Restaurant group Merivale spent a record $332,608 on a set of Penfolds Grange - and put one on its wine lists for $135,000

A trendy young couple hit the Grange at Merivale’s ivy on Friday night. Photo: Getty Images.

The buyer of a complete, 63-vintage set of Penfolds Grange, which sold over Christmas for a record $332,608 at auction was Sydney hotelier Justin Hemmes’ Merivale group, it turns out, with the company announcing today that it will offer the wines to drink at a select few of the group’s 60 restaurants.

The Granges, dating from 1951 to 2013, will feature on the wine list at est., Felix and Mr. Wong, but if you feel like eating at one of the group’s 50-odd other restaurants – perhaps the beer garden at the Newport – and fancy uncorking one, Merivale says it will happily send a bottle over if requested in advance.

It was a big year for Grange sets, with three going under the hammer in 2017, with Merivale paying a hefty premium on two sets sold in Adelaide in August and November.

The November set sold for a record $294,320 at auction to a South Australian man (up $34,000 on the $260,300 paid for a set in August), before the Sydney hospitality group broke that record paying nearly $40,000 more for its set through Langtons.

Merivale’s group sommelier Frank Moreau says the purchase means they’re one of just a few hospitality groups in the world with a full set – for now.

Merivale group sommelier Franck Moreau. Photo: supplied

“Adding these iconic Australian wines, alongside prestigious international brands and back vintages, to our collection allows us to take the Merivale wine program to the next level,” he said.

“We want to focus on creating the best possible guest experience by not only providing top end wines, but also encouraging diners to discover unique and interesting drops”.

But with some of these wines now having 60 years or more under their belt, Moreau didn’t say why Merivale bought a full set, beyond bragging rights, since some of those wines are now well past their best, and drinking them would be an expensive exercise in satisfying curiosity.

It’s worth noting that the Penfolds bible of tasting notes, Rewards of Patience, has most of the ’50s wines rated as “now… past” as the drinking window.

Auctioneer Langton’s says the 1951 and 1952 Grange in the Merivale set have been topped up, recorked, recapsuled and certified at Penfolds Red Wine Clinics. The 1953 Grange cabernet also went through the Clinic process.

Langton’s said all the vintages since 1992 are in pristine condition and all other bottles are in very good to excellent condition for their age.

Several bottles of the experimental Grange from 1951 were opened during the 2012 re-corking clinics.

Here’s what the Rewards of Patience notes say about that first vintage:

The wine itself is past its peak although some bottles still have fruit sweetness and flavour length. Largely the wine has a dull tawny colour and skeletal palate structure with little flesh and fading tannins.

Dan Murphy’s which, like Langton’s, is owned by Woolworths, has the ’53 to ’58 vintages for sale, priced between $30,000 to $36,500 a bottle. From 1960 onwards, single bottles sell for under $5000.

The ’57, ’58 and ’59 are known as the “hidden” Granges, because Penfolds management had told chief winemaker Max Schubert to stop making the wine. Luckily, he ignored them and the ’59 was ultimately released commercially after management rescinded their earlier decision.

However, the hidden vintages were never the best because Schubert’s winemaking team weren’t able to mature the wines in new Amerian oak and instead used oak hogsheads that didn’t pick up the same characters.

The ’59 Grange is best known as the wine that brought down former NSW premier Barry O’Farrell, who resigned in 2014, because he failed to remember getting a bottle of it from a lobbyist during testimony before corruption watchdog ICAC.

At the time, Business Insider spoke to leading wine writer James Halliday who’d tried the ’59 several times for Rewards of Patience, said it was “on the way out, but not yet a skeletal ghost or a decayed corpse”.

“It was certainly drying out and showing far more secondary characteristics: like 85% dark chocolate bitterness with earthy, leathery notes,” he said four years ago.

There’s another big risk, Halliday warned, to cracking open an old vintage. It’s bottle variation, so you never know your luck.

“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,” he told Business Insider at the time.

If you’re wondering how much you’d might end up paying to drink the ’51 Grange, well a bottle sold at auction through Langton’s just before Christmas for $59,416, setting a new record for a single of Australian wine – and that figure was 15% the previous record of $51,750, set in July 2017.

Merivale sent us their prices for the 1950s wines. Brace yourselves and break out the platinum card, here they are:

• 1951 – $135,000
• 1952 – $75,000
• 1953 – $65,000
• 1954 – $58,000
• 1955 – $52,000
• 1056 – $50,000
• 1957 – $48,000
• 1958 – $44,000
• 1959- $25,000

As far as we can tell, the price of the ’51 makes it the most expensive wine offered in a Australian restaurant.

In that context it makes another Barossa Valley shiraz, Langmeil’s Long Mile, for $38 at The Newport, look like a bargain since you can normally pick it up retail for about half that price ($19) – a markup of just 100%.

Incidentally, that first Grange went into hand-blown bottles and was 100% shiraz. It’s considered the start of modern Australian red wines, but at the time, was considered so radical that Schubert gave most of the wine away for free. The current 2013 vintage of Grange sells for around $750.

And if you’re really keen to try back vintages of Grange in a restaurant, one of the best places to do it is legendary Crows Nest Chinese restaurantPeacock Gardens, where wine loving host Matthew Chan has multiple back vintages dating back to 1980. The 1975 – the year Peacock Gardens opened, is $1,280.

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