Geoff Kelly Wine Reviews
Independent reviews of some local and imported wines available in New Zealand, including earlier vintages.

Geoff Kelly  MSc (Hons)

In the last few weeks I have had the pleasure of tasting and reviewing the best of the Hawkes Bay syrahs from the marvellous 2010 vintage,  and the 2010 syrahs from Yves Cuilleron from near Cote Rotie.  What a wonderful grape syrah is,  and what beautiful wine it can make.  So it seemed only natural one would attend Glengarry's presentation of eight vintages of Grange Hermitage,  Australia's most 'famous' example of the same grape,  though at Penfolds all too often in recent decades made in an uncompromisingly shiraz style.

Wine is a fraught subject.  It is so undermined by the vulgarities of snobbery,  pretension and artifice.  Like fashion,  one can't help but think that fine wine promotion is all too often the exploitation of the gullible by the cynical.  And the corporate owners of Penfolds winery seem hell-bent on reinforcing all the negatives there are about wine perception.  The hype surrounding Penfold's Grange has always been excessive,  fed by the immodest promotional style which comes so easily to so many Australian wine people.  But by nearly doubling the price of the latest release of Grange shiraz from around $500 to more than $800 per 750 ml bottle,  Penfolds' corporate controllers seem intent on making the wine the preserve solely of the trophy-hunter,  the status-symbols-seeker,  the credulous,  and those setting out to impress,  without regard to the actual quality of the wine.

To any wine-lover from other than a hot climate,  the fact is that Penfold's Grange has all too often been vastly over-ripe,  over-oaked,  high alcohol and over-hyped.  It has become an ostentatious national monument,  rather than a wine,  which should be a thing of beauty.  To anyone who reflects that it is made from the same grape as those informing the (at best) truly beautiful wines of Cote Rotie,  Hermitage and latterly the Gimblett Gravels and The Bridge Pa Triangle,  the whole marketing pitch and reputation built up around Grange,  and fed by an extraordinarily chauvinistic Australian winewriting fraternity,  becomes either laughable,  or sad.  One only needs to run the wine in a rigorously blind tasting with 11 quality wines from Europe and New Zealand to see how impossible it is to conceal.  And it does not differ in a constructive way,  usually seeming simply coarse.

Consider for a moment the descriptors (often pretentious) posted by Penfold's winemakers themselves on the Grange website:  for the 2006:  ... cured/smoked meats ... tempered by teppanyaki sauces ... black liquorice [sic], olive and fresh Arabica coffee-bean and soy ...;  for the 2004:  ... elements of cola,  bay leaf,  malt,  Indian spices and nougat.  An ethereal oriental lift of glazed Peking duck ... ;  for the 2001:  tightly packed liquorice,  freshly tanned leather and dark spices ...;  for the 1998:  liqueured dark chocolate and licorice.  Overtones of malt ...    

Not one of those (in the eyes of the writers) supposedly positive attributes has anything to do with the beauty of perfectly ripe and fragrant red grapes.  All of those attributes are artefacts imposed on the wine by know-better hot-climate winemakers over-ripening the grapes in the first place,  then modifying the flavours further in the winery.  Talk about trying to gild the lily.  When one reflects on the top syrahs of more temperate climates,  the whole Grange proposition is a triumph of cultural grandiosity (or blindness) over red-wine reality.  The simple fact that year in and year out Grange is said to be 14.5% alcohol immediately gives the show away.  And naturally,  to even doubt the supremacy of Grange is regarded as treasonable ...

All that said,  however,  tasting of old Penfold's wines away from the hype and values of the Grange cult and its camp-followers can be rewarding.  Some of the less-oaky,  less-ripe non-Grange reds from the 1970s before the obsession with new oak are now lovely.  Accordingly,  I approached this tasting as always hoping to find wines of potential beauty.  And I did end up wondering,  could the 2008 mark a turning point in the evolution of Grange ?  Also I can record with relief that after many years of being downright cheapskate with their corks,  they at least are now using good 50mm corks.  Hardly standard-setting,  though.  At the price per bottle or even a fraction of it,  55mm would be more appropriate.  After all,  both Delas and Chapoutier use 50mm corks in their standard $30 – 35 Crozes-Hermitage.

Looking ahead,  and with this 2008 in mind,  it would be great if the Grange winemakers again took some heed of international standards for fine wine.  The latter were after all,  the underlying stimulus for Grange's creation,  but have long since been displaced by an excessively nationalistic approach to the wine.  The qualities of beauty,  subtlety and finesse still matter in red table wine,  notwithstanding the more quantitative approach to red wines espoused by trans-Atlantic winewriters in recent decades.

