Have you ever tasted Penfolds Grange or been curious about why they’re so famous? I was recently treated to their ‘Taste of Grange’ experience at their Barossa Cellar door. They’ve established themselves as one of Australia’s power brands, transcending the typical wine space: (i.e. something you buy to merely drink - whatever next!). Grange sits more comfortably alongside 1st Growth Bordeaux, ‘Grandes Marques’ Champagnes and expensive watches - luxury items that are bought as much for what they outwardly signal as the inward sensory experience they create let alone the functional benefit they provide.
In this post I'm covering a bit of Penfolds history, and an in-depth look at their "Taste of Grange Experience" available at the Barossa Cellar Door.
Penfolds - Australian Winemaking Royalty
Penfolds have become famous for making very long-lived, uber-premium wines from, most famously, Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon. Lots of expensive oaking, multi-regional / multi-site selection and blending for wines to lay down in your cellar, so a bit of a Bordeaux mindset.
But did you know (like many of the heritage Aussie wine producers), it began life 170 years ago producing fortified wines? Dry wines just weren’t a thing, and in fact these fortified wines were drunk as much for their perceived medical benefits as for their enjoyment.
Drink to your health: A little bit of Penfolds History
This is what the original Penfolds business was built on, with Dr Christopher Penfold, riding around town with his magical health potions. His wife Mary by the way was very much in charge of the viticultural and winemaking side of the business. Slowly but surely however, people cottoned on to the fact that, despite that initial burst of bonhomie and ruddy cheeks, strong alcohol might not actually be a miracle health tonic, and so the focus shifted from a medicinal to a consumer product.
When Christopher Penfold died, Mary continued driving the business, to the point where when she retired and passed the baton to her daughter, Penfolds was producing around ⅓ of all South Australia’s wine.
Then came the trend towards dry table wines, which is said to be down to returning servicemen, who had developed a taste for the dry wines of Europe.
Penfolds then has a man called Max Schubert, (who started as a messenger boy and rose to be head winemaker), to thank for turning it into the company it is today. Schubert travelled to the First Growth Chateaux of Bordeaux in the 50’s to learn about winemaking, where he had an epiphany by way of some 50-60yr old Cabernet Sauvignon. Supposedly he was so taken by these wines and their aging potential he decided that was the direction he wanted to take Penfolds for the future.
But alas. His board weren’t quite so enlightened. Wine in the Australian market was made for consumption, not cellaring and in 1957 after a few years of making these very tannic, unapproachable wines intended for long aging, his board told him to stop. But Schubert was clearly a bit of a rogue. He simply built a wall and continued to make these wines (what would become the world famous Penfolds Grange) in secret, so convinced he was of their potential. A few years later, he sneakily got his board to retry the wines, pouring the same wine from a clean skin bottle. It paid off for him, and in 1960 he was officially instructed to restart production, and the rest is history!
Schubert chose to make his 'Grange' wines with Shiraz rather than Cab Sav due to its perceived greater suitability to the South Australian climate and in doing so he really did Australia a favour, helping to make Shiraz one of Aus’s greatest export assets.
Visiting the Penfold’s Cellar Door
Be aware that there are 2 cellar door locations for Penfolds - which should make it a bit easier to tick Penfolds off your Barossa bucket list.
There’s the original Magill Estate location - nearer to Adelaide city. This is where you can tour the winery, see the secret wall and the old cottage where Christopher & Mary lived. Plus there’s a restaurant where (at great expense) you can do a 3 course degustation lunch or 7 course dinner, or simply a structured tasting for $50.
Then there is the Cellar Door in the heart of the Barossa, in Nuriootpa one of the little towns in the Barossa. Here you can do walk-up informal tastings or there is a private room for their pre-booked structured tastings - a Taste of Grange, or their Blending experience. This is perfectly fine if you’re actually just into tasting the wine, rather than getting all ensconced in the history.
The Penfold’s Taste of Grange Experience
Since we had limited time and we wanted to spend as much time in the Barossa as possible, we opted for The Taste of Grange Experience. This is typically priced at $150 per person, so it does not come cheap.
For your money, you get a very in depth insight into what makes Penfolds unique and a comprehensive tasting of 6 of their flagship wines paired with carefully selected food.
Here's a run down of what we tasted, what they paired it with and where it sits in the portfolio:
1. 2016 Yattarna Chardonnay with roasted almonds ($175)
The ambition to make a ‘white Grange’. As per Penfolds house style; fruit sourced multi-regionally; from Tasmania to Adelaide. Eight months in French oak barriques (35% new). Delicious, stone fruit and vanilla. Yum.
2. 2015 St Henri Shiraz with dried figs ($135)
Shiraz with a dash of Cab Sav, aged in big old barrels for almost no oak influence. Silky black fruit.
3. 2016 RWT Barossa Valley Shiraz with 24 month Parmigiano Reggiano ($200)
In contrast to the multi-sourced + American Oak that are the hallmarks of Grange, this is about fruit sourced solely from the Barossa, and aged in old French hogsheads. A super premium Barossa Shiraz. RWT stands for Red Winemaking Trials.. inventive!
4. 2016 Bin 169 Coonawarra Cabernet with Vahlrona 66% Dark Chocolate ($360)
Big and blackcurranty. Leafy and lovely.
5. 2016 Bin 707* Cabernet Sauvignon with cured sausage ($600)
Apparently this was named after the Boeing 707?! This is ‘Grange made with Cabernet’, if you like. Sampled 6 years before its official drinking window. All new American oak. New oak coming out of its ears. Such oaky. So dill. A tannin structure like the Burj Khalifa. Would so love to try this towards the end of its drinking window.
(2022 - 2050)
6. 2014 Grange (Shiraz) with black olives ($900)
In theory this shouldn’t be drunk for at least another 2 years and will still be going strong in 2045. Intense, full bodied, tannic, dark primary fruit, savoury notes, vanilla. (D’uh!)
My overall impression of the experience? It was super polished, professional and overall a very cerebral experience, tasting the wines systematically, learning all about the formula and winemaking behind each expression.
However I can't help compare this to my first experience of Grange a few years ago. We opened a bottle of 1982 in honour of the passing of a very, very special lady (my Godmother and a big red wine enthusiast). We paired it with nothing. We weren’t sitting in the winery, ensconced in its history and pedigree, but in our flat, just the two of us one Saturday night. It was sensational.
Confirmation if ever I needed it that wine is of course best drunk with the heart, rather than the head!
We’re lucky enough to have a bottle of ’81, ’04 and ’08 tucked away in our collection and I’m looking forward to the moment my heart tells me its time to crack them open!