Australian Shiraz is one of the world’s most recognisable and popular styles, and owed much to Penfolds. Until the 1950s, Australian wines were fortified with spirit, and drank ostensibly for medicinal purposes.
Max Schubert came back from a European tour with a yearning to replicate the wines he had tasted there. He continued to make the wines, even when initial vintages were brutally rejected. Years later he was able to reveal his maturing protégées from a hidden part of the cellar, as a taste for unfortified table wines evolved.
Today Penfolds Grange is listed as one of Australia’s Heritage Icons, and is universally regarded as Australia’s best wine. Penfolds have a well-deserved excellent reputation for their reds, and a rapidly growing following for their relatively new whites. Penfolds Grange will currently set you back at the very least, €300 per bottle. You might be lucky and find someone who bought Grange in less-expensive times, and is willing to share it. A friend generously hosted a vertical tasting some years ago, where we were able to appreciate several vintages with glorious development. For many however, Grange’s sibling wines, St. Henri, Magill Estate, Bin 389 and Bin 707, are favoured over Grange. The red winemaking techniques mirror the legacy of fortified winemaking, and are quite traditional. Open concrete fermenters are often used, with wooden boards to keep the cap submerged. Low-ish temperatures, but with rigorous twice-daily rack and return, give a short fermentation. Final fermentation is in barrel, where the oak knits seamlessly into the wine.
The Bin system is much loved by collectors, men in particular. Justin Knock, Penfolds’ winemaking ambassador explained to me that they evolved from terroir being a location in the winery rather than the vineyard. Bin numbers seem to be a natural progression from boyhood collections of soldiers, cars, playing cards, and feeds into the masculine hobby of remembering dates of sports victories. Which bin, which vintage, and whom you drank it with, is fondly recalled. Penfolds wines age particularly well. Justin tells me that big wines nowadays “are made with an each way bet” – they drink well young, and even better with age. Young wines are all about fruit, but older wines have great complexity, with earthy undertones, and a definite top, bottom and middle.
Penfolds vintages from even years have been great in the last 10 years or more. Just released is the 2010, which is excellent. With such hefty price tags, once can forget that these wines are made for drinking, not admiring in a cellar. Justin has fond memories of sharing Grange 1998 while watching cricket at Lords some years ago while watching Australia win The Ashes. (Now, what was I saying about sport and Penfolds bin wines?) Penfolds wines are unsurprisingly, not cheap. If you are looking for a special bottle for someone who truly reveres their wine, then you need look no further than this pedigree champion of wines.
Penfolds Bin 28 Kalimna Shiraz 2010 is made from warm climate fruit, much of it Barossa (Kalimna was the original source – one of Penfolds’ old vineyards in Barossa). Matured in seasoned American oak hogsheads, I found it very ripe on the nose – with vanilla, hints of coconut. Its palate struck me with its velvety texture, then firm tannins encasing vibrant black fruit, with hints of mocha, and cedarwood.
Penfolds Bin 389 Cabernet Shiraz 2010 is an equal blend of both varieties, and the fruit is sourced from various cool and warm sites in South Australia. 2010 is surprisingly well-developed, and beautifully integrated, hinting at vegetal, gamey complexity, with wonderful violets, blueberries, and layers of liquorice, mint, chocolate and prunes/ black fruit. Big, bold and beautifully balanced. American oak is a feature of this wine, 40% of it new. It is often referred to as ‘Baby Grange’ or ‘Poor Man’s Grange’ as some of the wine is aged in barrels which held the previous vintage of Grange.
Penfolds Bin 407 Cabernet 2010 is fabulous, with cedar, lead pencil, and cassis. Firmly tannic, but with distinctive layers of fruit, oak, herbs, cedar, and on the finish, a lick of spice. 407 was first made in 1990, as more premium Cabernet fruit became available, again from multiple regions. 407 is regarded as a fine example of the variety, whereas its forerunner, Bin 707, is regarded as a classic Penfolds style.
St. Henri Shiraz 2009 was exceptionally elegant – a beautifully rounded symphony of flavours and textures, with cedar, wood, a lick of vanilla, firm tannins, and savoury, earthy fruit character. St. Henri is a 60 years old counterpoint to Grange – it has a mere 3% Cabernet, for structure, and doesn’t see any new oak influence.
Magill Estate Shiraz 2010 was incredibly fruity and smoky, with unusually advanced vegetal character on the plate, earthy, savoury coffee notes, and overall, deliciously warm sweet marriage of fruit and oak. It is the antithesis of Grange’s regional blending philosophy, as it comes from the original tiny Penfolds vineyard, near Adelaide. It is aged in new oak, about two thirds of which is French. Reflecting the tradition which Penfolds prides itself on, winemaker John Bird has been involved in hand-making this small-batch wine for over 50 vintages.
Penfolds Bin 707 Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 is absolutely lovely. Cedar, vanilla, oak and cassis on the nose. Elegant firm sweet cassis, great structure, poise, and incredibly well-proportioned. Stylistically, it is seen as a Cabernet version of Grange, with intensely-flavoured fruit, new oak, and multi-regional sourcing. It is one of Australia’s finest Cabernets.
Penfolds Grange 2008 was perhaps an atypical bottle as it was quite advanced in style. It is typically grandiose in nose and palate, oozing character in its youth (prune, fig, cloves, pepper, coconut, vanilla), and with fabulous propensity to age. This vintage was awarded 100 points by Robert Parker recently.