It is not as if Australia cannot make lovely wines from shiraz / syrah.  One has only to think of odd earlier vintages of not only the standard Tahbilk Shiraz but particularly their Tahbilk 1860 Vines,  or earlier Seville Estate Shiraz,  or more latterly 2007 Paringa Estate Shiraz Reserve,  all from Victoria,  to realise that the problem has become one of misorientation.  It is hard to escape the conclusion that in South Australia particularly,  the influence of the much-too-technically preoccupied wine research schools was not all positive.  In the 1980s and for too long since,  the concept of beauty in wine was sacrificed on the high altar of wine technology.  And certainly at Penfolds,  the wines all too often simply became ugly,  as the winemakers pursued lowered pHs in over-ripe grapes via excessive added tartaric,  plus the kinds of sensory qualities in their reds epitomised by the earlier quotations from their own misconceived but seen-as-positive descriptors.  So after the Grange tasting,  I checked 2010 Penfolds Bin 28,  a wine which in the earliest '70s was good,  but later became an absolute leader in the trend towards ugliness in Penfolds reds.  And this 2010 does indeed have some of the style of the 1970 and 1971,  though it is a bit too euc'y to be lovely.  So perhaps we are on the brink of a new era at Penfolds – let's hope so.

THE WINES REVIEWED:  Syrah / Shiraz:

2008  Penfolds [ Shiraz ] Bin 95 Grange
2007  Penfolds [ Shiraz ] Bin 95 Grange
2006  Penfolds [ Shiraz ] Bin 95 Grange
2005  Penfolds [ Shiraz ] Bin 95 Grange
  2004  Penfolds [ Shiraz ] Bin 95 Grange
2003  Penfolds [ Shiraz ] Bin 95 Grange
2002  Penfolds [ Shiraz ] Bin 95 Grange
2001  Penfolds [ Shiraz ] Bin 95 Grange

2008  Penfolds [ Shiraz ] Bin 95 Grange   18 ½ +  ()
South Australia,  Australia:  14.5%;  $899   [ cork 50mm;  Sh 98%,  CS 2;  some barrel-ferment;  19 months in American hogsheads 100% new;  www.penfolds.com ]
Ruby,  carmine and velvet,  a vibrantly fresh and sensational colour,  the deepest.  When it comes to big Australian reds,  and my experience with odd Granges back to the 1965 vintage,  it is the lack of immediate negatives which make this wine so initially pleasing.  It smells fresh rather than over-ripe,  it smells of berries rather than artefact,  it is not obviously too euc'y or volatile,  and the oak is to a degree restrained.  In a powerful way,  it actually smells winey,  unlike so much of what passes as red wine in Australia,  including from Penfolds.  In mouth,  there is in fact still a pretty unsubtle whack of oak,  highly vanillin American oak.  But there is some suggestion of cassis,  and the freshness of blueberry and bottled dark plum is good.  There is some grading to boysenberry though.  Oak and VA are within bounds.  There is some euc taint,  but what can you say:  simply that the wine would be so much better without it – but then you reflect the Aussies can't even see it.  It is understandable why it is rated 100 points (Robert Parker recently) in a country like America,  with a view of wine quality so slanted to hotter-climate and bigger wines.  But one only needs to think of syrah when tasting this,  however,  to wish for even more restraint.  And when one thinks,  you can buy two bottles of the in-truth-beautiful J L Chave Hermitage 2009 for the asking price of one of these,  the plain fact is that trophy-hunting and wine snobbery are distorting objective analysis of wine quality these days.  Even so,  this is among the best Granges I have tasted.  Cellar 10 –  40 years.  GK 07/13

2004  Penfolds [ Shiraz ] Bin 95 Grange   18 ½  ()
South Australia,  Australia:  14.3%;  $ –    [ cork;  Sh 96%,  CS 4;  some barrel-ferment;  16 months in American hogsheads 100% new;  www.penfolds.com ]
Ruby,  some carmine and velvet,  the second deepest and third freshest of the set.  Like the 2008,  this wine too demonstrates some finesse in a bold way.  The berry is not quite so fresh and suggestive of an appropriate red wine climate as the 2008,  but one can imagine suggestions of cassis,  even hints of syrah in this wine – the bounty of the cooler year.  Most of the palate weight is in fact blueberry and darker bottled black doris plums,  and their concentration is fabulous.  There is some tell-tale boysenberry,  and sad to say,  a touch of euc,  but this too really has some claim to being fine wine,  and nearly syrah,  as opposed to being an overstated national monument.  Cellar 10 –  40 years.  GK 07/13

2002  Penfolds [ Shiraz ] Bin 95 Grange   18 ½  ()
South Australia,  Australia:  14.5%;  $ –    [ cork;  Sh 99%,  CS 1;  some barrel-ferment;  15 months in American hogsheads 100% new;  www.penfolds.com ]
Ruby and velvet,  the third deepest but older in hue naturally.  Bouquet on the 2002 is akin to the 2008,  in that it is one of the fresher and more restrained.  The quality of berry is at about the same point on my syrah ripening curve as the 2008,  or perhaps a little riper,  some blueberry,  boysenberry starting to displace bottled black plums,  too ripe for cassis,  good for shiraz but over-ripe by syrah / Northern Rhone standards.  There is a lovely smoothing and hint of integration just creeping into the palate here,  the berry is starting to wrap up the oak nicely,  and the VA is again within bounds.  Palate is therefore slightly more velvety than the 2008,  but the oak is still unsubtle / very Australian.  Cellar 10 – 35 years.  GK 07/13

