Grange makes great mouthfeel

Is Penfolds Grange worth the money?  I certainly asked that question back in 1997 when I bought my first Grange, the newly released 1992 vintage at $200 per bottle.  I was drinking some fine Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon and Hunter Valley Shiraz for less than one-tenth that price.  Of a total of 4,000 bottles in my cellar at peak, I never had more than eight bottles of Penfolds Grange.  I only have one bottle of 1981 Grange left.

The question ‘is Grange worth it?,’ certainly depends on who you are and why you are drinking it.  As I have become more comfortable with drinking quality instead of drinking brand – a concept I explore in Wine Sense – I find a lot of alternatives to Grange which are far better value.  Another concept I discuss in Wine Sense is the first two things I really picked up on many years ago when starting to drink better wines: I could identify (1) good balance and (2) good mouthfeel.  Mouthfeel is what happens when wine is in your mouth and felt (not tasted via your taste buds) by your palate.  It is often most noticeable as tannins affix themselves to the inside of your cheeks.  It is also felt through the weight of the wine (due to alcohol level and how the wine has been processed) and if the wine sits comfortably in your mouth or not.

It has been two-and-a-half years since I drank my last Grange until last week.  It was the 1971 vintage which is the best Grange I have tasted.  It was a special treat as the birth-year wine for my wife’s 40th birthday.  This wine is featured in 1001 Wines You Must Try Before You Die by Neil Beckett. The 1971 Grange had great fruit and spice flavors, perfect balance, nuances of oak, fig and dates manifested with each swirl around your mouth, and it had great, great mouthfeel.  Given the quality of the wine and event, this Grange was well worth it!

1993 Penfolds GrangeA week ago, we had another Grange, this time the 1993.  While it was consumed as part of a standard weekend luncheon among friends, it is a bottle I gave to my friends when they were married several years ago and they insisted on waiting to drink it together with us.  We found that opportunity last week, celebrating the birth of their new son and also reuniting with some mutual friends we had not seen for a dozen years.

The 1993 Grange is not considered one of best Grange, yet it is still an outstanding wine as every Grange is regardless of vintage.  Penfolds always sources the very best grapes they can find, maintaining as much control over the quality of the grapes as they can in any given year, and year-in, year-out, Grange is made with a style that is identifiable.  I was a little worried that the 1993 Grange may be at the end or beyond its best drinking life, but the cork was in perfect condition and the wine excellent.  We decanted it for several hours to be served with a Persian beef fillet for the main course.  We had a nice Italian Chianti on arrival followed by a 2009 Hugel Alsace Riesling to go with eggplant and tomatoes and then a 2009 McLeish Reserve Chardonnay to go with chicken.  Then out came the beef and the Grange!

The wine opened beautifully and came to life during two hours in the decanter.  I had been sniffing the Grange to make sure it still had robust flavors and was ready to drink.  It had strong plum and blackcurrant flavors and that opulent Grange style.  On taking my first mouthful, it was the unique mouthfeel a Penfolds Grange provides that really struck me;  full and expansive, yet not over-the-top.  The wine and my mouth fused in perfect harmony.  The wine did not need to be paired with beef as it was paired with my tongue and cheeks perfectly!  My upcoming book Wine Sense discusses how our senses are used to appreciate and enjoy wine.  We use all of our senses from our sight to smell and taste, but also feeling and even hearing wine.  Our perception of taste is cross-modal and one of the wonderful things about tasting wine is how our senses of smell, taste and feeling come together to provide such a sensually fulfilling experience.  With Grange, you can really feel the wine.  By reputation and weight, Grange possesses strength and firmness when holding a glass of it.  But it is in your mouth that Grange shows it worth.  It may seem strange to talk about ‘feeling’ a wine, but you do feel Grange while drinking it.  It demands being held longer in your mouth than other wines to enjoy the feeling it provides.  It also demands being swallowed in several small swallows with each mouthful to make your mouth and throat muscles work, enhancing the feeling further.  If there is a wine that is enjoyed by being felt, it is Grange.

