Penfolds red wines stand alone in the global landscape. They offer the world’s drinkers not just a dazzling vision of the wonderfully ripe, robust wine flavours our sunny continent produces, but carry, as well, a Penfolds thumbprint in the form of aromas, flavours, and a particular feel in the mouth, quite different from anything made by any other wine maker.
New vintages released last month and imminent releases of the company’s flagships, Grange 1990, Cabernet Sauvignon Bin 707 1992 and Coonawarra Cabernet-Kalimna Shiraz Bin 90A 1990, continue very much in the mould cast by Max Schubert back in 1951. But they also reveal a significant evolution guided by the present Penfolds team, headed by John Duval (wine making) and Andrew Pike (vineyard management).
In fact, there has been a remarkable continuity in red-wine-making practice since Schubert established the style over forty years ago. And the continuity seems all the more remarkable given the turmoil faced by Penfolds over the years.
Grange, and the unique red-making culture that grew with it, got off to a shaky start in the fifties then solidified in the sixties as Schubert’s reds took the wine-show circuit by storm. The culture endured when Penfolds passsed from family control to Tooth & Co in the seventies and prospered once again when, first, the Adsteam Group took control and, later, South Australian Brewing Holdings (now Southcorp) assumed command.
Through all the commercial turmoil and strong interraction with other wine-making cultures as Penfolds joined a corporate blend including Kaiser Stuhl, Tollana, Wynns, Tullochs, Seaview, Lindemans, Leo Buring, and Seppelt, the Penfold red culture endured.
Max Schubert retired from full time wine making around 1973, passing the mantle to Don Ditter. But Schubert stationed himself at Penfolds Magill Cellars, almost until his death in March last year, and remained a mentor both to Ditter, and to John Duval who succeeded to the position of Chief red-wine maker when Ditter retired in 1986 (a great vintage to take over the mantle says Duval).
Without access to confidential company material, it is not possible to pinpoint exactly how the making of Penfolds reds has evolved since the days of Schubert. And, in fact, the comparison of today’s young reds with those of yesterday is possible only in the minds of the now old men and women who were there.
But if details changed over the years, the overall principles established did not. The keynotes seem to be selection of perfectly ripened grapes appropriate to the style of wine being made; full extraction of colour and flavour from the grapes through fermentation techniques developed by Schubert; completion of fermentation in small oak barrels (over which painstaking selection control is exercised); and maturation in small barrels prior to bottling.
One of the keys to the Penfolds style within that list is fruit selection. That’s really at the heart of wine style and quality and an aspect of quality control now finely honed by Penfolds through its end-use-evaluation-scheme — a sophisticated, complex and interactive system that relates wine use back to vineyard source. It brings wine maker and vineyard manager together and appears to have been highly successful in a steady quality evolution.
As an outsider, my guess is that the biggest single change over the forty four years since the style’s birth has been sourcing of grapes.
In Schubert’s own words, sourcing the right grapes was the first step in making Grange and all the other wonderful reds that followed. Indeed, had sufficient cabernet been available in Australia in 1951 we would now be celebrating Grange Cabernet instead of Grange Hermitage.
Those early reds focused more on the Barossa, Morphett Vale (now an Adelaide suburb), Magill and McLaren Vale with some Coonawarra material. Now, Coonawarra and Padthaway have hit the scene in a big way and significant plantings have sprung up in the Clare and Eden Valleys and Langhorne Creek.
In the early days, the industry’s focus was on fortified wine production and Australians barely touched red wine. Growing demand, especially in the eighties and nineties has seen a massive explosion in planting and vineyard management techniques that mean more and better winemaking options for John Duval and his team.
Unlike some critics lamenting the loss of Penfolds reds of old, I firmly believe that the wines are, on average, steadily climbing new heights as all the little bits of quality control, and especially diversified vineyard sourcing, click into place.
To line up the current Penfolds reds and vacantly award them points out of twenty or stars out of five seems to me to miss the point completely. These are wines of immense character and individuality. More on the new releases next week.
May 14th, 1995
Those wonderful Penfolds reds introduced in last week’s column deserve special attention in today’s largely overpriced wine market. At a time when Australia is probably making its best reds ever, there are still a lot of ordinary wines out there bearing hefty price tags.
