Penfolds reds in a class of their own

In an international context the latest Penfolds red releases, led by Grange, look very attractive. Grange 2005’s $550 price tag, or St Henri 2006’s $90, seem modest in comparison to Bordeaux heavyweight Chateau Latour 2005, a cabernet blend, at $US1,250 a bottle in New York; or next to it on the shelf Domaine de la Romanee-Conti Le Montrachet 2005, a chardonnay, fetching $US4,400.

For make no mistake about the quality or provenance of this latest release of Penfolds top reds. They’re in a class of their own – highly polished, sophisticated and strongly individual wines built for long cellaring. They’re exciting to drink now and probably for decades.

For our tasting, we opened the wines a couple of hours before pouring, then tasted up and down the line up for a couple of hours. Exposure to air released more aromas and flavours over time; and what started as a tight bunch of big young reds fairly quickly emerged as eight distinct wines.

We retasted the wines several times over the next two days and noted observations from other tasters, experience and inexperienced, ranging in age from mid-twenties to early sixties.

Reactions to the shirazes were surprisingly consistent given the range of ages and experience. Grange and RWT emerged as clear favourites, followed by St Henri (one taster ranked it at the top) and nobody knew quite how to place Magill Estate, but liked it nevertheless.

Overall, the cabernets were less liked, but the experienced tasters enjoyed the depth and elegance of Bin 407 and the sheer power of Bin 707. And to my palate anyway, Bin 389, a cabernet shiraz blend, appealed more and more as the days ticked by.

SHIRAZ AND SHIRAZ DOMINANT WINES

Penfolds Bin 28 Kalimna Shiraz 2007 $25–$30

Grape variety: shiraz

Region: South Australia, including Langhorne Creek, Upper Adelaide, Barossa, McLaren Vale and Limestone Coast.

Maturation: 12 months in seasoned American oak hogsheads (300 litre) and a portion in large old oak vats

We threw Bin 28, Bin 389 and Bin 407 into the tasting as sighters for the blue chip range. Both held up well. There’s no new oak in Bin 28 these days and that’s not a bad thing. However, it’s still in the big, ripe, warm-climate shiraz mould with the Penfolds thumbprint – robust tannins woven through the fruit, giving a meaty complexity. Upstaged in this line up, but it’s a solid and thoroughly enjoyable red.

Penfolds St Henri Shiraz 2006 $80–$90

Grape varieties: 89% shiraz; 11% cabernet sauvignon

Region: Barossa, McLaren Vale and Limestone Coast

Maturation: 15 months in 1,460-litre oak vats, more than 50-years old

The aroma’s fragrant, spicy and immediately recognisable as shiraz, but taking on a winey complexity. There’s a sweet core of elegant fruit. But the structure is taut and grippy — the fine, slightly austere tannins no doubt contributed by the cabernet in the blend. This is a very fine, elegant, beautiful wine. From experience should be at its best from about fifteen years’ age. Some vintages have recently fetched higher prices than Grange at auction.

Penfolds Magill Estate Shiraz 2007 $114.99 (cellar door only)

Grape variety: shiraz

Region: Magill Vineyard, Adelaide

Maturation: 14 months in hogsheads – 63% new French, 32% new American, 5% one-year-old French

The just-released 2007 Magill Estate is a long way from those lighter bodied, short lived experimental wines of the eighties, when its creation saved this historic vineyard from subdivision. It’s a beautiful, floral scented red with deep, supple, elegant fruit melded with spicy oak. It’s comparatively high in alcohol at 14.5% but not heavy or hot – the fruit’s just too good. In our tasting it was flanked and overshadowed by St Henri and RWT. But sipped on its own a few days later showed real class. Gago says production in 2007 was tiny, so it’s available only at cellar door.

Penfolds RWT Barossa Valley Shiraz 2007 $158–$175

Grape variety: shiraz

Region: Northwestern Barossa Valley

Maturation: 13 month in 71% new, 29% one-year-old French oak hogsheads

“RWT” stands for “red wine trial” – a prosaic name for a spectacular wine developed in the nineties and launched with the 1997 vintage. Peter Gago says it’s sourced from the northwestern end of the Barossa – an area favoured by Penfolds and source, too, of much Grange material. This is as good as Barossa shiraz gets – a sensationally plush, soft, refined red with a perfect matching of fruit and French oak. It’s a wonderful contrast to the more muscular Grange. And, says Gago, it protects Grange: With the lovely, refined RWT in the range it’s easier for him to resist misguided calls from some quarters to alter the Grange style.

Penfolds Grange 2005 $500–$550

Grape variety: 96% shiraz; 4% cabernet sauvignon

Region: Barossa, McLaren Vale and Coonawarra.

Maturation: 18 months in new American oak hogsheads

Grange is Grange – inky deep colour, overwhelming aroma and flavour impact of ripe, dense, sweet fruit, mouth-flooding tannins, distinctive flavour of American oak and a unique perky, buoyant lift. This is a great wine of rare dimension. Over many decades it’ll mellow and grow paler, becoming more fragile and ethereal as the decades roll on.

CABERNET AND CABERNET DOMINANT WINES

Penfolds Bin 389 Cabernet Shiraz 2007 $58–$65

Variety: 54% cabernet sauvignon; 46% shiraz

Region: South Australia, including Coonawarra, McLaren Vale, Langhorne Creek, Padthaway and Barossa

Maturation: 12 months in 39% new American oak hogsheads, 61% older American oak.

Cabernet sets the tone in the 48th vintage of Bin 389 – in the ripe cabernet aromas and flavours and the firm tannins. But shiraz adds mid palate richness and savoury, meaty complexity. It’s hard for any wine to stand next to Grange. But 389 blossomed over a couple of days, outranked by the big guns, but it’s impressive nevertheless and looking good for the cellar.

Penfolds Bin 407 Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 $50–$55

Grape variety: cabernet sauvignon

Region: South Australia, including Coonawarra, McLaren Vale and Langhorne Creek

Maturation: 13 months in French and American oak, one third new, two thirds older.
This is absolutely pure cabernet with aromas and flavours reminiscent of black olive, cassis and a tease of mint; these combine well with the oak, which adds a cedary note. The palate’s intense but elegant, with good flesh and the variety’s firm, gripping tannins.

Penfolds Bin 707 Cabernet Sauvignon $170–$190

Grape variety: cabernet sauvignon

Region: Padthaway, Barossa Valley and Coonawarra

Maturation: 15 months in 100% new American oak hogsheads

Bin 707 has Grange-like power and, like Grange, completes its fermentation then matures in new American oak barrels. The oak adds its own distinct, assertive flavour to the well-defined, ripe cabernet flavours. Powerful, grippy tannins complete the picture of an exceptional wine that needs decades to evolve.

Like Grange, Bin 707 attracts some criticism for its style, particularly for the powerful influence American oak has on its aroma and flavour. However, the style won’t be changing says Peter Gago. Instead Penfolds will next year release a contrasting flagship cabernet sauvignon, yet to be named (any ideas?). It’s made entirely from Coonawarra cabernet and matured in French oak. Gago says that just as RWT protects the Grange style, the new cabernet will protect Bin 707.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2010

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