The world's best wine from the 1970s is ... Penfolds Grange

Mark Hawthorne
A selection of the 100 great wines blind-tested in the 1970s test.
A selection of the 100 great wines blind-tested in the 1970s test. 

It was the wine Max Schubert declared as his greatest triumph.

Now, more than four decades later, the legendary Penfolds 1971 Grange has topped a tasting of the world's greatest wines of the 1970s, beating some of France's most famous wine estates on the way.

Wines worth in excess of $500,000 were sourced from around the world, at a special event commissioned by European luxury magazine publisher FINE and website Judges from nine different countries were on hand to assess and score the wines.

Penfolds' legendary winemaker Max Schubert maintained the 1971 Grange was a standout vintage.
Penfolds' legendary winemaker Max Schubert maintained the 1971 Grange was a standout vintage. 

Penfolds 1971 Grange topped the list, scoring 98.5 out of a possible 100 points, to narrowly beat Chateau Y'quem 1975 from Sauternes, which scored 98 points. Rhone red Guigal La Mouline 1976 came third with a score of 97.5 points.

French wines dominated, with eight of the top 10 positions, but Penfolds Grange managed to snare four spots inside the top 40. The 1976  Grange came 14th (96.5 points), the 1972 Grange 25th (95.5 points) and the 1970 Grange came 36th (94.5 points).

Peter Gago, head winemaker at Penfolds and the man now entrusted to make Grange, says the result is an "incredibly proud moment" for Australia's most famous wine estate.

Penfolds chief winemaker Peter Gago.
Penfolds chief winemaker Peter Gago. Photo: David Mariuz

 "I almost fell off my chair when I heard," Gago says. "This isn't just competing with wines of one vintage or from one country. This is competing with the greatest wines from an entire decade, sourced from the whole world, and including some of the greatest vintages in the history of Bordeaux and Champagne.

"It was a blind tasting, too, with an international panel of judges, which removes any suggestion of bias. To have Australian wines not just compete, but top the list, is an incredibly proud moment for us."

It's not the first time the 1971 Grange has bettered the French at their own game. In 1979, Penfolds caused a sensation in France when the upstart Australian winery topped the Gault-Millau Wine Olympiad in Paris. The1971 Grange beat some of the best Rhone wines ever made.

"If you had to point to a wine which fulfilled the ambitions of Grange it would have to be the 1971," Schubert remarked in 1993, just months before he passed away.

According to the tasting notes, the 1971 Grange is "medium deep brick red" and "an immensely complex and mature wine with lifted smoked meat, dark chocolate, mocha and liquorice aromas".

The 1971 Grange is a blend of 87 per cent shiraz and 13 per cent cabernet sauvignon grapes, which were sourced from the Kalimna Vineyard in the Barossa Valley, and Magill Estate in Adelaide, Clare Valley and Coonawarra. The wine has an unusually low alcohol of around 12.3 per cent, which may have helped contribute to its incredible longevity.

Schubert was sent to Jerez in Spain in 1949 to study sherry production and the making of fortified wines, which dominated Australian wine sales in the mid 20th century. He only travelled to Bordeaux as part of a private side trip on his way back to Australia. While in Bordeaux, he visited some of the great first growth estates, including Château Lafite Rothschild, Château Latour and Château Margaux.

History shows the Australian learned much on that trip. At the latest judging, his Grange wines beat out all three of those famous estates, even from the legendary 1970 and 1975 Bordeaux vintages.

Gago points out that the 1971 Grange almost never came into being.

Schubert made his first vintage of Grange in 1951. "He was then told by management to stop making it, but secretly he defied orders and made three vintages on the side," Gago says. "Just as well for me he did that."

In the end, the company acquiesced to Schubert's request to make fine table wines.

The Penfolds 1971 Grange sells for upwards of $1500 a bottle, if you can find one. "It's a very rare wine these days," Gago says.

The latest 2011 Grange, marking 40 years since the release of Schubert's seminal wine, is due for release on October 15.

The top 40 from the 1970s

(as ranked by the FINE blind tasting)

1. Penfolds Grange 1971 - 98.5 points

2. Château d´Yquem 1975 – 98.0 points

3. Guigal La Mouline 1976 – 97.5 points

4. Heitz Martha´s Vineyard 1974 – 97.5 points

5. DRC La Tâche 1978 – 97.5 points

6. Château Lafleur 1971 – 97.5 points

7. Dom Pérignon 1975 Oenothèque – 97.0 points

8. Château Cheval Blanc 1971 - 97.0 points

9. Piper Heidsieck Rare 1976 - 97.0 points

10. DRC Montrachet 1978 - 97.0 points

11. Dom Perignon P3 1973 - 97.0 points

12. Comte de Vogue Musigny 1979 - 97.0 points

13. Dom Pérignon 1976 - 96.5 points

14. Penfolds Grange 1976 – 96.5 points

15. Guigal La Landonne 1978 - 96.5 points

16. Chave Hermitage 1978 - 96.5 points

17. Jaboulet Hermitage La Chapelle 1978 – 96.5 points

18. Leroy Richebourg 1972 – 96.5 points

19. Château Trotanoya 1978 – 96.0 points

20. Vega Sicilia Unico 1970 - 96.0 points

21. DRC Romanée Conti 1973 - 96.0 points

22. Jayer Échézeaux 1978 – 95.5 points

23. Roederer Cristal 1978 – 95.5 points

24. Dom Pérignon 1971 – 95.5 points

25. Penfolds Grange 1972 – 95.5 points

26. Château Haut-Brion 1970 – 95.5 points

27. Veuve Clicquot Vinoteque Rosé 1979 – 95.5 points

28. Heitz Martha´s Vineyard 1970 - 95.0 points

29. Château Pétrus 1971 - 95.0 points

30. Château d´Yquem 1979 - 95.0 points

31. René Fleurot Le Montrachet 1978 - 95.0 points

32. Château Margaux 1970 - 95.0 points

33. Vega Sicilia Unico 1974 - 95.0 points

34. Dom Pérignon 1973 – 95.0 points

35. Vega Sicilia Unico 1972 - 95.0 points

36. Penfolds Grange 1970 – 94.5 points

37. Château Margaux 1971 – 94.5 points

38. Fonseca's Vintage Port 1975 – 94.5 points

39. Château L´Evangile 1970 – 94.5 points

40. Domaine Gros & Ferés Richebourg 1973 – 94.5 points