A wine critic who has tasted every vintage of the Penfolds classic rates the latest release.
The latest vintage of Australia's most famous red wine, Penfolds Grange, goes on sale tomorrow with an asking price of $785 and a 100 out of 100 rating from one influential wine publication.
Given the extraordinary hype over the 2008 and a price hike of more than $100 over the previous vintage, the question I'm most often asked is, is it worth it?
First, a disclosure: I'm not a Grange fanatic, but have a more-than-passing interest in the grand old shiraz as one of the lucky few to have tasted every commercially-released vintage, from the 1952 through to this latest release. I've bought it, sold it, tried to invest in it, drank it, spat it, and both ridiculed it and stood in awe. I also have an outstanding commission to write a book on it; yep, a whole book on a single wine. Trainspotters, I'm one of you.
But then, to state the bleeding obvious, Penfolds Grange is not just any wine. It wasn't from the day it was born. Its creator, Max Schubert – who was, remarkably, a humble employee of Penfolds – fought in World War II and came back determined to make a wine that would endure. The aim of Grange – as it would come to be named, after a cottage at Penfolds' Adelaide property – was simple: to stand up against the best wines of the world, and to put Australian table wine on the world map.
Making the wine went to plan, but the selling of it didn't. This is one of two key planks in the story of Penfolds Grange. When Schubert first started letting people taste his Grange, some people liked it but most people didn't. Grange was labelled a “concoction”. One wine industry person said “no one in their right mind will buy it” and that it deserved to be given away because it was “not worth anything”.
Schubert was ordered by his Sydney management to stop making Grange. But secretly, with limited resources, he kept making it – if he'd been found out, he'd have been sacked instantly – even going so far as to hide barrels full of it behind false walls. These wines – 1957, 1958, 1959 – are now referred to as the Hidden Granges.
This was, by accident, one of the best marketing plots ever devised. Not only was Grange ahead of its time; it was controversial. It still is today – for its richness of flavour, for its liberal use of new American oak (the fashion is now for less oak, or French oak), for the fact that its grapes are grown in many different regions (Grange is unique in the world of luxury wine for not being from a single vineyard, or a single region).
The other key plank of Grange is of course its heritage of great releases. Time has shown Schubert and his winemaking successors to be master craftsmen.
The 1952, 1953 and 1955 are so magically good they border on the ridiculous. So, too, the 1962, 1963, 1965 and 1966. The 1970s is a leaner era; 1971 and 1976 the stars. The 1980s are good: 1982, 1985 and 1986 the champions. Then in 1990 a new golden era of Grange begins: 1990, 1991, 1994, 1996, 1998 are classics in various guises. Since, the hits have kept coming: 2002, 2004, 2005, 2006 and now 2008 Grange are all stellar.
Is the 2008 the best yet, as indicated by the awarding of the label's first perfect score by American publication Wine Advocate? It's undoubtedly superb, but then so are so many of its predecessors that the 2008 wouldn't be in my top five. Tellingly, it would be in the top 15. The 2010, due in two years, is already touted as another “best ever” in a long line of them.
The crucial point about this latest release is not just its quality, but the market it's being released into. Over the past decade, when asked whether or not Grange is a good financial investment, I've bluntly answered: no. Most vintages of Grange released over the past decade have attracted lower prices at auction than they did at retail.
Now that the release price of Grange has scorched so high, though, I'm rethinking my answer.
Nick Stamford, managing director of wine auction house MW Wines, believes “the 2008 Grange is easily the most hyped vintage since 1998.” That's mostly because Wine Advocate scored it 100 out of 100, followed by Penfolds rushing through a price increase of more than $100 per bottle.
Whopping annual price rises for Grange are nothing new, but this latest spur-of-the-moment hike could herald the start of a new era of increased world demand for this Aussie classic.
Some perspective from Stamford: “The 1998 was released with an RRP of $400, and traded steadily above $500 in the secondary market soon after release, with some sales as high as $700. The market price subsequently settled below $400 and is now trading steadily in the mid $500s.
“With the 2008 release … whether that initial interest fades like the 1998 will depend on just how strong the interest is out of Asia.”
Demand in Asia for the 2008 far outstrips supply, Penfolds claims. If this is true, Stamford says, “we could see a sustained increase in price. We won't know for a while whether the hype is true, though, and the Asian wine investment market is notably volatile.”
Stamford adds: “Truly great vintages, now entering their prime drinking window (such as 1986, 1990, 1991 and 1996), can be obtained on the secondary market for hundreds of dollars less than the RRP on the 2008 release. I know where my drinking and investment money will go.”
Is the 2008 a good investment? The drinker in me hopes it's a flop, but global demand and the richness of the Grange story, and lineage, have me more worried than usual.
Campbell Mattinson is the publisher of The Wine Front and the editor of Wine Companion magazine.