Sunday, March 26, 2006

Poem in a Glass: 1989 Penfold’s Grange Hermitage Bin 95

Our special indulgence this weekend was to break out one of the older wines from our cellar—bought way back in the early 90’s when we had disposable income (ah, those were the days). At the time, laying out $80 for a bottle of wine was thrillingly extravagant, and I felt quite naughty with my purchases. Today a new release Penfold’s Grange Hermitage goes for over $200, a price increase much higher than inflation, so it turns out to have been a good investment in the opportunity to taste one of the world’s premier wines.

I was trawling the internet for reviews of the 1989 and came upon a write-up of a vertical tasting of the wine from ten years ago. The 1989 was singled out as an unfortunate departure from the usual, too jammy as if the winemakers had poured in an equal amount of Chambord. Maybe ten years has softened the wine or maybe I just feel grateful to be able to taste it at all, but I really enjoyed the 1989.

Okay, now the wine porn begins. From the first whiff, you could tell you were dealing with a very fine wine with so much complexity and depth. It felt like velvet in the mouth, rich and smooth and compelling in its presence. I’d have to agree it was strong on the raspberry jam flavors, but it also had spice and the layers of brightness I associate with sunlight captured in a bottle. Then came the long finish, something you never get with a middle-range wine, no matter how charming. But with a first-growth wine, you can feel the flavors develop and change on your palate, unfolding over a minute’s time or more. Like a poem, it is more than what it seems at first taste. You take another sip not to get drunk but to learn more about the subtle pleasures it offers. And of course, it keeps getting better. I'd say the 1989 was at its peak; we drank it neither too early nor too late.

This is the first premier Australian wine I’ve had and it was notably different from French wines which always have a certain austerity—earthy undertones in Burgundy or Bordeaux, pepper in the Rhone Valley. This had more of a Napa-style roundness and sweetness to it. The fruit rather than the earth predominated.

Again I must contradict my advice for dinners of seduction. If you happen to have a 17-year-old bottle of fine red wine lying around, your dinner guest will most likely be very, very appreciative indeed.

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