Penfolds releases Grange, St Henri, Magill, RWT and Bin 707

There’s always a buzz of excitement at the release of a new Grange vintage. It’s a global event now and a confident Penfolds includes in the release its other flagship wines – Yattarna Chardonnay, Reserve Bin Adelaide Hills Chardonnay, St Henri Shiraz, Magill Estate Shiraz, RWT Barossa Valley Shiraz and Bin 707 Cabernet Sauvignon.

This is an extraordinary line up of wines by any measure – and priced accordingly. But when we look at top Bordeaux reds, still in barrel in the cellar, fetching up to $2,000 a bottle, and being produced in much larger volumes, Penfolds’ prices appear modest indeed.

The reds, in particular, enjoy a long pedigree for quality and cellaring ability. They also trade in large volumes at auction – meaning they can always be liquidated, and creating profitable opportunities for astute collectors. But, as the accompanying table shows, timing is everything and it’s probably easier to lose money than make it on Penfolds reds.

Indeed, the table demonstrates that it may be better to buy Grange at auction than in a retail store. The 2005 vintage, for example, fetches less at auction now than it did in retail stores on release last year. Indeed most vintages, including many classic years of the past, cost less at auction than the current release 2006 at retail.

On the other hand, Grange, especially the good vintages, can appreciate over time. But increases are unevenly spread. If, for example, you bought a bottle of 1971 at $9.99 on discount at Farmer Bros in the late seventies, you’re sitting on a handsome gain. You could pocket around $945 at auction ­ – a handsome return.

Or if you bought a bottle of 1983 for around $50 in 1988, you could turn it into about $405 – a good nominal return, but perhaps not sensational in real terms. Note, however, that the beautiful old 1983 fetches almost $200 a bottle less than the brash, new-release 2006.

We held this year’s new-release Penfolds red tasting at Chateau Shanahan with guest panellists, Wine and Food editor, Kirsten Lawson, winemaker and food writer, Bryan Martin, and Jill Shanahan.

To add interest, we poured a 1983 Grange from our cellar alongside the new-release 20006 vintage.

The comments below are all mine. But we agreed on the night that these were distinctive wines of rare dimension – each with its own personality.

Penfolds St Henri Shiraz 2007 $89.99

Regions: Robe, McLaren Vale, Langhorne Creek, Padthaway, Barossa Valley, Coonawarra, Adelaide Hills.

Variety: 100 per cent shiraz.

Maturation: 12 months in 1,460-litre oak vats, more than 50-years’ old.

The diverse fruit sourcing suggests the winemakers pulled out all tricks to make an outstanding St Henri in an ordinary vintage. Because of its focus on fragrance, fruit and soft tannins, we taste this one first and it appeals all around. We love its pure varietal aromas, flavours, softness and suppleness. It’s a very even, balanced, subtle wine with proven long-term cellaring potential.

Penfolds Magill Estate Shiraz 2008 $114.99 (available at cellar door only)

Region: Magill vineyard, Adelaide.

Variety: 100 per cent shiraz.

Maturation: 12 months in 72 per cent new French and 23 per cent new American oak hogsheads. The balance in one-year-old French oak

This is the wine that saved the Magill vineyard from urbanisation. It’s the site of Dr Christopher Penfolds’ Grange cottage and the cellars where Max Schubert developed Grange. Today it’s the home of the Penfolds brand, if not’s its main winery. This wine, however, is made on site in the original open, concrete Grange fermenters.

Although a wine of many parts, it was the least favoured at our tasting – simply upstaged by magnificence. It’s a generous wine, marked by comparatively high acid, savouriness and spice and bright berry flavours pushing through quite obvious (very high quality) oak flavours. Like a kaleidoscope, it offered different patterns and shades during the night.

Penfolds Barossa Valley RWT Shiraz 2008 $174.99

Region: Barossa Valley

Variety: 100 per cent shiraz

Maturation: 14 months in French oak hogsheads, 83 per cent new, 17 per cent one-year-old.

John Duval developed RWT in the 1990s as a fragrant, opulent, supple expression of Barossa shiraz, matured in French oak – a counterbalance to the sheer power of American-oak-matured Grange, also based on Barossa shiraz.

This dense, red-black, crimson-rimmed wonder simply blew us away, from its high-toned aroma to its luxuriously fruity, deep, silky texture to the perfectly matched cedary oak. This is a great wine, as good as Barossa shiraz gets.

Penfolds Grange 2006 $599

Region: Barossa Valley, Coonawarra and Magill.

Varieties: 98 per cent shiraz, two per cent cabernet sauvignon.

Maturation: 18 months in new American oak hogsheads.

Where RWT reveals the fragrant, opulent side of Barossa shiraz, Grange is a more thunder-in-the brain wine – opaque, red-black colour with immense fruit, American oak and tannin influences. The flavour elements are merging by the time it’s released at five years. But that’s just the beginning of a journey that might last for decades. Certainly our 1983, tasted alongside the 2006, has decades of life ahead.

