“I couldn’t sleep last night,” confided Nigel Hart. “These old wines can be such a risk.” Hart, an American wine collector, had come to Penfolds’ New York re-corking clinic with the first four vintages of Grange ever made – the rare experimental 1951 (never released) and the ’52, ’53 and ’54 – for assessment by chief winemaker Peter Gago. Who wouldn’t be nervous?

The bottles were part of a set of 1951-to-1992 Grange that Hart bought at a New York auction in 2004 for US$70,000. And so Hart arrived at a Manhattan hotel, bottles in hand, for a reality check. Gago began by persuading him not to open and re-cork the 1951.

“The ’51s are all in hand-blown bottles that can shatter under the stress of a modern re-corking machine,” Gago explained. “And with a wine that’s fetching around A$80,000 at auction, why take the risk?” Likewise the ’54 was not opened, because it had been re-corked once before (Penfolds will re-cork a bottle only once). But the corks were pulled (very carefully) on the ’52 and ’53 – with mixed results.

“We couldn’t put a certification label on the ’52,” Gago said, “because while it’s a perfectly drinkable bottle, we didn’t think it was a good, typical example of the vintage, which can be brilliant. Auction buyers are paying tens of thousands of dollars for certified bottles of these old treasures, and to be fair to everyone we have to be brutally honest. I advised Nigel to drink it in the near future.” The ’53 fared better, winning the coveted certified status.