Penfolds Grange and Bin 707

Penfold’s release of Cabernet Sauvignon Bin 707 1990 with Grange Hermitage 1988 reveals publicly what the wine makers have felt for years about its greatness. The sheer quality of the wine allows the marketers to position it firmly alongside Australia’s greatest red.

It also underpins a strong price performance at auction, suggesting that over time, perhaps a decade, Bin 707 will be on a par with Grange.

If that turns out to be the case, then Bin 707 is the better financial investment of the two: Grange now appears fully priced on a world scale at around $100, while Bin 707 can be picked up for $30 to $35 a bottle. Buying Bin 707 for $30 now is probably a bit like buying Grange for $20 in the early eighties – a bargain.

Whatever way prices go, as an investment in drinking pleasure you cannot go wrong with either wine. All it takes to reap the rewards is a cool dark place for the bottles and patience enough to leave them alone for another decade.

Bin 707 vintages 1976, 1980, and 1983 were all described in last week’s column. The 1986 justifies all the hype that surrounded the vintage and the sheer voluptuous sweetness of flavour makes it the best of the decade in my books. It is a most remarkable wine but nowhere near its peak.

Against these the 1990 is a baby, slowly showing its character: elegance with smooth, highly concentrated ripe berry flavours integrated with sweet oak and firm, drying tannins. Time is all it needs to blossom. You’d have to rate it as one of the greats, capping the decade in which Bin 707 took shape.

Unlike Grange, Bin 707 has changed dramatically. Early vintages, starting with the first in 1964, were sourced entirely from very old vines on the Kalimna vineyard. From 1967, fruit from other Barossa vineyards was included.

From 1970 to 1975 production ceased, then started again in 1976. From 1979, fruit from Coonawarra was included in the blend.

During the eighties, Coonawarra came to dominate Bin 707. Hence, the transformation in style from the robust, chocolaty warmth of Barossa to the concentrated, elegant berry flavours of Coonawarra. Fruit for Bin 707 comes from two Coonawarra vineyards planted by Penfolds in 1969 and 1971.

However, Bin 707 is not pure Coonawarra. The winemakers still blend in a little amazingly rich cabernet from those very old Kalimna vines. But Coonawarra is at the heart of it for one simple reason: that’s where cabernet sauvignon grows best.

While Grange has undergone no fundamental style change like Bin 707, fruit sourcing has altered since the first batch was made in 1951. Morphett Vale and Magill were the sources of those early Granges. Urban sprawl knocked out the Morphett Vale vineyards and over time fruit from Kalimna, Clare and McLaren Vale found it s way into the blend.

Grange has been fine-tuned rather than changed, the style always featuring enormously robust shiraz flavours. Kalimna provides the mother wine for modern Grange. It is seasoned with shiraz from other areas and often a touch of cabernet… the 1988, for example, contains 6 per cent shiraz.

Grange and Bin 707 have much in common. Both are made in quite small quantities (my guess is between 5 and 10 thousand cases a year of each) from the very best fruit available: in the case of Grange the best shiraz; for Bin 707 the best cabernet sauvignon.

Full ripe flavours are essential to both styles. And fermentation techniques are designed to extract maximum colour and flavour. Both wines finish their fermentations in and mature for about 18 months in new American oak barrels.

Those barrels add a distinctive, unique flavour to Penfolds top wines. A great deal of effort goes into quality control of the barrels.

American oak is shipped as green timber sawn to stave length. Cooper’s A.P. Johns season it for two seasons in their yards before making barrels. Penfolds dissemble some to check the degree of roasting and take shavings to test for TCA, the molecule responsible for corkiness in wine.

Another component of the unique Grange flavour comes from the presence in higher than normal concentration of volatile acidity (VA). There’s a touch in any oak matured wine, but Grange carries a little more because it’s in the fruit to begin with, then increases during barrel fermentation. As the name suggests, VA makes the aroma dramatically more powerful– part of the spice of Grange.

Grange 1988 contains all the classic aroma and flavour elements of the style – a blue chip wine investment for prolonged cellaring and ultimately great drinking.