Penflds RWT 1998 — is this the perfect Barossa Shiraz?

Australia’s great wine icon, Penfolds Grange, is in no danger of demise. But in my view it does have a quality challenger – albeit in a different style – from within its own cellar.

The challenger goes under the name RWT, originally a prosaic acronym for ‘red wine trial’ – a mid nineties project led by John Duval, Penfolds Chief Winemaker at the time.

With increasing volumes of high-quality shiraz available, Duval sought to make a 100 per cent Barossa red expressing the sweet perfume and voluptuous, juicy, soft richness of the variety, complemented by subtle French oak.

What he envisaged – and made – was the antithesis of the opaque coloured, brooding, slow-evolving power of Grange.

The first RWT – from the generally lacklustre 1997 vintage – made a big impression with its wonderful fragrance and supple, fruity palate. There never had been another Penfolds red like this. In fact, it’s hard to recall any Barossa shiraz of this calibre.

In retrospect we might conclude that Duval — like his mentor and creator of Grange, Max Schubert – successfully transformed a vision into an enduring and distinctive wine style.

Of course, reputations can’t be based on one vintage. But RWT comes from what was an already impeccable pedigree: the unique shiraz from the western and north western fringe of the Barossa Valley – a resource integral to the success of Penfolds reds and highly valued by Schubert and by his successors, Don Ditter, John Duval and now Peter Gago.

Subsequent vintages confirmed the power of Duval’s vision even if the market – expressed through auction prices – lags the opinion of experts.

Several recent encounters with RWT prompted these observations. At dinner before the Barossa Wine Show with fellow judges Huon Hooke and Lester Jesberg, we struggled to name even one truly great Barossa shiraz – until Jesberg suggested RWT 1998.

Ah, yes, we all agreed. That was magnificent. Days later, by fate, the as yet unreleased RWT Shiraz 2004 — with that same heady fragrance and lush, silkiness – romped home as top red of the show.

At a judges’ dinner during the show, a line up of red trophy winners from the 2002 show – including RWT 1998 – highlighted the sheer perfection of this wine. Huon commented that each of the reds could have been better in some way – less alcohol, less oak, less tannin – but not RWT. “There’s not a thing you’d want to change in it”, he said. And he was correct.

The same might be said of the 2004 that topped the show this year and of the current release 2002.

With a retail price of between $120 and $140 a bottle, nobody’s going to call Penfolds RWT cheap. But for a wine of this calibre I’d regard it as undervalued when compared with the other great wines of the world.

This, I believe, makes RWT good value for the collector wanting to get in early and build a sequence of what could be seen a few decades from now as one of the very finest Australian reds.

And if you’ve that in mind, do look at current auction prices. Recent sales — varying between $72 for the 1997 and $94 for the 2002 — represent a significant discount on retail price.

Unlike Grange, RWT doesn’t need 15 plus years in the cellar. It seduces from the day its released but has the depth to age well for a decade or two.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2005 & 2007