Lately I have been getting interested in Australia’s progress with Cabernet Sauvignon. When Peter Gago, chief winemaker for Penfolds, offered to bring a few older wines when he came to visit this week, I suggested we focus on Cabernet. He appeared with a mini-vertical of Bin 389, a Cabernet-dominant blend that has a reputation for aging well.
Penfolds has been making Bin 389 since 1960. Although it’s mostly Cabernet Sauvignon with some Shiraz (percentages vary) from vineyards around South Australia, Aussie collectors have long referred to it as "Poor Man’s Grange," or "Baby Grange," in part because much of the wine ages in in the same barrels that held the previous vintage of Grange, the winery’s fabled Shiraz-dominant icon. While the current vintage of Grange sells for $450 a bottle today, Bin 389 sells for $36.
Before you get too excited, it’s clearly not in the same league as Grange, sobriquets notwithstanding. It can pop over the 90-point wall in some vintages, and usually gets close, but it doesn’t have the depth, and of course it doesn’t age nearly as long as Grange does.
We tasted 1964, 1971, 1986, 1996 and 2006 (the current offering) plus a just-bottled 100 percent Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 just for comparison’s sake. Check out the video for a look at the colors, which were all impressively healthy. 1986 was still drinking nicely and 1996 was a revelation, melding freshness with surprising complexity. The older wines were simply alive, old reds without any defining character.
1964, for example, showed some spice, tobacco and a touch of cherry, and a light grip of tannins. 1971 was spoiled for me by off flavors of vinegar and sour leather. But in the 1986 you could sense the Cab and Shiraz neatly playing off each other. Very nice, 88 points, non-blind.
1996 was absolutely gorgeous—tight and focused, mingling currant, cherry and dried tomato character in a seamless frame. It was very Cabernet-like, with just the right touch of flesh from the Shiraz. 93 points, non-blind. 2006 was like a fresher version of the same wine, but not quite as fleshy. My blind score was 89 points, and it hit the same mark non-blind here.
Blends of Cabernet and Shiraz are actually quite common in Australia. You can find them at every price, from nice bargain bottlings to serious blends that can age magnificently. Penfolds’ Bin 60A is a great example of those, a 50-50 blend made only in some vintages. It can rank with the great wines of the world.
"What does Shiraz add to the Cabernet?" Gago repeated my question. "To me, the Cabernet texture has a transparency you don’t often find in Shiraz, and an elegance. The Shiraz fills in the spaces without overpowering the Cabernet.
"Mind you, the great Cabernet vineyards, like our Block 42, can make spectacular wines on their own, and we’re finding the way to get more of our Cabernet vineyards to express themselves almost as much," he added.
That ’08 Cab, 100 percent Barossa Valley, was meant to demonstrate just that. It’s part of the Cellar Reserve series, limited volume (for Penfolds that’s about 1,000 cases), meant for wines that are experimental because of the grape variety or the winemaking techniques used. This Cabernet was picked to make a wine of 13.6 percent alcohol, about the same level as Penfolds’ classic Grange, Bin 60A and Block 42 wines of the 1960s and 1970s. (Gago comments on the relationship between alcohol and ageability in the video as well.)
I found it dense and mildly chewy, teeming with currant, berry and violet character in gorgeous balance, finishing on a savory note. Non-blind, 92 to 95 points. It will sell for triple-digit prices.
On the Cabernet front, Gago is working on a new Cabernet Sauvignon modeled on the very popular Shiraz RWT. First vintage will be 2008. It’s 100 percent Coonawarra fruit, the wine aged entirely in French oak.
“I know one thing, we’re not going to call it anything like RWT,” Gago said, wincing. “It’s a bit awkward to explain that RWT stands for 'red winemaking trial,' especially since we’ve been making the wine for more than a decade, and it’s no longer experimental.
"Any ideas for a name?"
Mike Hinchliffe — Lake Louise, AB, Canada — July 30, 2009 12:52am ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — July 30, 2009 9:27am ET
Whit Thompson — Rochester, NY — July 30, 2009 11:13am ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — July 30, 2009 11:29am ET
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