Because it evolves for so long, Grange offers a unique, endless view of its vintage conditions. The1983, for example, has always expressed the exceptional flavour concentration and formidable tannins of a particularly hot, dry season. Over the years the character remains, despite time’s mellowing influence.

The new-release 2006 will never be like the 1983. It comes from a more benign vintage. So, even as a young wine, its sweeter, juicier fruit flavours harmonise with the silky, if huge, tannins. Grange’s signature opaque, colour, American oak, abundant tannins and great flavour concentration are all there. But there’s a lovely harmony and lovability about it even now, despite its rare dimension.

I rate this as one of the great Granges.

Penfolds Grange 1983 $518 (mean auction buyer’s price)

Regions: Barossa Valley (Kalimna and other vineyards), Magill Estate, Modbury Vineyard

Varieties: 94 per cent shiraz, six per cent cabernet sauvignon

Maturation: 100 per cent new American oak hogsheads.

After seeing the beginning of the Grange journey in the raw young 2006 vintage, we moved closer to the destination in the 1983. The product of a hot, dry season this has always been a big, dense, tannic Grange, described succinctly in the 1990 edition of The Rewards of Patience as, “Blockbuster Grange with massively powerful fruit and oak. Enormous strength. Will live for decades”.

Four years on, tasters for the 1994 edition, predicting a drinking window of 2000–2015, commented, “Dense, powerful chocolate/spice/plum/briar aromas with some American oak-derived coconut. A highly concentrated wine showing pronounced extract and tannins balanced with sweetness of fruit and obvious American oak. The wine is beginning to show some complexing ‘cigar box’ characters but is still very youthful. This will be a great Grange”.

By the fourth edition in 2000, tasters pushed the drinking window out to 2020 and with fruit descriptors in overdrive wrote, “Red/purple, intense, rich, brambly/blackberry fruit with touches of cedar and liquorice. Beautifully concentrated, with abundant blackberry/apricot fruit and plenty of meaty/cedary characters, plush, pronounced tannins and underlying sweet oak. Super wine”.

In the 2004 edition, the tasters pushed the drinking window out another decade to 2030 for this “superbly concentrated wine”. A mood swing four years later in the sixth edition saw the drink-by date pulled back to 2025. The tasters described the 1983 as, “A profoundly concentrated vintage with years of cellaring potential”, noting its “muscular tannins”.

On 23 June at Chateau Shanahan Grange 1983 again revealed its muscular tannins, concentration and great staying power. Coming off the youthful fruitiness of the younger wines, though, the old-wine aroma shocked Kirsten Lawson with its “oceany”,  “meaty” and “decaying” aromas – just three descriptors of a wine now deeply endowed with secondary and tertiary bottle-age aromas and flavours. We could throw in old leather, grandma’s furniture, cedar, chocolate and soy, too – and we did. These all adorned the deep, sweet, still-vibrant fruit and strong tannins that came from those tiny, thick-skinned shiraz berries in the hot, drought-affected 1983 vintage. The wine will drink well for decades.

Penfolds Bin 707 Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 $189.99

Regions: Coonawarra, Barossa Valley and Wrattonbully.

Varieties: 100 per cent cabernet sauvignon.

Maturation: 14 months in 100 per cent new American oak hogsheads.

Bin 707 is simply Grange made of cabernet sauvignon instead of shiraz. It’s about power, flavour concentration, American oak and longevity. Originally sourced from Block 42 of the Kalimna Vineyard, northern Barossa, it now owes more to Coonawarra, hundreds of kilometres to the south – although the Barossa contributes in this vintage.  The 2008 is another beautifully balanced blockbuster – impressively aromatic, revealing floral character as well as deep, underlying cassis-like varietal notes, with a mere hint of leaf. The palate’s impressively concentrated, the flavours reflecting the aroma – though over time the lovely cassis-like character dominates. The fruit is layered with powerful but fine, silky tannins, with the oak almost impossible to separate from the fruit flavours.

What your bottle of Grange is worth

Mean auction hammer priceSeller’s approx nett priceBuyer’s approx nett price
Penfolds Grange – vintage
2006 – current release, good vintageNo saleNo SaleNo Sale
2005 – last year’s release, average vintage$440$396$506
2004 – good vintage$440$396$506
2003 – average vintage$410$369$451
2002 – good vintage$430$387$495
2001 – average vintage$400$360$460
1996 – good vintage$495$446$569
1995 – average vintage$365$329$420
1990 – good vintage$630$693$725
1989 – average vintage$360$324$414
1986 – good vintage$550$495$633
1983 – good vintage$450$405$518
1982 – average vintage$355$320$408
1976 – good vintage$575$518$661
1975 – average vintage$405$365$466
1971 – good vintage$1,050$945$1,208
1970 – average vintage$480$432$552
1962 – good vintage$1,950$1,755$2,243
1958 – exceptionally rare bottle$3,950$3,5554,543
1955 – good vintage$3,250$2,925$3,738
Seller’s price assumes 10% commission to Langtons
Buyer’s price assumes 15% buyer’s premium paid to auctioneer and GST

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2011
Published first in The Canberra Times 6 July 2011