Steve Shipley, author Wine Sense, out early 2014. Published by InkIT Publishing
© 2013.  Steve Shipley
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Is a blend better than a straight varietal?

Yes, in general and in my opinion!  Let’s find out why I believe that.

I dislike the idea of fusion concepts, especially when it comes to food.  Call me a traditionalist, but I find food that has stood the test of centuries, yet alone millenniums, to be among the very best food one can eat.  I love Italian food and I love Indian food, but I do not favor blending the two into a single meal.  Curry pastas just don’t work for me.  I love Japanese and I love Tex-Mex, but I could not bring myself to even try this fusion concept in one of the hotel restaurants in Sacramento, CA when visiting a while back.  The raw tuna quesadillas just did not work for me.  Globalization has done a lot to change the world, but when it comes to fusion food, it has only made it worse!

wine blend

But when it comes to wine blends, I am really starting to favor blends over 100% varietals.  Don’t get me wrong – I LOVE my 100% varietals when it comes to my favorite grapes such as Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, or Riesling.  But year-in, year-out, it is impossible to get consistent sugar and alcohol levels,  with each vintage being affected by that year’s heat index and rainfall causing some vintages to be different in taste than others vintages.  That is when a good winemaker can use some of the characteristics of other grapes to provide a better overall taste, by adding a touch of sweetness, or subduing too much sweetness by adding a grape with more acidity or sourness.  Good winemakers know how to blend a little bit of another grape or several grapes together to make good to great wines.  Even Penfolds Grange over the years has had various amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon blended in to achieve its maximum potential for a particular vintage.  Based on what country the wine is from and the local laws, you may still label a bottle of wine by its main varietal as long as the amount of the other grape added is still small, usually less than 15%.

But other wines, especially old world wines have been crafted to be great wines by using various blending combinations.  Wines from Châteauneuf-du-Pape are predominantly Grenache, but also are allowed to blend in wine from twelve other varietals.  Bordeaux blends are primarily Cabernet Sauvignon, but contain a variety of other grapes such as Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and possibly small amounts of Petit Verdot or Malbec.  A classic high-quality Bordeaux blend is 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Merlot, and 15% Cabernet Franc.  Australia is well-known and respected for its Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon blends such as you would find in a Penfolds Bin 389 or a Lindemans Limestone Ridge.  And more and more, I am loving a wine blend called GSM of Grenache, Shiraz, Mourvedre.  And for white wine, I find the blend of Gewürztraminer and Riesling to be a very nice drink.

More and more, I am enjoying my blends and the craftmanship of the winemaker to get the blends to get the most of of the grapes.  The nuances that can develop and the integration of various characteristics provide for a most enjoyable drinking experience.  Maybe I am just become more old-world myself, but I find blends age better, are more complex and more balanced, and generally are a bit softer with a smoother mouth feel.

If you have not tried many blends, then I think it is about time you do!  And I would appreciate your views and feedback on if you are a single-grape purist or prefer the multidimensional characteristics of a blend.


Steve Shipley, author Wine Sense, out early 2014. Published by InkIT Publishing
© 2013.  Steve Shipley
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Wine financials – you do the math!

In my last blog post, I talk about the mark-ups that restaurants place on wine.  I do not begrudge a restaurant making a profit on wine or other alcohol as it is often the difference between a restaurant succeeding or being forced to close their doors.  But the restaurant needs to fair and competitive.  Most restauranteurs tell me a typical wine list price should be about 220% – 250% the price of what you can buy the bottle for retail.  And I am comfortable with this.  But as I mentioned, I will not frequent restaurants that charge over 350% of the typical retail price per bottle.

Wine Math

Here are a few other tips on wine financials and what to pay for wine and how to use wine with the right financial outcomes.