2007  Penfolds [ Shiraz ] Bin 95 Grange   18  ()
South Australia,  Australia:  14.5%;  $769   [ cork;  Sh 97%,  CS 3;  some barrel-ferment;  21 months in American hogsheads 100% new;  www.penfolds.com ]
Ruby,  carmine and velvet,  the second freshest and fourth deepest of the colours.  Bouquet here is inclining more to the strident style more typical of Grange:  lots of berry (which does have some freshness I'll concede) but rather much oak and VA.  In mouth,  the American oak is getting coarse,  the blueberry and boysenberry fruit still has some dark bottled plum connotations,  and the famous Grange richness as well evident.  The long aftertaste is oak,  though,  detracting somewhat.  Cellar 10 – 35 years.  GK 07/13

2003  Penfolds [ Shiraz ] Bin 95 Grange   17 ½  ()
South Australia,  Australia:  14.5%;  $ –    [ cork;  Sh 97%,  CS 3;  some barrel-ferment;  15 months in American hogsheads 100% new;  www.penfolds.com ]
Ruby and velvet,  some development,  the second to lightest of the set.  At this point in the set,  the wines settle more into the predictable coarse-grained Grange style:  lots of American oak,  perceptible volatility,  obvious over-ripeness of berry so a lack of freshness,  all-too-often a measure of euc,  just a big powerful hot-climate red pursuing and fulfilling an image.  Palate here is more granular on the higher VA and more obvious oak,  and berry qualities are moving more clearly into the boysenberry and blackberry spectrum.  Sturdy and oaky stuff to cellar 10 – 30 years.  GK 07/13

2001  Penfolds [ Shiraz ] Bin 95 Grange   17 +  ()
South Australia,  Australia:  14.5%;  $ –    [ cork;  Sh 100%,  CS –;  some barrel-ferment;  17 months in American hogsheads 100% new;  www.penfolds.com ]
Ruby and velvet,  the oldest and lightest of the colours,  nearly some garnet.  This Grange is more in the old-time style,  lots of American oak exacerbated by far too high a VA for any kind of finesse,  but with lots of euc'y fruit which is showing more freshness (once age is allowed for) than a couple of these wines.  Palate is granular on the VA / oak interaction,  but the integration of browning berry into the oak,  with some secondary characters showing,  is very much in style.  The fruit richness is again great.  This is very much in the national monument style,  take it or leave it.  Cellar 5 – 25 years.  GK 07/13

2006  Penfolds [ Shiraz ] Bin 95 Grange   16 ½ +  ()
South Australia,  Australia:  14.5%;  $ –    [ cork;  Sh 98%,  CS 2;  some barrel-ferment;  18 months in American hogsheads 100% new;  www.penfolds.com ]
Ruby and velvet,  middling in hue and depth.  Bouquet here has the drab broad raw-liver smell of obvious sur-maturité,  the wine inconceivable as syrah,  but getting pretty dull as shiraz too.  South African reds used to smell like this.  Oak and VA are both unsubtle.  As always with Grange,  in mouth you have to take note of the saturation of fruit,  a purely quantitative thing here,  for the whole wine is simply clumsy,  a caricature of the Grange style,  lacking subtlety and food-friendlyness,  Australian to a fault.  Cellar 5 – 30 years,  in its hot drab style.  GK 07/13

2005  Penfolds [ Shiraz ] Bin 95 Grange   16 ½  ()
South Australia,  Australia:  14.5%;  $ –    [ cork;  Sh 96%,  CS 6;  some barrel-ferment;  88% of the fruit Barossa Valley this year;  18 months in American hogsheads 100% new;  www.penfolds.com ]
Ruby and garnet,  clearly the oldest wine.  Bouquet has all the dull sur-maturité characters of the 2006,  but almost some hot-climate oxidation as well.  As has so often been the peril with Grange,  the artefact here is completely dominating the wine:  over-ripe fruit lacking berry and freshness,  just a quantitative presence,  VA,  clumsy American oak,  no possibility of charm at all.  Palate is still undeniably rich,  but the flavours are leathery,  oaky and euc'y,  the pleasures of the grape lost.  It will still live in this heavy-handed style for many years,  and no doubt in a hot climate has its vociferous supporters as to style.  It’s a long way from the beauty of fine Hermitage or Gimblett Gravels syrah,  however.  Cellar 5 – 20 years.  GK 07/13