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Grange 1994 and 1995, Bin 707, Lynch-Bages

by Tom Cannavan, 07/00

This was my first opportunity to taste the new vintage (1995) 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 many vintages, going back to the 1966. Very much a "status symbol" wine, it costs £100 ($155US) per bottle. This event was organised as a blind tasting; we were told the Grange would be one of eight wines, the other seven being much cheaper but still top of the range wines of a similar style. The challenge was to see how many could pick the Grange out of the line up. But for me this was really a rather pointless exercise. Like all such cult wines, the fundamental quality to price ratio of Grange is highly debatable. In some ways you don't expect it to taste ten times better than a £10 wine: part of its value lies in exclusivity, collectability and as an investment vehicle. This is a fact, albeit one that irks ordinary wine lovers.

But Grange remains a totally convincing wine of its style that for me well deserves its place amongst the superstars. Against it were a couple of wines costing around one third of the price that I enjoyed just as much, but I did spot the Grange in this blind tasting, principally on quality of the tannins which were riper, silkier and finer than in other wines. Fruit concentration was fine, though at this stage the wine seems to have less of the layered nature of the fruit in other great examples I've tasted.

The organisers played a mean trick by including a second and unannounced vintage of Grange in the line-up, the 1994. This was a wine I liked a lot on release, and which was powerfully impressive here, though I found it a little over-bearing with almost too much ripeness, spice and oak.

All wines are from Oddbins Fine Wine, UK. The tasting was double-blind. The notes are exactly as written during tasting. Prices are in pounds sterling (approx £10=$15.5US).

Flight One. Whites to warm up with

Pazo de Senorans (Spain, Rías Baixas) Albariño 1999 - £9.99
Distinctive pale green/gold. Very fragrant nose. Flowery notes, lots of ripe pear and luscious, buttery apricot. Palate has a really lovely quality of fruit. It is rich and full and quite creamy with a definite orange and citrus marmalade edge, a hint of ginger. Very powerful, long finish. This is an excellent Albariño.

Yalumba (Australia, Eden Valley) "Virgilius" Viognier - £16.99
Very pale indeed, a straw/green colour. This has a powerfully vanillin, sweet oak nose layered over nutty peach kernel and apricot, On the palate it is forceful with rich, fat and, for me, overpowering flavours and hot alcohol. This spoils my enjoyment of many expensive Viogniers/Condrieus that I've tasted. (Some people liked this a lot more than me).

Flight Two. Cabernet based wines - or are they?

Casa Lapostolle (Chile, Rapel Valley) "Clos Alpta" 1997 - £24.99
Medium/deep even purple/black. Very youthful. This has a fairly restrained style on the nose, not obviously over-ripe and forward as most Australian Cabernets. On the palate too it seems un-Australian, with a dominating influence of grippy, savoury tannins. This and quite high acidity are overpowering fruit at present, but there is bitter cherry, plum, leather and spice there too and it has pretty good structure and length. Quite classy. Californian Bordeaux blend?

Katnook Estate (Australia, Coonawarra) Cabernet Sauvignon 1997 - £11.99
This has a soft, earthy core to its crimson colour. Distictively Porty nose, very rich and over-ripe. Peter Lehmann maybe? It has that super-ripeness that hints at almost meatiness. Mint and blackcurrant too, some stewed fruit. Palate is flooded with ripe blackcurrant fruit and a great push of acidity that is rather awkward and a little crude. Warm and berry flavoured mid-palate with quite tight tannins clamping down on the finish. Decent length. Rich, powerful, impressive but tiring to drink. Cheapish Australian - about £10? - probably very good if you like the style. (Again, several people really liked this).

Penfold's (South Australia) Bin 707 Cabernet Sauvignon 1997 - £36.99
Very dark crimson/black. Seriously deep and concentrated cassis, cedar and mint on the nose. Lots of typically Australian eucalyptus and mulberry. On the palate tight and classy fruit with a slick of vanillin oak. Quite full bodied and very concentrated, this has real quality and avoids the excess of the previous wine. Ripe, classy seam of fruit pushes through to a long finish that is dense and nicely focused. Very good.

Château Lynch-Bages (France, Bordeaux) Pauillac 5th Growth 1996 - £36.99
Deep, dark ruby/purple. Nose is much more restrained in comparison. Lots of charry oak, but bright blackcurrant fruit is joined by earthier plum and berry notes that are warm, creamy and very classy. Not Australian. The palate has ripe, rich fruit but the whole picture is more restrained with a firmer edge in the mouth. A little leaness in the mid-palate, but then fruit, spice, oak and fine tannins are well balanced in the finish and acidity is well-pitched so it should come good as it ages. This has a lots of Old World class. My favourite of the night so far, along with previous wine.

Flight Three. Syrah/Shiraz based wines - or are they?

Elderton (Australia, Barossa) "Command" Shiraz 1996 - £24.99
Moderately dense, deep, even crimson. Shiraz nose with loads of freshly cracked black pepper, blueberry, raspberry and a background of spice and charcoal. Very concentrated, even hints of aromatic pesto sauce. Palate of black fruits is firm-edged like plum and cherry. Oak rounds it out nicely. Nutmeg and clove hints too, with a floral, violet nuance but finishing chocolaty and rich with moderate acidity. Excellent - a classy £30 Australian?

Penfold's (Australia, Adelaide Hills) Magill Estate Shiraz 1996 - £29.99
Lighter, less opaque crimson/ruby. Masses of soft, chocolaty fruit on the nose that is silky and pure. On the palate a raft of soft, ripe tannins and fruit, but the fruit just doesn't push though. Finish lacks focus.

Penfolds (South Australia) Grange 1994 - £99.99
Dark, quite earthy red. An older wine. Again mulberry fruit is typically Australian. Hints of over ripeness again, minty and super-rich, but pure and clean with subtle hints of cedar and vanilla, then classy charred oak. The palate has a good concentration of cherry, berry and black fruit with bags of oak giving a creamy, spicy foundation. Tannins and acidity are both quite dominant at present and the fruit doesn't quite survive into the moderately long finish. Good.
[Based on the evidence of previous tasting, probably just closed down a little].

Penfolds (South Australia) Grange 1995 - £99.99
Dark, opaque crimson. Very deep, concentrated fruit on the nose: a seam of rich blackcurrant and mulberry dusted with spice and black coffee. Very tight, very focused. I'd guess this was Grange. Background of cedar and pencil-shavings. On the palate very densely-textured with fine tannins that are ripe and of high quality. The mouthfeel is creamy and this has lovely balance. Good length, with drying tannins coating the tongue as it finishes. Very good.