John Duval made wine at Penfolds for 29 years. As chief winemaker there from 1986 to 2002, he was responsible for Australia's icon wine, Grange, before passing the baton to Penfolds' current chief, Peter Gago. He made the 1990, which made the cover of Wine Spectator as Wine of the Year in 1995.
He also introduced a new Shiraz to Penfolds' already long list of divergent styles when, in 1998, he rolled out RWT. The initials refer to "red wine trial," because the idea was to reflect a new style for the Barossa. Where Grange blended old-vine Shiraz from all over South Australia and aged it in new American oak, RWT used only Barossa Valley grapes and aged the wine in mellower French oak. The verdict in this trial definitely went in Penfolds' favor.
When Duval left to start his own winery after the 2002 vintage, he kept RWT as his model for style, looking for that extra ripeness and fleshiness that Barossa can produce, aiming more for freshness and fleshiness than the overripe, fruitcake-spicy style that may be more typical of Barossa.
I have liked this style. Duval is not alone with it. A significant wave of Barossa winemakers is now leaning in that direction. Rolf Binder, Two Hands and Torbreck are in this camp as well. So I jumped at the chance to taste some of the previous vintages when Duval brought along three vintages of each of his red wines to taste with me earlier this week.
With 2003 being the oldest wine, we're not exactly seeing a complete evolution here, but it's fascinating to me to see where the wines appear to be going. Bottom line, the wines are developing more depth and distinction in the bottle, and not always in the direction you might expect. And the newer vintages show a surer hand and better sense of balance, as you might expect from a good winemaker learning how to deal with his growers.
Duval makes three wines. Plexus is a Shiraz-dominant blend with Grenache and Mourvèdre. It sells for $35. Entity is the "regular" Shiraz, selling for $40, and Eligo, the newest, is a no-holds-barred Shiraz selection, pegged at $100.
The oldest wine in the tasting, Plexus 2003, showed rustic qualities, and was chewy in comparison to the other wines. From a very hot, ripe vintage, it's just starting to develop maturity. The 2005, however, felt silky and elegant, long and refined, with lovely blackberry fruit. The 2007, due for release later this year, was a gorgeous mouthful of raspberry and cream, also silky in texture. This is where the wine should be going, and it was accomplished in a hot drought year.
Entity also did well in 2007. Duval said that he used some cooler-climate Eden Valley grapes to get better balance, but the wine had suppleness and clarity to the cherry and berry flavors. The 2006 was just delicious, balancing red and black fruits, very much like it was when I tasted it last fall. The 2005, which was all fruit when I reviewed it in 2007, is picking up some welcome animal qualities, getting dark and complex, a real wine to meditate over.
When I tasted last year, I wasn't as impressed with Eligo 2005 as I was this week. The gaminess I tasted then, which kept it to 89 points, has evolved into licorice and smoke, and the blackcurrant and plum fruit emerged majestically on the finish. It just might be a worthy competitor in the crowded field of small-volume, high-impact Shiraz.
The 2006 showed richness, density and velvety texture, but the eye-opener for me was the 2008. Amazingly supple, it has a wonderful open texture and tremendous depth. I can't wait to see where this one goes.
This is not a good time to be selling these kinds of wines. Like most consumers, I cast a wary eye on anything over $30 or $40. But anyone who wants to see where Barossa is going these days should give Duval’s wines a shot. They have class.
Apj Powers — Dallas, TX — June 1, 2009 3:35pm ET
Allan Pannizzo — Long Island, NY — June 1, 2009 7:47pm ET
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