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1971 Grange

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Continuing on the theme of variation in wine reviews and scores, I cite the famous 1971 Penfolds Grange, which I’ve tasted several times over the last 33 years.

A bottle shared with friends last week was perhaps the best I’ve had the good fortune to taste. I scored this sublime wine 99 points (tasting), and my notes are on the app, together with the previous bottle I tasted – at the tastings for Penfolds’ book, The Rewards of Patience, in 2007. That was not a representative bottle, as I remarked at the time, and I rated it 89. But I include it – as I do many lesser bottles – because it’s a real-world experience. The longer wines age under cork, the more variation is likely. 

To mark this occasion, I was inspired to pull out an article I was commissioned to write for The World of Fine Wine magazine in 2005.

PENFOLDS GRANGE 1971

By Huon Hooke. 

“If you had to point to a wine that fulfilled all the ambitions of Grange, it would have to be 1971.”

So said its creator, the late Max Schubert, in 1993. 

1971 is the year the United Kingdom and Ireland changed to decimal currency, the Concorde made its first crossing of the Atlantic, Carole King released her ‘Tapestry’ album, and the nation of Bangladesh was created. Jane Fonda won the Academy Award for best actress with ‘Klute’, and Aussie John Newcombe won Wimbledon for the third time.

Another Aussie reached a peak of a different kind in 1971: Australia’s iconic red wine, Penfolds Grange (tastings).

The 1971 Grange is notable for many reasons, one of which is that it was widely discounted – a grave ignominy for a vintage that is widely regarded as one of the greatest.

Penfolds was almost bankrupt in 1976 when it was taken over by the Sydney-based brewer, Tooth & Co. Within two years, Tooth was itself strapped for cash and resorted to discounting all of the premium Penfolds wines, including ’71 Grange Hermitage, as it was then called. The ’71 Grange, whose full retail price was A$12.85, was prostituted in Sydney bottle shops for $9.99, and in some for as little as $7.99. Even then, it was considered a scandal.

Today (in 2005), ’71 Grange costs around A$500 to $650 at auction, before buyer’s premium. That seems positively cheap when you compare it to the vintage released this year, the 2000, which immediately commanded A$550-plus, and isn’t a fraction of the quality.*

Grange was first made in 1951 after its creator, Max Schubert, returned from a fact-finding trip to Europe, ostensibly to study the Spanish sherry industry, but he stopped off at Bordeaux and became transfixed by the red wines he tasted. He was especially amazed at the quality of aged vintages, shown him by his host Christian Cruse, and resolved to try to do something similar back home. A great red wine capable of ageing for at least 20 years was his goal.

There was another controversy that surrounded the 1971 Grange. It was once rejected from export approval by the Australian Wine & Brandy Corporation’s tasting panel, which in hindsight seems heavily ironic considering the wine’s quality. The reason for its rejection was a high level of volatile acidity, and this will no doubt give ammunition to those who criticise Australians for being too technocratic in their approach to wine.

Max Schubert was still head of the winemaking team in ’71, and has freely admitted that he was deliberately flirting with volatile acidity in the 1970s. Far from being an Aussie technocrat, Schubert was a winemaker with little scientific training. On the contrary, his great strength was that he was highly intuitive – he learnt by observation. And he had formed the view that the great wines of the world, particularly red Bordeaux, seldom had a low level of VA. So he was in the habit of encouraging volatile acidity in Grange, which he achieved firstly by racking and aeration, but also by leaving the bungs out of the barrels. He always insisted however, that it was ‘controlled’ volatility, although he never really explained how he controlled it, other than by tasting and blending!

This experimentation did not endure, though, and after Don Ditter took over from Schubert in 1973 there was no more leaving the bungs out.

The wine was often criticised for volatility in its youth, but as it aged, VA became less and less an issue. Today it’s scarcely noticeable. Today’s Penfolds chief winemaker Peter Gago is content to say the wine has simply mellowed. 

Grange is of course a shiraz; however, almost every vintage has a little cabernet sauvignon in it. Max Schubert used to say a touch of cabernet was needed most years in order to achieve balance. The ’71 has 13%, which is one of the biggest cabernet components of all Granges – although it’s never been apparent in the flavour spectrum, at least in my view.

In spite of the fame of the old Magill vineyard, in the Adelaide foothills, Grange has never been a single-estate wine. Indeed, its great strength could be said to be the ability of Penfolds to blend across vineyards and even regions, to produce the best wine they can every year. Fruit sourcing varies according to the season, and in 1971 the grapes came from Kalimna, the company’s main Barossa Valley vineyard at the time, as well as other Barossa growers; also Magill, Clare Valley and Coonawarra.

The season was close to ideal, with healthy vines, a warm summer and a warm, dry vintage period. It was one of those vintages that seem to break the rules, giving quality as well as quantity – although there’s never been any suggestion that Grange grapes ever came from heavily-cropped vines.

History doesn’t record how many entries there were in the cabernet/shiraz class at the Gault-Millau Paris Wine Olympiad in 1979 – probably not many! But ’71 Grange topped its class there, winning a gold medal. Incidentally, one of the judges was Len Evans, who has always said volatility never worried him in Grange. 

Today’s makers of 15% alcohol blockbusters might be surprised to learn that the alcohol strength is just 12.3%. Indeed, in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, with just one exception, Grange was never over 13.5% alcohol and usually below 13%. And yet the wines don’t taste underripe, or deficient in any way.

These days Grange weighs in at 14%-plus, which is the current vogue, and there is a sneaking suspicion that the greatest modern vintages of Grange don’t have quite the structure that they used to, instead showing much more soft, ripe fruit and being open and showy at a much younger age that the solidly-structured great vintages of fond memory, such as ’63, ’71, ’76 and ’83.

The wine:

At 34 years old, the ’71 Grange is in the prime of its life and giving maximum pleasure. Two bottles bought at auction and drunk in Sydney in May 2005 were both impeccable. Fully mature and magnificently mellow, it has a very complex bouquet of charcuterie, barbecued meats, long-simmered beef stock, suggestions of earth and truffles, and a hint of crushed ants that has always been part of this vintage. The palate is smooth and fine, sweet of fruit and supple of texture, although the famous 1971 tannin backbone is still evident. The wine still has great structure, but it’s far from the tongue-cruncher it was when young. The aftertaste is incredibly long and totally satisfying. A thoroughly beautiful wine, which has quite a few years left in it. 

*The current release 2010 (tasting) retails for $785.

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