Penfolds winemaker Peter Gago stopped by the other day to show off his latest wine. Unfortunately, it will not be available in the U.S. until the next vintage, but given the response in Australia to the new Bin 150 Shiraz, which comes entirely from grapes grown in the Marananga District of the Barossa Valley, I was eager to try it.
"It sold in microseconds," Gago shrugged. The 2009 wine was priced at $60 Australian, which would be about $65 in the U.S. In Oz that puts it on the same tier as Bin 389, a blend made from Cabernet Sauvignon grown in Coonawarra and Shiraz from elsewhere in South Australia. For marketing reasons, we get that one for $36 a bottle. Whether the Bin 150 will come in at that same price remains to be seen. The first vintage we are likely to see will be 2010.
Marananga is in the heart of the Barossa. Peter Lehmann's flagship Stonewell Shiraz comes from a vineyard there. Some key vineyards for Penfolds Grange and RWT are there as well, but those wines blend in grapes from elsewhere. In Bin 150, they star. I tasted a very different tannin profile in this wine compared with other Penfolds bottlings. They seemed sandier, a bit less polished, but truly enveloping and mouthcoating, without being too grabby. The meaty, dark berry flavors picked up a nice nuance of cocoa powder in the nose and on the finish. Gago made about 2,000 cases of this first vintage, and production should increase in succeeding years. 92 points, non-blind.
This one adds another option to Penfolds' burgeoning roster of Shirazes. At the top, of course, is Grange, made from the oldest vines in sites scattered around South Australia. It usually has some Cabernet Sauvignon in it as well, up to 10 percent, and is aged in American oak. Then there is RWT, a 100 percent Barossa Shiraz aged in French oak, developed by John Duval, the winemaker who preceded Gago. St. Henri is a South Australia blend, 100 percent Shiraz from sites that produce the sort of mouthwatering fruit flavors that don't need any new oak, and are made into a wine that has demonstrated how long it can age. Bin 28 Kalimna Shiraz in recent years has been upgraded from mass-market status to make it more of what it was originally, a less costly alternative to the high-end South Australia blends, worthy of aging.
Bin 150 is a new idea for the winery, focusing as it does on a subregion of Barossa, much as a Napa Valley vintner might put together a Rutherford or Yountville bottling. But it is not the first Penfolds wine to narrow the scope tighter than regional or statewide blend. The Magill Estate bottling, made entirely from grapes grown on the original Penfolds property just down the hill from the winery within the city limits of Adelaide, has been around for decades.
But, as Gago said, "For us just to make another Barossa Shiraz, what's the point? We knew we had a special site in Marananga, our Walton's Vineyard. It's like an Arnold Palmer golf course, just well put together on a beautiful property. It oftentimes gets lost in the pool with wines from other parts of Barossa or South Australia. This was a way to show it off."
The wine is not a single-vineyard wine, however. Intentionally, Gago supplements its production with grapes from nearby growers, all within the Marananga District. In that way, it upholds another Penfolds tradition, creating a balance between the winery's estate vineyards and growers that they do business with for decades.
"It was a wine waiting to happen," Gago added, "but it couldn't have happened 15 years ago, because we had just started on the RWT project. We're not apologizing for RWT or the others, but this is different."
Speaking of RWT, the preview tasting Gago offered of the soon-to-be-released 2008 vintage struck me as smooth and broad, with a signature spicy edge and hints of leather to the blackberry and cherry flavors. RWT was created to be a modern style, showing more French oak and suppleness than Penfolds' other wines, but this one seems more savory than fruity, well-knit but not quite as fleshy as previous vintages.
If you want flesh, seek out the St. Henri 2007. In its extra year of aging it has developed fleshy, mouthcoating tannins around plum and berry flavors, long and vivid on the finish, floral and gentle with hints of spice. A very refined style.
Since the conversation this year seems to be about alcohol, I asked Gago how Penfolds deals with the topic. That drew a big smile, because despite Australia's reputation for high alcohol levels in its most famous wines, this winery has always aimed for a relatively moderate balance. Grange has never topped 15 percent, and usually comes in closer to 14. Some of the best vintages clock in at around 13.
"Even in 2008, when we had the longest and toughest heat wave ever recorded in South Australia during the vintage, we picked early. We always do. We don't want to be above 14 Baumé anyway. (Baumé is a sugar measure that in grapes translates into a good approximation of the final alcohol level.) When we have the flavor development and the tannin development, why let it hang?"
You can taste it in the wines. The reds do not have the lush, plush profile of many Barossa and South Australian bottlings. They do have ripeness and focus. Some find them a bit sharp when young, but they reward aging.
The whites are similarly structured, even the flagship Chardonnay Yattarna, usually selected from sites in the cooler parts of Australia. Yattarna 2008 is 89 percent from Tasmania, the country's southernmost and therefore coolest winegrowing region, the rest from Adelaide Hills, the coolest part of South Australia. I found it deliciously aromatic, with tight structure, juicy and tangy, with plenty of tropical fruit and gooseberry flavors. I'll blind-taste it (and the other new bottlings mentioned above) officially in a few weeks, but this Yattarna shows signs of being a classic. Alcohol? 13.3 percent.
Over lunch, Gago opened RWT 1998, the second year it was made but the first from a highly regarded vintage. It was a stunner, showing flesh, depth, refinement and power in equal measure. It had developed flavors of black olive and earth to go with its rich fruit and licorice, and the finish sailed on easily. It actually outperformed Grange 1996, which seemed oddly attenuated for such a great vintage, perhaps the best for South Australian reds ever. It still had clean, proper flavors, but the excitement level was subdued. Gago did not think it was the cork, just that the bottle had not been able to settle after he checked it as baggage.
The new Grange 2006, about to be released, showed much better. It defined complexity, weaving together plum, guava, boysenberry, tightly packed with layers of cream and caramel. Beautifully structured, vivid, and ultimately gulpable. Can't wait to get this one in my tasting room.
Jim Mason — St. John's — August 3, 2011 6:08pm ET
Jim Lam — Vancouver, BC, Canada — August 3, 2011 9:27pm ET
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