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A frenzy for the Aussie Grange

The country's great wine breaks all the rules. And the new release, deemed 'absolute perfection', is breaking records.

June 18, 2003|Corie Brown | Times Staff Writer

Adelaide, Australia — Adelaide, Australia

THEY met three weeks ago, as they do every year, gathering in a stark white room with bright fluorescent lighting. Wearing white lab coats, 10 men walked quietly to their usual spots at the table.

In silence, they considered batches of fermented grape juice of the 2003 harvest from top vineyards throughout South Australia. As always, it was a blind taste test.

"The less you know about the batches, the better," says Steve Lienert, a winemaker and participant in the annual exercise. The tasters' teeth soon were black from the unaged wine. "We're a dentist's nightmare," Lienert says with a laugh.

At the end, the number of each batch was called out and each man declared his judgment. It was a separation of the great juice from the merely good. And it was the beginning of the 2003 vintage of one of the world's great wines: the exuberant Shiraz called Grange.

Unlike any grand cru wine in the world, with the exception of some Champagnes, Grange is a blend of grapes grown on any one of 100 vineyards located as much as 1,000 miles apart. Every year, a committee selects the grapes. To ensure the wine's style and consistency, old Grange winemakers don't retire. They stick around to consult.

It's a process that flies in the face of what most American vintners, as well as critics, applaud as ideal winemaking practices: artisanal winemakers working independently with estate-grown fruit that reflects a specific place and grape variety.

But when the 1998 vintage was released last month, it sparked what some critics are calling a hysteria. Collectors have been madly snapping up the fewer than 9,000 cases produced, sending prices to the moon.

Released at a steep $400 a bottle, the 1998 Grange now is selling for more than $800, in league with the celebrated 2000 vintage from Bordeaux's first-growth chateaux. A member of the rock band Tool, Maynard James Keenan, paid $47,387 for a six-liter imperial of 1998 Grange at the Penfolds Barossa Rare Wine Auction in late April, setting a new record price for an Australian wine. The previous record was $36,363, also for an imperial of 1998 Grange.

"It was a good year in the vineyard," says Peter Gago, the new chief winemaker at Penfolds, the Australian winemaking giant that produces Grange. Gago shrugs off the frenzy with characteristic Aussie understatement. South Australia had near perfect weather in 1998. And the result is a Grange that's a massive concentration of blackberries, exotic spices, heady aromas -- "It's almost too much," says Jeremy Oliver, an Australian wine critic.

The style setters

It was Gago, the previous chief winemaker John Duval (who created the 1998 Grange) and eight other Penfolds winemakers who recently gathered in that bright white room at Penfolds headquarters in the Barossa Valley, the wine region two hours northeast of Adelaide.

"The classification," as the annual selection of grape juice is called, is the formal process of determining which batches of fermented juice will go into Grange and which will be relegated to Penfolds' second- and third-tier wines.

Since most of the company's wines are blends, what distinguishes the dozens of Penfolds wines from one another besides the variety of grape is chiefly the quality of the grape, according to Gago. The better the grape, the better the wine ages.

"There is very little difference between how we make Grange and Koonunga Hill," he says, almost daring an argument over why Grange can command hundreds of dollars while Koonunga Hill is served with pizza.

Grange has been coveted by collectors since Penfolds winemaker Max Schubert created the unique blend of prime South Australian fruit in 1951. But only recently has it become one of the hottest wines in the world. As is so often the case, U.S. wine critic Robert M. Parker Jr. sparked the fire. In the spring of 2001, he gave the 1998 Grange 99 points out of 100, calling it "absolute perfection."

The 1998 Grange contains the highest alcohol level in the history of the wine -- 14.5% -- and reminds some critics of the California cult wines. "This Grange is dipping its toe in the California waters," says Oliver, the Australian wine critic. Oliver believes the higher alcohol level is the result of changing growing techniques across Australia.

"They are picking riper fruit with a higher sugar content because they are trimming foliage, allowing better air and sun through the canopy," he says.

Historically, Australian wine collectors have been the pillars of the Grange fan club. The hard-core members scramble to own bottles from each year. The rest of the world's collectors have been respectful but less enthusiastic about the pick of the crop from a country they view as one of wine's developing nations.

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