They’ve Bin everywhere — Penfolds releases new reds

Price seems always at the heart of any new release of Penfolds much-loved, highly traded bin number wines. Fierce retail battles became part of the landscape from the late seventies, following the collapse of retail price maintenance.

In recent years, however, a reticence to be first to cut means a little retail shadow boxing precedes the first real punch being landed – usually a king hit of margin numbing power.

This year for example, Kemenys, a large Sydney independent, and 1st Choice, owned by Coles, swung the first air punches. Both promised not to be beaten; but neither revealed their prices. Then Dan Murphy, the Woolworths-owned industry giant, burst out of its corner, smashing prices to around cost – forcing the “We won’t be beaten” retailers to follow.

This all happened about two weeks ago (from day of publication), so prices will have moved on, as liquor specials normally run for one week. But competitive pressure remains hot, increasing the likelihood of retailers taking out the Penfolds bins a few more times yet.

The extreme price variability of Penfolds reds isn’t unique. Any wine capable of driving retail traffic can be sucked into the weekly discounting cycle. But Penfolds stands alone in its appeal to collectors and the volume of older vintages moving through the secondary market.

Indeed Penfolds reds underpin traditional auctions. But if auction volumes are large, they remain a buyers market. Recent prices suggest that collectors simply have to buy at peak discount if they want their collections to even hold value.

The accompanying table compares retail prices for the new releases and the most recent auction prices for the previous vintage, released a year ago.

The just released Bin 128 Coonawarra Shiraz 2009, for example, has a recommended retail price of $33.99 but sold at $18.45 shortly after release. At about the same time, the 2008 vintage fetched a hammer price of $20 at Langton’s auctions – translating to about $18 net for the seller (after an estimated 10 per cent commission to the auctioneer) and a net price to the buyer of $23, after adding Langton’s 15 per cent buyer’s premium and GST.

In this example the seller received 45 cents a bottle less than the rock bottom discounted retail price of the new release; and the buyer paid $4.55 more – but still $10.99 below the recommended price. And the auctioneer clipped the ticket on both sides.

Whatever we make of the price disparities, not everyone piles into the specials and much of the new release will trickle through retail stores at or around the recommended price.

Winemaker Peter Gago says prices of the bin wines are now underpinned by very strong overseas demand. “We can’t keep up with it”, he says, “especially Bin 389 and Bin 407”.

Interest is “enormous” in Europe and America, Thailand loves Bin 2 Shiraz Mataro (little known in Australia) and China can’t get enough – literally. Gago says people are “buying in California and Europe and on-selling to China” outside official distribution channels.

Still, there’s ample to satisfy demand in Australia and the wines are very, very good – even those from the 2008 vintage, perhaps the hottest and most difficult ever in South Australia.

Gago describes 2008 as “a vintage of two parts – pertaining to the profound differences of fruit before and after the extreme SA heatwave of March 3–16”. In the unprecedented heatwave the temperature exceeded 38 degrees for 12 days and 35 degrees for the balance.

We’ve heard lots of talk about pre- and post-heat 2008 vintage – including stories of wine fermenting out to a port-like 18 per cent alcohol. Unlikely as it seems, though, we’ve yet to find a post-heat winemaker.

Before talking to Gago, though, we popped the wines on the tasting bench, sipping them over three or four days. The 2008s in the line up passed the taste test with honours, with no sign of the porty flavours or hard tannins expected of a very hot vintage. After that, knowing whether they were pre- or post-heat seemed academic. But we asked Peter Gago.

He says he harvested Magill Estate from February 6, a month before the heatwave commenced, and had 90–95 per cent of Barossa material in the winery by the time the heat arrived on 3 March. Quite a lot of grapes from later-ripening cooler areas like Coonawarra arrived after the heat – but the heat in those areas proved less damaging.

We can assume much of the cabernet in Bin 389 and Bin 407 to be in this category, though neither shows any ill effects.

Bin 23 Adelaide Hills Pinot Noir 2010 $32–$39.99
Bin 23 is an unlikely star of this year’s line up. It’s the least traded of the bin wines – just one sale we could trace in Langton’s records and no sign of retailer discounting in our Google search, with the exception of Glengarry of Auckland. It’s fully priced at the recommended price but if you can persuade a retailer to around $30, you’re on the money. Penfolds early pinots tended to be big and burley without what pinotphiles call “pinosity”. The 2010 is simply lovely – a fragrant, silky, complex pinot with the Penfolds structural stamp.

