New Penfolds reds released as export led shortage pushes up prices

Penfolds this week released its 1991 Bin 407, 389, 28, and 128 reds, and 1992 Koonunga Hill Shiraz Cabernet. There’ll be little of the usual trade fanfare, though — despite incredibly high quality — because retailers were issued tiny allocations, even of the normally abundant Koonunga Hill.

It’s hard to believe now, but just three years ago Penfolds’ sales force worked overtime to sell reds generally regarded as amongst the best in the country. From the late seventies and throughout the eighties prices (with the exception perhaps of Grange and Bin 707) trailed behind inflation rate, with occasional bursts of discounting to reduce stock.

Reasonably enough, Penfolds does not publish its production figures. But my guess is that sluggish sales in the late eighties resulted in reducing output of the top reds in the early nineties.

If that is so, the current shortage is easy to understand given strong export and domestic demand : domestically, sales of bottled red rose 8.5 per cent by volume for the year to January, 1994. I don’t know export figures by segment, but growth exceeds the domestic rate by a big margin (in fact bottled-red exports recently overtook local consumption).

Faced with a great surge in demand, Penfolds responded with a commitment to keep quality up and increase output only as suitable grapes become available. The shortage has thus been met by rationing and a steady increase in prices.

Three years ago, Koonunga Hill was on special in every capital city in Australia at $4.99. Last year’s discount price was $5.99. But retailers used to turning on the Koonunga Hill tap at will, now find the landed price after taxes well over $6 a bottle. In normal circumstances that would indicate a standard price of around $9.50 a bottle with bursts on special at $6.99 or $7.99.

But theses are not normal circumstances. Such is the shortage of good red, hot specials, if they eventuate, will be short lived.

Koonunga Hill was always touted as the benchmark budget red — was, in fact, viewed widely as greatly undervalued. As it nudges past $9 and sails towards $10, we’re forced to re-appraise it. In my view, though, it’s always outclassed many fashionable wines selling over $10, even in the cheap old days.

The 1992 vintage displays all the hallmarks that established the brand: robust, ripe fruit flavours, a surprisingly solid structure and firm, dry finish. It can even be cellared for a few years. It’s easily worth $10 a bottle, and a bargain at anything less in the current climate.

Bin 128, the straight Coonawarra shiraz, takes us to a higher level. It, too, possesses the unique, solid Penfold structure but the aroma and flavour is all Coonawarra berries mingled with sweet/pungent French oak. It has a character all its own, is even scarcer than Koonunga Hill, and should sell for $11 to $14.

Kalimna Bin 28, another shiraz, shares the sturdy Penfold style with Bin 128. But its warmer origins and maturation in American rather than French oak dictate totally different flavours. It’s richer, fuller, and slightly more alcoholic. What sheer joy to savour its potent combination of ripe shiraz and oak handed down from Grange and Bin 389. Best to cellar this glorious drop for five or six years. Expect to pay $12 to $15.

Bin 389, a shiraz cabernet blend from Coonawarra, Barossa, McLaren Vale and Padthaway takes us to yet another quality level. Again we feel the Penfold grip in the mouth, but it comes with a remarkable buoyancy as the most magnificent fruit aromas and flavours mingle with the sweet oak that held the previous year’s Grange.

If you can find any Bin 389 this year, the price will be $14-$18 a bottle. But savour the wine, compare it to what else is on the market, and perhaps you’ll wonder as I do why Penfolds don’t just put the price up to $20 and not worry about rationing. This is a great Australian red.

Although Bin 407 Cabernet Sauvignon sells for a slightly higher price than Bin 389 ($15-$19) and comes with 3 Gold medals, I suspect the difference reflects the scarcity of Cabernet rather than quality. This is a superb wine, totally in the Penfold mould with its solid structure, and comes with a great depth of pure Cabernet flavour. Grapes come from Coonawarra, McLaren Vale, Padthaway, and Clare Valley.

These are phenomenally good wines now reaching an international audience. They offer proven drinking satisfaction and great cellaring potential. Surely this is the best range of red wines in Australia.