young, immensely concentrated, but beautifully balanced; wonderfully glossy texture. Will be long-lived.

2004 Grange

Very rich and ripe; seductive blackberry, cocoa and coffee, savoury oak and fine-grained tannins wrapped around a solid frame. Huge potential, but bewilderingly drinkable already. Slightly tricky vintage with hot weather throughout March–April, but Gago is “pleased with what we did”. He predicts “a 100-year wine, but good all the way”. Barossa Valley, McLaren Vale and Magill; 96% shiraz.

2004 Bin 60A Coonawarra Cabernet Barossa Shiraz

The first Bin 60A since 1962. Monumental, but tight and unformed. Piercing intensity of blackcurrant and graphite; long mineral finish. Leave another five years. Will be long-lived. 56% Block 20 Coonawarra Cabernet; Shiraz from Kalimna Blocks 4 and 14 and Koonunga Hill Block 53G.

2004 Block 42 Kalimna Cabernet Sauvignon

Lush perfume of violets and sweet black fruit – almost like a young vintage port. Ripe, concentrated, powerful, but fresh and cedary; convincing tannins. Drinkable now, but may close up for a few years. Should reach 2030 in good form.

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