NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell resigned today because he failed to remember getting a bottle of 1959 Penfolds Grange worth $3000.
He lost his job over a wine that, whilst expensive, is probably on its way to undrinkable.
Australia’s pre-eminent wine writer, James Halliday, who’s tasted all the vintages of Grange numerous times for the Penfolds Rewards of Patience wine guide, including the 1959, summed up Mr O’Farrell’s problem thus:
“He got dudded, didn’t he? He didn’t even get a good one. It wasn’t worth it, was it?”
The 1959 Grange has a certain cult status because it’s known as one of the “hidden” Granges, along with ’57 and ’58, because Penfolds management had told chief winemaker Max Schubert to stop making the wine. Luckily, he ignored them.
The ’59 was ultimately released commercially after management rescinded their earlier decision, but the hidden vintages were never the best as Don Ditter, who followed Schubert into the role, recounts in The Rewards of Patience from 10 years ago.
“The 1957, 1958 and 1959 reflect a time when we were unable to purchase and mature the wine in new American oak. In the end, we employed and completed fermentation and maturation in used oak hogsheads. We never quite picked up the same characters.”
In the 5th edition, from 2004, the tasting notes say:
Deep brick red. A savoury wine with earthy/dried meat/barnyardy aromas. Elegantly structured palate with some earthy/dark chocolate/blackberry falvour and strong chalky tannins. Increasingly rare.
Its drinking window was ‘now’, while the 1960, which has a star – a sign of a superior vintage – was had an additional six years to 2010. The wine is made from 90% shiraz and 10% cabernet sauvignon, sourced from the Barossa Valley’s Kalimna vineyard, Magill Estate in Adelaide and Morphett Vale.
Ten years later, it was described as demi-glace (a reduced meat stock) and very firm, with dark cherry flavours, with fine grain chalky tannins, but still showing great flavour and length.
But James Halliday describes it as “on the way out, but not yet a skeletal ghost or a decayed corpse”.
He meant the wine, not the Premier.
He says the problem is there’s incredible bottle variation, so you never know your luck.
“The idea that big red wines are immune from bottle variation is simply not true,” Halliday says. “We get tremendous variation in Rewards of Patience tastings. It used to drive me nuts and it took me forever to realise it all came down to cork variability.”
So if a wine guru was trying to butter up a politician, what wine would he send?
Halliday says go for the “safety” of a younger vintage.
“I would be giving him the ’90 or ’96 Grange, knowing that when he opened the bottle it would be terrific.”
Another Halliday, Stuart, general manager and sommelier at Tetsuya’s, last tasted the 1959 10 years ago.
“It was certainly drying out and showing far more secondary characteristics: like 85% dark chocolate bitterness with earthy, leathery notes,” he says.
Stuart Halliday’s suggestion, if you really want to go birth year, is an old Seppeltsfield fortified from the Barossa Valley. This remarkable winery has 136 years of continuous vintages, dating back to 1878 in barrel, making them the oldest wines in the world.
They release a 100-year-old Para vintage tawny every February, so right now, the 1914 (100ml $500, 375ml $1500) is drinking beautifully.
As Seppeltsfield cellar door manager Nigel Thiele explains, you can do the cellar tour, then taste your birth year wine. If it takes your fancy, 100ml of the 1959 will set you back $400, but it will be pulled from the 500-litre puncheon there and then.
“It’s freshly bottled from barrel and vibrant and alive,” he says. “Not like the ’59 Grange.”
Nick Hildebrant, sommelier at The Bentley in Sydney’s CBD, thinks anyone buying a ’59 Grange is wasting their money.
“It’s not a great vintage by any means and most likely well and truly buggered, I suggest, unless you get a really good bottle,” he said.
“It’s not really worth $3000.”
“In those really old bottle you struggle to get any fruit. You’re tasting old leather, crushed ants, lots of dried fruits and sometimes they get a metallic iodine/blood flavour too.”
“Unless you’re really into old wine, it’s probably not for you,” Hildebrandt warns, adding the same caveat at as James Halliday: “When the wines are that old, it comes down to the individual bottles.”
If you really want to spend $3000 on a bottle of wine, he suggests a great Burgundy, such as Domaine De La Romanee-Conti.
Dan Murphy’s has the DRC 2005 Richebourg for $2999.
Or a great Bordeaux.
OK, so the 2009 Chateau Petrus is $4000 at Dan Murphy’s, but it’s a 100-point wine and still cheaper than the ’59 Grange at $4850,, which means former Australian Water Holdings boss Nick Di Girolamo saved $1850 picking up a bottle three years ago for $3000.
If you want to drink a 1950s Grange, Nick Hildebrant suggests the ’55 “might be good”. It’s selling for $5000.
“It’s still a lot to pay,” Nick says.
But not as high as the price you pay if you’re a politician who forgot they received it as a gift.
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