Buying very expensive wine

In general don’t!  During my life, I expect that I have purchased over 5,000 bottles of wine.  I have never paid more than $1,000 per bottle.  In fact, only twice have I paid between $500 – $1,000 per bottle and that was for (1) a 1971 Penfolds Grange, and (2) a full bottle of a 1971 Chateau D’Yquem – both birth year wines for my wife’s 40th birthday party.

I have spent over $200 per bottle about 40 times, including the two bottles mentioned above, another 8 or so Grange, a dozen 2005 Bordeaux’s, some excellent Montrachets, and a few special bottles of Napa Valley wines.  And every other bottle of wine I have purchased has been less than $100.  Therefore, I have spent more than $100 per bottle for less than 1% of the wine I have purchased.

There are excellent bottles of wine well under $50 per bottle.  I have had some truly outstanding wines for $10 – $20 per bottle.  And most people cannot tell the difference or in fact, actually like more the cheaper wines because they are more open and ready to drink, and the taste is something they are more used to.  Be hesitant to spend over $30 – $40 per bottle unless you really know your wines.

Doing BYO (Bring Your Own)

I love BYO and you save a fortune!  I have often brought great wine for a special occasion in a restaurant and saved thousands of dollars.  Plus I can pick out exactly what wines I want from my cellar.  For some of my birthday functions I have brought between $500 – $800 worth of wine and buying the equivalent wine in the restaurant would have cost me $2,500 – $3,500.  That is a great savings!

Expect to pay up to $25 per bottle or $25 per head for corkage.  While this may add $150 to the cost of the meal, it is still far cheaper than spending $3,000 for the wine!  The corkage fee is very reasonable and includes them decanting the wine, pouring it for you, replacing and using their best glassware, and clearing and cleaning the glassware.  I usually also bring a nice bottle along to gift the sommelier or owner also to let them know I appreciate being able to BYO.

Many restaurants, including Tetsuya’s allow you to do this.  Or just ask and many restaurants will be glad to provide this service for you even if it is not listed as a service.  BYO means a bill for a great night out that would be half of what it otherwise would be and most restaurants are glad to just have your food business.

Buy aged wine instead of current vintages

There is a glut of wine on the market – more people are selling than buying.  Therefore, aged (and ready to drink) wines can be had for about the same cost as current vintages.  Why spend $500 for a bottle of current vintage Grange when you can get the 1981 or the 1985 for the same price or just a little more.  You would need to cellar the 2007 Grange for at least 20 years, while you could drink the 1981 or 1985 immediately!

Cellaring a bottle of wine usually cost between $2 – $3 annually.  Therefore, if you need to cellar a bottle for ten years, it will cost you $20 – $30 per bottle in addition to what you paid for it!  There is so much aged wine available that it does not make sense to buy a current vintage when you can get an aged and ready to drink bottle for the same amount or even cheaper than the current vintage.  Someone else has paid for the storage and care and you do not have to!  Nor do you have to wait a decade or more to drink it!

If you can get a great bottle of vintage wine for less than 25% more than the current vintage, you are getting a steal.

Cooking with wine

My wife makes a great beef stroganoff.  She also makes great risotto and a few other dishes that require 100 ml of white wine.  With the beef stroganoff, we often have an aged Chadonnay like a Montrachet.  A year ago, we had the bottle open and were enjoying a glass of $150 Montrachet while cooking, and indiscriminately used 100 ml of the Montrachet as part of our beef stroganoff recipe.  It was decadent and delicious, but certainly did not materially make the beef stroganoff any better.  It also meant I had one less small glass of a great wine to drink!  It also added $20 to the cost of our tray of beef stroganoff!

When we made beef stroganoff last weekend, we drank the same bottle of wine, but I opened a bottle of 2005 Kelman Semillon to be used for cooking.  This is a nice wine which I got for free as a land-owner in their cooperative vineyard.  The bottle is worth $18 at the cellar door, and therefore only added about $2.40 to the cost of the beef stroganoff.

