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"Is Grange really that good?"

by Tom Cannavan, 11/99

This was my first opportunity to taste the new vintage (1994) of Penfolds flagship wine Grange, one of the world's greatest red wines. This is a wine I've been lucky enough to taste in several vintages going back to the 1966. Now priced at close to £100 per bottle, the quality to price ratio for this - or any similar "cult" wine - is of course questionable, but Grange remains a stunning wine that easily deserves its place amongst the superstars. Against it were two other multi award-winning Australian Shiraz, both costing around £30. I spotted the Grange in this blind tasting principally on the sheer quality and concentration of fruit, as well as its multi-layered nature. This was also another opportunity to taste the wine against The Hermitage La Chapelle 1997 from Paul Jaboulet - another of the world's greatest syrah/shiraz-based wines. Regular readers will have seen previous notes extolling the '97 La Chapelle. This tasting showed it to have closed slightly in the last few months, but it was still my pick of the night for its balance, refinement yet no lack of fruit.

The tasting was double-blind. The notes are exactly as written during tasting. Prices are in pounds sterling (approx £10=$16US).

Sul Bric (Italy, Piedmont) Monferrato Rosso 1996 - £25.99
Very dark purple/black but not opaque. Quite closed, with some berry fruit and lots of vanilla, fruit is ripe though, even minty. Very firm tannins give the palate a chewy density. There's some aromatic, pastille fruit and a bitter-edged liquorice quality too, but the sweet vanillin oak softens the finish. Rather good.

Lazaridi (Greece, Drama) Amethystos Cava 1994 - £14.99
Medium/dark cherry red. Slightly dank, briary quality on the nose gives way to much sweeter, pure blueberry and blackcurrant fruit. The palate is quite cool and juicy, there's a little charcoal note that suggests Syrah? There's a lot of new oak too, though the overall impression is light to medium-bodied. Acidity is quite high, but there is nice fruit and balance and the long, peppery finish shows quality.
Not syrah, but a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and the Greek St George. I've tasted this before but didn't recognise it. A nice wine.

La Lecchia (Italy, Tuscany) Bruciagua 1996 - £11.99
Darker ruby colour. Loads of sweet vanillin oak and ripe berry fruit. There's a silkiness about the fruit on the nose. In the mouth it is quite closed and dry, with firm but fine woody tannins, blackberry fruit and slightly jarring lemon acidity. There's a slightly rubbery, over-ripe quality to the fruit, but its not unpleasant. The finish is a little raw. Not entirely convincing for me.

Saxenburg Private Collection (South Africa, Stellenbosch) Cabernet Sauvignon 1996 - £16.99
Very dark blackish colour. Big whiff of rubbery, vegetal Cabernet fruit. There are dark fruit aromas taking over. On the palate prominent tannins have a grip and the wine is slightly astringent. But there's a lurking weight of fruit here that is leafy and blackcurranty, though subdued. Length is good, but this needs time. However, I'm not sure this has the quality of fruit to outlast the tannins?

Nepenthe (Australia, Adelaide Hills) "The Fugue" 1997 - £12.99
Medium ruby/purple colour. There is a damp earthiness on the nose, with notes of smoke and minerals surrounding ripe, sweet blackcurranty fruit. On the palate it is quite lean and sinewy, quite tannic and spicy. That earthiness shows up here too and the finish is quite long. Tasty and very nice young wine. A right bank Bordeaux?
Actually a Cabernet/Merlot blend. Good value.

Paul Jaboulet (France, Rhône) Hermitage La Chapelle 1997 - £44.99
Medium crimson/purple colour. Charcoal, pepper, black fruit and subtle spices on the nose. On the palate this immediately has finesse. Balanced and elegant there is plenty of ripe, lush fruit, but it is structured and only giving a glimpse of its complexity at present. Long, sweetly-fruited finish. Northern Rhône syrah, and very nice indeed.

Hardy's (Australia, Barossa) E&E Black Pepper Shiraz 1996 - £29.99
Big, typically Australian nose of minty, intense, super-sweet black fruits and vanilla-custard new American oak. Loads of mint and eucalyptus, there is a thick, liquorice presence on the nose. Palate is a little one-dimensional with lots of spice, fruit and more oak, but it finishes a little short and little clumsy with highish acidity.
Well, other experienced tasters liked this more than me. Partly it's a style thing, but I do like big Australian Shiraz as well as more restrained Old World versions, and for me this just didn't sustain my interest past the first few sips. I preferred the wine that followed...

Eileen Hardy (Australia, Padathway) Shiraz 1996 - £29.99
Inky purple/black. Extremely dense. There is sweet vanilla, coffee-bean and dusty black fruit on the nose. There is a hard, slightly metallic edge which doesn't detract, but adds complexity. It is powerful yet elegant on the palate with plenty of fruity depth which is focused into the long, creamy finish. Very good.

Penfolds (South Australia) Grange 1994 - £89.99
Dense, almost opaque black to the edge of the rim. Very dumb at first, this needs to be worked. There is a tremendous density of fruit here. It is thick black fruit: blackberry and firm-edged blueberry and damson. This has the quality of fruit to be the Grange, but it seems surprisingly un-oaky. With time an amazing concentration of fruit is obvious, which is sweet and solidly packed. There are ripe oaky tannins on the palate and bright acidity, plenty of coffee-bean and dark chocolate too. It is smooth and there's a peppery quality as well as little bitter black cherry nuances. This has the potential to be very, very fine indeed.
As I say, less obvious, flashy American oak than Grange normally displays, and it really needed work to get into this wine at this young, ungiving stage. This will need decades and is too expensive for my wallet, but I thought it was terrific.