Bin 138 Grenache Shiraz Mourvedre 2009 $17.55–$29.99
GSM stands for good stuff, mate or grenache shiraz mataro, in this instance led by 2009’s pure fruitiness. Grenache leads the charge here with its high-toned, musky, fruity perfume – characters that comes through in the smooth, fruity palate. Shiraz adds body and depth, while mourvedre injects spiciness and firm structural tannins. The juicy fruitiness makes Bin 138 a good drink now but it also cellars well. But try before you buy, as grenache’s distinct flavour doesn’t appeal to everyone.

Bin 128 Coonawarra Shiraz 2009 $18.45–$33.99
Young Bin 128 often proves tricky in masked tastings. The elegant structure and firm tannins sets our thoughts down the cabernet track. But ultimately the ripe berry flavours and spiciness at the core point back to cool-climate shiraz, albeit in a particularly tannic Penfolds mould. We prefer Bin 128 with five to ten years bottle age.

Bin 28 Kalimna Shiraz 2008 $18.45–$33.99
Though priced the same as Bin 128, Bin 28 tends to appeal more widely and outperform Bin 128 at auction. It was originally sourced from Penfolds Kalimna vineyard in the northern Barossa then decades back became a multi-region, warm-climate blend, with a significant Barossa component. It’s bold and tannic But the abundant, soft tannins form a deep, complex matrix with the wine’s sweet, ripe fruit – reminiscent of very ripe black cherries. It’s ripe but not over-ripe; tannic but not hard; and built to cellar, though it’s appealing now, too.

Bin 407 Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 $33.65–$54.99
Bin 407 is a straight cabernet sourced principally from the Limestone Coast region, stretching from Padthaway to Coonawarra. In the 2008 vintage it’s built on very ripe cabernet flavours towards the cassis end of the variety’s spectrum. Over a few days’ tasting this sweet, purely varietal fruit flavour gradually seeped through the tight, fine cocoon of oak and fruit tannin. Despite the wine’s strength and backbone, it’s elegantly structured — a character that sure to be revealed after cellaring over the next five to ten years.

Bin 150 Marananga Shiraz 2008 $47.90–$64.99
The new Bin 150 acknowledges the unique quality of shiraz grown around gently undulating Marananga, Gnadenfrei, Stonewell and Seppeltsfield on the Barossa’s western rim. Penfolds winemakers revere the area. Peter Gago says the new wine, matured in a combination of new and old French and American oak, comes from several vineyards around Marananga. It’s a big, buoyant wine, flouncing with fruit and oak, the aroma and palate boosted by volatile acidity (winemaker jargon for vinegar). It’s present in all wines in trace amounts, though not normally detectable. A tiny increment in volatile acidity, as Bin 150 illustrates, adds a thrilling dimension to the oak-fruit interplay. Grange creator, Max Schubert, enshrined the practice in Penfolds red wine making, though his successors appear to have backed off (until now).

Bin 389 Cabernet Shiraz 2008 $37.45–$64.99
Bin 389 was originally an extension of the Grange style — big, bold, tannic and matured in American oak — but using cabernet, rather than shiraz as the leading variety. Over the decades fruit sourcing for the cabernet component shifted decisively to the cool southeast and now includes Bordertown, Wrattonbully, Padthaway and Coonawarra. Shiraz continues to come from warm areas. In 2008 we see Bin 389 at its biggest and boldest – led by intense, firm cabernet; filled out by shiraz and flaunting the influence of American oak. These all come through, though, as a single unified flavour, albeit idiosyncratic, in a wine of great power. Bin 389 is best after extended cellaring – ten years and more.

WineRecommended retail $Best advertised $Auction seller’s net price $ 2Auction buyer’s net price $ 3
Penfolds Bin 23 Pinot Noir39.9924.65 122.5028.75
Penfolds Bin 138 Barossa Valley Grenache Shiraz Mourvedre29.9917.5518.9024.15
Penfolds Bin 128 Coonawarra Shiriaz33.9918.4518.0023.00
Penfolds Bin 28 Kalimna South Australia Shiraz33.9918.4518.9024.15
Penfolds Bin 407 South Australia Cabernet Sauvignon54.9933.6523.4029.90
Penfolds Bin 150 Marananga Barossa Valley Shiraz64.9947.90No saleNo sale
Penfolds Bin 389 South Australia Cabernet Shiraz64.9937.4532.4041.40
  1. Glengarry wines, Auckland. Price in Australian dollars. All other prices Dan Murphys.
  2. Last sale of previous vintage, Langton’s Auctions, assumed 10% auctioneer’s commission.
  3. Last sale of previous vintage, Langton’s auctions, including auctioneer’s premium and GST.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2011