Feb 15, 2021

Penfolds and Grange: The View from the Top

Story by Lachlan Aird, 2020 Wine Media Cadet I tend to actively avoid the word ‘iconic’ as it seems like a somewhat crass descriptor for most wines. However, for truly iconic wines, what other word applies? When tasked with the assignment to write about an iconic wine from Adelaide, South Australia, there seemed to be […]

Story by Lachlan Aird, 2020 Wine Media Cadet

I tend to actively avoid the word ‘iconic’ as it seems like a somewhat crass descriptor for most wines. However, for truly iconic wines, what other word applies? When tasked with the assignment to write about an iconic wine from Adelaide, South Australia, there seemed to be little contest. Penfolds Grange was the obvious choice. As I sit in Penfolds Chief Winemaker Peter Gago’s office at Magill Estate to discuss Grange’s role as an icon, Gago accepts its truth, but with a sigh.

“I very rarely talk about Penfolds when I’m travelling as an ambassador for South Australia’s wine industry,” he offers, citing Henschke’s Hill of Grace and Grosset Riesling as two other worthy contenders. I nod – both are exceptional wines – yet an argument remains that Grange appears to be in an orbit of its own, with a gravitational pull that transcends any other South Australian wine that may be older, rarer, or more expensive.

Indeed, Grange isn’t even the oldest, rarest or most expensive wine that Penfolds produce. In Decanter’s 2004 article 100 Wines To Try Before You Die, listing the greatest wines of all time, Penfolds Bin 60A 1962 came number seven, the only wine in the top ten not from France. James Halliday also declared it as quite possibly the finest Australian wine ever made. However, while wine aficionados will be very aware of Bin 60A 1962, it hasn’t captured the zeitgeist in the same way that Grange has. Sometimes a parcel of fruit might be deemed too good for Grange, being vinified separately. Rarely would those wines make a splash in the general news section of the paper quite the same way Grange does. ‘Best’ and ‘iconic’ aren’t always interchangeable.

And yet Grange continually performs exceptionally well. The latest release of 2016, the 66th consecutive release of Grange, scored 100 points by Ken Gargett of World of Fine Wine Magazine along with a slew of similar accolades from global critics, such as 20+ out of 20 from Matthew Jukes. Gago is quick to quantify that perfect scores do not equate to a perfect wine – “Perfection does not exist”. These scores do denote a benchmark, with Grange repeatedly being the benchmark for Australian red wines. Gago sums it up simply – “It’s aspirational”.

Winemakers can chase the success and fame of Grange for their whole careers and never come close. While many may try to mimic its style, being a blend that changes with every vintage and is crafted from a different blend of varieties, vineyards and regions each year, it’s not a formula that would be easy – or wise – to replicate. Among Australian wines, it sits on its own pedestal – an anomaly.

It is a similar phenomenon for the consumer. While anyone familiar with the Australian wine industry, near of far, will likely know of Grange, the pool of people who have tasted it is much smaller. I’ve had a sip of 1988 Grange for my cousin’s 21st birthday and while this was years before I worked in the wine industry, I still knew of Grange and its importance. It’s a moment I’ll always remember, not for the wine’s taste, but what it represents. Our family are still waiting for the opportune moment to open a 1987 Grange that my father has held onto for years. Gago suggests the sooner the better. I had not even left the property before alerting the family WhatsApp to the good news!

Gago chuckles at these anecdotes, noting that every family seems to have a Grange story. Arguably, they have contributed to Grange becoming iconic more so than perfect scores. No premium Australian wine collection would be complete without one. The Australian wine industry’s equivalent to a jar of Vegemite.

Vegemite had a 40-odd year head start on Grange, which wasn’t put on the map until the 1955 was shown in the 1962 Sydney Show, over a decade after Max Schubert began the project in 1951. Although Schubert was – famously – working on Grange in secret after being told to stop in 1957. Gago emphasises just how much Schubert put at risk during those secret vintages and that he could have lost his job at any moment, given how strictly Penfolds was run during this period. As proof, I was shown a list of rules in the tunnels under Magill Estate outlining that whistling was outlawed and complaints were only accepted on Fridays between 2.00 and 4.00pm.

This story, to me, seems overwhelmingly Australian. A roguish defiance against authority that results in something brilliant. So much of Australia seems to have been built on a larrikin spirit and little bit of mischief – it seems only right our most iconic wine was as well. Indeed, Gago’s own experiments with G3 and G4, which are blends of select Grange vintages in the one bottle, along with international expansions and collaborative projects are not dissimilar approaches. Gago’s strategy to future proof and diversify Penfolds will no doubt ruffle feathers, much in the same way Schubert did with his experimental blends following his 1950 trip to Bordeaux. Even more so, how Mary Penfold built her empire across South Australia’s winemaking districts, laying the foundations for the brand as we know it today. This inclination toward continuous exploration, expansion and experimentation, no matter the risk, seems intrinsic to the Penfolds brand. That is, in my opinion, iconic behaviour.

Whatever the future holds, it’s evident that Grange will remain the apex of Penfolds. Its reputation is unshakeable, given its relatively short existence – 2021 marks Grange’s 70th birthday. Some Bordeaux Chateaus that inspired Schubert to embark on the project would have furniture that trumps Penfolds’ entire 177-year history multiple times over. And yet, in context, it has achieved so much and at such a monumental scale. Through Grange, Penfolds has been able to establish itself as a reliable brand of exceptional quality, with that perception trickling down to every level in every market it is in. A customer of Koonunga Hill can be assured that the same philosophy, authenticity and skill is applied to that of Grange.

Launching from this point, Gago discusses how through his tenure as Chief Winemaker at Penfolds, a position he has held since 2002, and the global travel that he usually accomplishes in a year, he has met so many fascinating people from all industries and walks of life. Whether Michael Jordan, Dave Grohl or a world leading politician, he has seen them swoon and beam at a bottle of Grange.

“It’s a currency,” he says of Grange’s power to make a statement in any room it is in. “It’s the new language of business.”

For something to hold so much power on a global scale, it must be iconic. Its ability to spark curiosity and pleasure can lead to success critically, commercially and diplomatically. And yet, perhaps its greatest skill, is what it does for the South Australian wine industry and Adelaide, South Australia as a destination.

“It opens doors,” says Gago. “Grange can open the door and keep it open for others to follow.”

This again, is very Australian. Using your success to lift and help others. Gago calls it the “halo effect”. It helps make introductions where both parties can benefit. It starts the conversation and makes lasting impressions. It creates memories shared with individuals and families all over the world, from all walks of life. With each new vintage, it can reach further, touch more people and ping South Australian wines to the top of global conversation. Gago refers to it as a “conductor” for the industry.

Leaving Gago’s office at lofty Magill Estate, you notice the whole of Adelaide below – the view from the top. Literally. However, from what I’ve just learnt, there seems barely time to enjoy the view, given that the majority of the work happens in the field, underground, or behind closed doors. An apt metaphor for the entire Penfolds brand and its iconic product: a mascot at the top of the world – a lightning rod for an entire industry, creating opportunities for hard, honest work to be recognised.

It’s clear that with Grange as the top icon of South Australia’s wine industry, the entire industry benefits.

And from what I’ve just discovered, it’s in safe hands.