No drought of Australia's top Grange wine

CANBERRA, May 1 (Reuters Life!) - Australia’s worst drought in 100 years may be about to ravage food crops, but it has not halted ritual surrounding the country’s greatest wine.

Every May 1, Peter Gago, the chief winemaker of Penfolds, unveils the latest vintage of “Grange”, which has emerged as one of the world’s great labels since its 1950s beginnings.

“This wine is a leading candidate for the richest, most concentrated dry red table wine on planet Earth. Penfold’s Grange takes opulence and decadence to the limits,” leading international critic Robert Parker Jr once wrote of the wine.

Grange is eagerly sought by collectors, including U.S. hard rocker Maynard James Keenan, who is working on a A$185,000 ($154,000) full vintage or “vertical” collection.

But amid speculation that this year’s grouping of Penfold’s super premium wines and the 2002 Grange may be among the best ever, the congenial Gago is unusually coy.

“There isn’t a dud among them. And what’s the ‘02 Grange like? In 20 years I can tell you,” Gago told the Age newspaper.

Grange is famous as much for its story as the complex and uncompromising flavor and quality.

Legendary Penfolds winemaker Max Schubert made the wine as an experiment in 1951, following a trip to Bordeaux after which he decided to shift course from the fortified wines favored by most Australian producers.

That vintage, which today fetches prices in excess of A$69,000, was written off by critics and banned from reproduction by unhappy Penfolds management.

But Schubert continued to make Grange, or Bin 95 as it is known by the company, in secret until age proved the wine’s quality, leading to officially sanctioned production from 1960.

The wine, made from Shiraz and small amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon, is said to be the label that forged Australia’s international reputation as a leading New World wine maker.

The 2002 vintage will be the first to be priced in excess of A$500 a bottle, with Australian tasters praising the wine for its “spicy and meaty”, “tar and liquorice” notes.

Its release comes just weeks after Australia’s government warned it was about to shut off water for irrigators due to drought, raising fears it will decimate wine production.

In contrast to top Old World wines from Europe, Grange is blended from a range of vineyards rather than a sole block of grapes, leading to accusations the wine is the leading example of blandly similar and boring Australian wines.

But Gago, who regularly visits Europe and leading Penfolds markets Japan and the United States, rejects the charge.

“Bins are not formulized but made to a style. Which is not boring,” he told the Age. “They have lovely vintage variation.”