An open bottle of wine will only last a few days for drinking purposes, but will last several weeks if you are using it for cooking.  Therefore, we try to make several meals over a few weeks which require wine as part of the recipe and open a cheaper bottle of wine for the cooking.  And the 2005 Kelman Semillon is a very good wine for the money and I am now enjoying a glass while writing this blog!  Using an $18 bottle of wine for several meals and several glasses in between is a far better approach than using 100 ml of $150 bottle of wine for cooking!

We also keep about a dozen bottles of both white and red wine we know is no longer good for drinking but can still be used as a marinate or for cooking as need be.  The last few batches of Coq au vin we made used a 1989 Lindemans St George Cabernet Sauvignon for marinating!  While past due for drinking, it was still great as a marinate.

Hopefully this ‘wine math’ made sense and was useful and helps you get far better drinking mileage out of your wine buying and consumption.  Enjoy!


Steve Shipley, author Wine Sense, out early 2014. Published by InkIT Publishing
© 2014.  Steve Shipley
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Bin 144 Yatarnna – Penfolds White Grange

With the great success of Grange over many years, Penfolds has always been interested in the concept of the creating a ‘White’ Grange.  The Penfolds Bin 144 Yatarnna is as close as they have come and it is commonly referred to as White Grange.  It is made from reserved Chardonnay grapes and usually cost around $130 per bottle.  I was very fortunate to pick up several dozen of the 2006 Yatarnna for a good price when some were found and treated as excess stock by the dealer.

During the 1990’s, Penfolds tried a number of ‘trial bins’ in an attempt to create a White Grange before settling on Yatarnna.  And to be honest, Penfolds was looking for an iconic white wine to match Grange, but never really had to the intent of marketing any wine as White Grange.  This was a moniker of wine writers around Australia.

In 1992, Penfolds started creating a number of trial bins to create an iconic white wine.  I actually have four bottles of the 1995 Penfolds Adelaide Hills Trial Bin Semillon, which I bought in 1997 in a Melbourne bottle shop.  I have not tried one yet, but am now excited to find out if this wine was a mistake or not!  I was only spending between $12 – $18 per bottle then for wines I did not know anything about, but wanted to try.  (In 1997, I did pay $200 per bottle for several bottles of the 1992 Penfolds Grange which were released that year.)  Therefore, I am certain I did not pay more than $18 for the Trial Bin Semillon I picked up.

One of the characteristics of Grange is that is was built to last a very long time, and I expect they wanted to have the same characteristic for an iconic white.  Therefore, Semillon certainly would have been a good choice of grape to experiment with.  In selling off wine recently and thinning my stock, I had the four bottles of the 1995 Penfolds Adelaide Hills Trial Bin Semillon on sale for $10 per bottle!  Fortunately, nobody bought any.  I will be trying a bottle soon to decide if I have an unknown gem here or not.  If so, then I will gladly share the remaining bottles with some great friends, and if not, we will use the remaining bottles for cooking wine!

But back to the Penfolds Bin 144 Yatarnna.  This is one of the finest Chardonnays you will find in Australia.  I still like my Montrachets a bit better, but the Yatarnna is a great Chardonnay.  I am currently sipping a 2006 Yatarnna which is stunning and one of the better vintages.  (The first vintage of Yatarnna was in 1995.)  It has powerful lemon flavors and some peach and grass flavor.  It is mellow but with a slight edge and crispness.  This wine should drink well for another five years or so.

I selected this wine to go with my wife’s homemade chicken pot pie which is in the oven now!  I am looking forward to that combination and am sure she will have an upcoming recipe in her blog “DAZ in the Kitchen.”  This mellow, yet robust wine will match beautifully win the chicken pot pie.

I have been upset at some of the commercial finanglings of TWE with the Penfolds brand, and have sold off most of my Penfolds inventory, but I have a dozen of this great wine left.  My wife has an easy way to tell if a wine is outstanding or not, and that is to ‘not notice’ that the bottle has been emptied so quickly when it it just the two of us drinking it, and that always happens with the 2006 Penfolds Bin 144 Yatarnna!  In fact, my wife just took a sip and stated, “You see, this wine does all the right things.  You sip it, it hits my palate perfectly and goes right down without thinking about it.”