But the Penfolds range offers not only exciting quality, but a proven track record in cellaring as well as strong resale value through the auction system.
Ironically, while Penfolds probably pockets an historically high margin, prices continue to be restrained by a fiercely competitive retail market. Retailers may be on allocation, but despite the shortage, pricing on such well-known brands becomes a barometer by which wine drinkers judge the overall value offered by a trader.
So, shop around. Somewhere someone could be selling the range at or near cost price. Which means you can pick up Bin 128 and Bin 28 for $10.99, Bin 407 for $13.99 and Bin 389 for $14.99 on super special. The market tends to be more competitive in Sydney than in Canberra, so keep an eye on the Sydney papers and prepare to make a raid up there, if necessary, on you next trip. Or, use a Sydney retailer’s price to bargain with a local merchant.
Each of the new Penfolds reds offers a strongly individual style based on selective grape sourcing, while the range is linked by common wine-making techniques that produce a Penfold thumbprint by way of distinctive aromas, flavours and structure accompanying the primary wine flavour.
Penfold Coonawarra Bin 128 1992, for example, delivers the lush, supple, gracious berry flavours typical of good Coonawarra shiraz. But the fruit comes with an overlay of aromas, flavours and textures derived from fermentation and maturation in French oak barrels, and a fair bit of contact with air during its making. These form the Penfolds thumbprint.
It can be tasted and felt, too, in Kalimna Bin 28 1992, a wine that shows another face of shiraz and the quite powerful flavour of American rather than French oak. The ‘mother’ wine for Bin 28 comes from Penfolds Kalimna vineyard in the northern Barossa Valley, blended with compatible material from elsewhere in the Barossa, McLaren Vale and Padthaway.
Kalimna experiences warmer growing conditions than Coonawarra, producing markedly different grape and, hence, wine flavours than we see in Bin 128. Instead of delicacy, we taste in Bin 28 ripe, powerful fruit flavours matched by stronger oak. It is simply a satisfying-to-drink example of warm-climate Aussie shiraz and tastes even better with ten years’ bottle age.
Penfolds Cabernet Sauvignon Bin 407 1992, the third vintage in this line, offers pure, distinct cabernet flavour. Coming predominantly from two cooler growing areas — Padthaway and Coonawarra — and a cool vintage, that flavour spectrum embraces both a ripe, sweet “blackcurrant” component and a green astringent edge. Wrap these with the Penfold oak and wine-making extras, and you have an outstanding, elegant red that’s best cellared 5 to 10 years. More than anything else, it expresses the character of Padthaway and Coonawarra.
Penfolds Cabernet Shiraz Bin 389 1992 shows the evolution of this great red since Len Evans (I think it was Len) dubbed the 1959 vintage “poor man’s Grange”. The modern version bears little resemblance to Grange thanks, I believe, to the powerful but elegant cabernet flavours of the increased Coonawarra and Padthaway grape components in the blend.
The combination of outstanding grapes and fermentation and maturation in barrels handed down from Grange, gives a powerful red, distinctly Australian with its combination of elegant, strong cabernet and lush, ripe shiraz. I see Bin 389 of the last few vintages, the current 1992 included, as perhaps the best value-for-money red on the market today if you’re looking for richness of flavour and cellaring potential.
Penfolds this year unveiled the first vintage (1992) of a new, entirely Barossa-sourced red, Old Vine Mourvedre-Grenache-Shiraz. It sits firmly in the Penfold mould but offers a real flavour departure from the cabernets and shirazes thanks to the fragrance of grenache, and the firm, spicy character of the mouvedre (also known as mataro). This is a solid, chunky Barossa wine that needs another few years in the cellar. Very little was made, it is not as widely distributed as the others.
Penfolds St Henri stands out from the others because it’s the only Penfold red not fermented and matured in small oak barrels. The 1991, a spectacular example of ripe Australian shiraz, continues in the style established back in 1957 — the focus remains on pure, sweet, ripe shiraz mellowed in large old casks. This beauty needs 10-20 years’ cellaring.