It has been a big week for Penfolds Grange news.
First, a bottle of 1951 Grange sets a new world-record price for a bottle of Australian wine with its sale at Langton's July Penfolds Rewards of Patience sale auction. The bottle "hammered" for $122,000 ( plus buyers premium of 16.5 percent) eclipsing the previous hammered record of $103,000 – also for 1951 Grange – for a similar bottle set at the equivalent Langton's sale last year.
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I say "similar" because the new record holder had exceptional attributes and provenance – signed by Grange creator, the legendary Max Schubert in August 1988, the bottle was also hand re-corked, wax dipped and finished with a Penfolds stamp, all by him, at Penfolds' Magill Estate winery in South Australia. That's about as good as it gets in terms of guaranteeing the authenticity of a bottle of a wine
And then a few days later, the embargo lifted on sharing details of the release of the 2021 Penfolds Australia Collection, which includes the 2017 Grange. On sale from August 5, Grange's recommended retail price is AU$950 ($700) and this release commemorates the 70th anniversary of the inception of Grange.
Yet it all seems like only yesterday, that as a budding wine tragic, I made my way to a suburban "bottle shop" to buy a couple of dozen 1972 Grange at $9.99, a tidy discount from its then RRP of circa $11.90, while quietly lamenting I'd missed it elsewhere as cheaply as $7.70 per bottle.
A lot has happened with the fabled brand during the intervening 40 years and Penfolds' trials and tribulations under various corporate owners are well chronicled. What is less acknowledged is the rise and rise of Penfolds as a luxury global wine brand over the past decade. Things heated up a few months ago when, CEO Tim Ford declared his ambition for Penfolds to take its place amongst the world's most revered luxury consumer brands, like Gucci, Burberry and Mercedes.
Ford assumed the role of CEO in July 2020, taking over a very different business from that which his retiring predecessor Michael Clarke did back in March 2014. Clarke's inheritance was a business that had lost $100 million in the 2013-14 financial year. Compare that with the last full, non-Covid-impacted financial year of 2018-19 under Clarke, which delivered a profit of $662m; that’s a three-quarters-of-a-billion-dollar turnaround.
Clarke's strategy was to mitigate the typical agribusiness risks of the wine industry by re-orienting the strategy focus towards the luxury consumer goods sector. This was a bold, but hardly novel approach. Perhaps Clarke had turned an eye to the path that had been successfully trodden since the early '90s by Bordeaux and Champagne; a path that was established by assuring loyal customers that "every year is a good year" to indulge in their favorite wine.
Creating that level of consumer trust requires consistency and high quality and those two things do not come cheaply. The making of very fine wine requires lots of tough decisions to be made along the journey from vine to bottle, and that pursuit of excellence can be hard to afford in a cash-strapped business. But Clarke was confident that if he could get the quality in the bottle, he could maintain sales levels while raising prices significantly.
While Grange had always topped the Penfolds price chart, it was the Bin 707 cuvée that really upped the tempo of price increases. The 2009 vintage released in 2012 carried an RRP of $250. Two releases later (there was no 2011 Bin 707), the 2012 vintage debuted in 2014 at $350, and has since marched on to $650 for last years 2018 release and held steady this year for the 2019 vintage. Clarke would have had his eye trained on what other market-leading wines were doing and taken comfort from the seemingly insatiable global demand for luxury wines with prices to match.
And he was proved right. Penfolds' sales were strong, buoyed contemporaneously by regular international critical acclaim and also China's fortuitously burgeoning interest in the Penfolds brand – the latter a phenomenon that has lasted until the China-Oz geopolitical battles killed off that Golden Goose. That and the continuing pandemic make for interesting times.
However, during the intervening years, the bottom line has swelled, affording the winemaking team the opportunity to keep their eyes on the prizes of quality and consistency, and the annual release events I've covered have confirmed that Clarke, and now Ford, along with their teams have achieved what they needed to. Quality across the board is high and the Penfolds DNA evident throughout the range.
It's now some months ago since an invite arrived to attend this year's national launch in South Australia. It was eagerly diarized, both for the wines to be tried as well as the luxury of escaping from Victoria for a pleasurable respite. Of course, bloody Covid got in the way and, yet again, all of us in Victoria – the state of Lockdown Lotto – were precluded from travelling to South Australia. Thank the Lord that the wine Gods prevailed and salvation was at hand via the collection being delivered to me for home tasting.
The wines I've tried so far exhibit more than enough quality to be worthy bearers of their illustrious bin numbers. And though the breadth of the price range of the reds extends from AU$50 for the Bin 28 to Grange's $950, all are unmistakably Penfolds. The relationship of Grange to Bin 28 is akin to that of Giorgio Armani and Armani Exchange; at the top end it's all silk, with no expense spared and with no loose threads, while at the lower end the raw materials are not as lavish and without the same level of complexity and fine detail.
Nonetheless, the Penfolds DNA runs throughout; quality, consistency and satisfaction manifest themselves through polished fruit, judicious and complex oak treatment and integrated tannins showing no rough edges. Those who like their reds smooth should line up here and now.
And I have a confession – I've yet to try the 2017 Grange at the time of writing this report, as I've been unabashedly reserving it to savor with a wine friend or two as part of a celebration of our exit from Lockdown version 5. Yet I can unhesitatingly recommend Grange to you as worthy of a place in your cellar. How can I do that ? Easy really. On its 70th anniversary, Grange has more than enough runs on the board for you to appreciate that, while each vintage will vary slightly in personality, the family and brand DNA will always be there. Just like it is with Dom Pérignon and Chateau Lafite – or Armani for that matter.
The 2017 Penfolds Grange is on sale from August 5. Magnums are available in limited quantities from Penfolds.com and the Penfolds cellar doors in South Australia.