While I find fault in some of TWE’s commerical approaches (TWE owns Penfolds), I cannot fault Penfolds for the passion they have always exhibited in making great wines and the 2006 Bin 144 Yatarnna is one of them!

Five best wine meals ever – Part 1

I have had some great wines in my lifetime. Most have been memorable of their own accord. But the memories that last forever are when you have a line-up of great friends, great food and great wine, all which match perfectly. The memories of those times are enjoyed forever!

Over the next few weeks, I will be describing each meal, the event that warranted it, the friends involved and the wines, all which made the evening special. But the ranking to make my Top Five all-time wine drinking meals is judged on the wine itself and the wine line-up being truly great. While the friends and food added to the evening, they did not contribute to how that evening ranked – only the wine counted!

In this post, I will provide the event, and the list of wines. In subsequent posts, I will describe the friends and food that matched the wine that made those evenings special. My Top Five evenings (in reverse order) are the following:

#5 evening – My 59th birthday – November 26, 2011, at The Cut Bar & Grill

  • 2005 Tyrrell’s Vat 1 Semillon
  • 2000 Waverley Estate Chardonnay
  • 2000 Houghton Museum Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon
  • 2000 McWilliams Mt Pleasant Maurice O’Shea Shiraz
  • 1975 Lindemans Porphry

#4 evening – BPAY Architecture and Support team reunion – August 29, 2012, at The Cut Bar & Grill

  • 2009 Bouchard Pere & Fils Puligny Montrachet
  • 2007 La Belle Voisine Nuits St George
  • 1990 Lindemans Limestone Ridge (Cabernet Sauvignon / Shiraz blend)
  • 2000 McWilliams Mt Pleasant Maurice O’Shea Shiraz
  • 2006 Chateau Reuissec Sauternes

#3 evening – My 58th birthday – December 2, 2010, at The Cut Bar & Grill

  • Pommeray Brut Champagne NV
  • 1998 Tyrrell’s Vat 9 Shiraz
  • 2001 Yalumba Octavius Shiraz
  • 1981 Penfolds Grange
  • 2005 Château Haut Bergeron Sauternes Dessert wine
  • 1997 Château D’Yquem Sauternes

#2 evening – Deanna’s 41th birthday – March 17, 2012, at home with Jay Huxley Masterchef cooking

  • 1998 Pommeray Louise Champagne
  • 2009 Hugel Alsace Riesling
  • 1990 Waverley Estate Semillon
  • 2007 La Belle Voisine Nuits St George
  • 2005 Chateau Brane-Cantenac (Margeaux)
  • 2005 Château Haut Bergeron Sauternes
  • 1997 Château D’Yquem Sauternes

#1 evening – Deanna’s 40th birthday – March 19, 2011, at Lindemans Winery

  • 1998 Pommeray Louise Champagne
  • 1987 Lindemans Padthaway Watervale Riesling
  • 1990 Waverley Estate Semillon
  • 1996 Wolf Blass Grey Label (Cabernet Sauvignon / Shiraz)
  • 1996 Lindemans St George Cabernet Savignon
  • 1995 Yarra Yering Dry #1
  • 1971 Lindemans Limestone Ridge (Cabernet Sauvignon / Shiraz)
  • 1971 Penfolds Grange
  • 1971 Château D’Yquem Sauternes
  • 1957 Lindemans Vintage Port

While we have had some evenings (such as our anniversaries) where the wines have been just as spectacular, they were limited to two bottles. What made the Top Five truly stand out was that we had more friends and more wines to sample, enjoy and compare.

I am actually not sure if I can write about the great time we had for Deanna’s 40th birthday without passing out as just writing up the list has me quivering! I am uncertain if we will ever be able to top that evening, but my 60th birthday is coming up in a few months, so we do have a reason to try! Hopefully, I can use that night to knock off the current #5 and possibly reposition a few of the other four spots!