Winery ranges beyond Grange 150 choice years: From Down Under, comes a wealth of fine reds and whites from Penfolds.

Vintage Point

November 29, 1995|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

When the man who makes Penfolds Grange comes to call, you need not kiss his ring. Some mild fawning and groveling will do.

OK, even that's an exaggeration. John Duval, Penfolds chief winemaker since 1986, is a low-key fellow who would certainly be embarrassed by any show of adulation.

But if you've ever tasted Grange, you will understand the fleeting and somewhat sacrilegious impulse to prostrate oneself before Australia's greatest wine and its reigning high priest.

Formerly called Grange Hermitage, Grange is a monumental red wine that rivals -- and in many vintages surpasses -- the greatest of France or California. Wealthy collectors pay $80-$100 for new releases and count themselves lucky if they can even find a bottle.

For Penfolds and for Mr. Duval, the reputation of Grange is a double-edged sword, however. On the one hand, it's never too hard to get an appointment with Grange-thirsty wine writers. On the other, it's hard to keep them focused on the fact that Penfolds makes a broad range of other fine wines.

It's a little like trying to concentrate on the scenery when you know Big Sur lies a few miles up the road.

Nevertheless, when Mr. Duval came through Baltimore recently, he mounted an impressive case for Penfolds across-the-board excellence.

It's not as if this should come as a surprise. Penfolds has been operating in South Australia since 1844, the year Americans were busy electing James K. Polk as president on a platform of fighting the British for the Oregon Territory (no doubt because he recognized the region's potential for growing pinot noir).

Penfolds produces a broad range of white and red wines, most of them quite affordable.

For instance, Mr. Duval showed off a very pleasant 1994 Penfolds Chardonnay for about $9. It doesn't have a show-stopping finish, but the wine offers bright tropical fruit flavors and good acidity. The restrained use of oak keeps it in much better balance than many Australian chardonnays.

An even more complete wine is the 1993 Penfolds Clare Valley Chardonnay-Sauvignon Blanc ($12). The wine uses the acidity and smoky quality of the sauvignon blanc (33 percent) to balance out the tendency toward one-dimensional blowsiness of the chardonnay (67 percent). Meanwhile, the chardonnay's richness balances out the often thin quality of Australian sauvignon blanc. That's skillful blending.

While Penfolds isn't as well known for its whites as its reds, Mr. Duval said he's aiming to remedy that. He said the winery is working on producing a "flagship" white counterpart to Grange from either chardonnay, semillon or a blend of the two.

The Penfolds wine most consumers are likely to taste, however, is its popular Koonunga Hills Shiraz-Cabernet ($9), a wine that has developed a loyal following in the United States for its excellent value and hearty, beefy, somewhat rustic but intense fruit flavors.

The 1993, with 54 percent Shiraz (the Australian name for the syrah of the Rhone) and 46 percent cabernet sauvignon, is a fine rendition of a wine that is very consistent from year to year.

A step up on the Penfolds price list are the 1992 Kalimna Bin 128 Shiraz ($13) and 1992 Bin 389 Cabernet-Shiraz ($16). Of the two, the Shiraz is the more successful, with its chunky blackberry and plum flavors and sweet oakiness.

The Bin 389, often excellent, seemed a little off-form. There was impressive fruit, but the mint and oak elements stood out a bit too much for my taste. Another year in the bottle will likely give it more balance and harmony.

Penfolds makes a variety of other impressive reds, including a Bin 707 Cabernet Sauvignon and Magill Estate Shiraz that rank among Australia's greatest wines and cost accordingly. But Mr. Duval cut short the suspense and let us proceed directly to the Grange, whose story is almost as rich as the wine itself.

Grange traces its roots back to 1951, when Penfolds winemaker Max Schubert returned from a visit to Europe and decided to create a wine that would rival the finest reds of France in a country that produced mostly cheap fortified wines. He decided that the way to do so was to use Shiraz, a varietal that had little cachet in that era, and to age it in American oak rather than French barrels.

When the company's managers tasted the results of his first several vintages, they were shocked at the bold, almost overwhelming flavors of the young wine. They declared the experiment a failure and later ordered Mr. Schubert to stop tinkering with such wines. Fortunately for Penfolds, Mr. Schubert was insubordinate and continued to make Grange behind their backs.

In 1960, the managers of Penfolds retasted some of Mr. Schubert's early Grange wines and decided they weren't such a bad idea after all. They authorized regular production of Grange Hermitage, a move that would cement Penfolds reputation as the most prestigious winery in Australia.

As for Max Schubert, he kept his job and went on to become Australia's best-known winemaker. He died last year at the age of 79.

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