When Penfolds rolls out some of its best wines for a retrospective tasting, the results can make a powerful case of just how good Australia can get. The wines don't need hyperbole, which spokesman Matt Lane nonetheless indulged in when he welcomed a mixed group of trade and media in San Francisco by calling it "one of the most spectacular tastings most of us have been to."
The event was held last Friday at Cellar 360, the lavish San Francisco tasting room opened last year by Foster's Wine Estates, whose portfolio includes Beringer, Etude, Chateau St. Jean and Stags' Leap Winery in California, not to mention Penfolds, Wolf Blass, Coldstream Hills and Devil's Lair in Australia. The dozen wines arrayed before us represented a sort of mini version of "The Rewards of Patience," a multi-day series of vertical tastings that Penfolds stages periodically in Australia.
As in the Australian event, the panel leading the tasting included Penfolds' chief winemaker Peter Gago and senior winemaker Steve Lienert, plus an international panel of commentators: Andrew Caillard of Langton's, Australia's leading wine auctioneer and author of a book detailing the big tasting, plus writers Poh Tiong Chn'g from Singapore, Anthony Rose from the U.K. and Joseph Ward from the U.S.
That may have been overkill for just a dozen wines, cherry-picked to demonstrate both the range of styles Penfolds produces and how well they can age. But being technically independent of Penfolds, their enthusiasm for the wines carried a bit more weight than Gago's or Lienert's would have.
It's not news to report that Grange 1990 and 1991, Bin 707 1990 and St. Henri 1991 and 1998 showed beautifully. Those are great vintages of acknowledged great wines. And I try never to miss a chance to sip some Bin 60A 1962, one of the world's great wines.
A equal-opportunity blend of Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon and Barossa Shiraz, the wine achieved something magical that more recent attempts have never quite caught. In several opportunities to renew acquaintances with this wine, the good bottles showed a harmony and seamlessness to their amazing range of flavors that is simply breathtaking.
The Bin 60A in my glass this time came from a marvelous bottle. When first poured it seemed typically mature and harmonious, underlying a wispy core of black cherry fruit with tobacco, earth and mint tones. But as it sat in the glass, the fruit got richer, the texture more silky and any semblance of seams disappeared. That's what a great wine is all about. A 100-point bottle, non blind.
But the head-turner for me in this non-blind tasting was how rewarding the winery's Koonunga Hill bottling can get with bottle age. The 1986 Shiraz-Cabernet showed a remarkably fresh core of plum and currant fruit that played against tobacco notes and fine tannins. The '96 was almost as fine, with crisp texture, focused fruit, impressive length and refinement. I rated the older wine 90 points, the younger 89, both non-blind.
"Remember, these wines were for commercial release," Rose noted. "They were not intended for cellaring." Indeed, the '86 was released in the U.S. at $8 a bottle, the '96 at $9. How many other sub-$10 wines are still alive and kicking at 12 and 22 years?
Another moderately priced wine, Bin 389, a Cabernet-Shiraz, sells for $35 now, but through the 1980s and 1990s it was $14 to $15. Unlike some fine older bottles of this wine, the 1976 poured here was well past it. It smelled volatile, the sharpness and earthiness overwhelming the fruit character. The panel raved about it, but Gago remained silent, and later confided his disappointment in the wine's showing. My rating: 81 points, non-blind.
Better was Bin 407 1998, a Cabernet Sauvignon that's often thought of as the junior brother of Bin 707. Still firm, but not too grippy, it offered a lovely warm currant and berry character, with a savory edge. Very good, but it lacked the extra dimensions to get to 90 points. My rating: 88 points, non-blind.
Things started to improve with St. Henri, Penfolds' Shiraz that uses no new oak at all to emphasize the fruit. I preferred the sweet, focused, open-textured flavors of the 1991, which seemed to float over the palate (94 points, non-blind), to the 1998, which was chewy in texture but showed a chocolate note that was pleasing (91 points, non-blind). The wines sell for $40, a fraction of the price of Grange, but they seem to age as long.
Next came two solid examples of higher-end stuff (just under $100 a bottle). RWT 2002, the all-Barossa Shiraz aged in French oak barrels, represents the modern style in Penfolds' range. From a very cool vintage, it was focused and bright, showing lots of blueberry and blackberry flavors, the oak subsumed into the wine (92 points, non-blind). The Bin 707 1990 represented itself as a classic Cabernet, with subtlety and harmony, a savory edge adding refinement to the currant, plum and sage flavors, balancing on lacy acidity (92 points, non-blind).
After the remarkable Bin 60A came a chance to taste the two adjacent vintages of Grange. Aficionados still debate which was better, 1990 (which was Wine Spectator Wine of the Year in 1995) or 1991. "I keep going back and forth from one tasting to the next," said Gago. "Today, I like the 1990."
I did, too. I was most impressed with its elegance. It's not a big, honking red but something with great length and succulence. The acidity keeps it upright and the plush texture supports the cascade of ripe fruit and spice flavors beautifully. Still worth 98 points (non-blind) in my book. The 1991, though bigger and with great focus to the fruit, seemed just a tad less opulent and expressive. With more apparent tannin, it is taking longer to reach its top plateau. For me, 96 points (non-blind) seems about right.
In a show of hands, 1990 got a slight edge.
All these wines have one thing in common. They are not single-vineyard wines, but blended from various sites to achieve a consistent style. Wine drinkers who are wedded to the pre-eminence of terroir may shudder at the idea, but Penfolds' winemakers consciously try to overcome the deficiencies of a especially cool or hot vintage by selecting wines made from sites that, when blended together, make the best wine they can.
Which is not to say that terroir doesn't matter. The core of Bin 707, for example, is Block 42, an all-Cabernet portion of the Kalimna Vineyard in Barossa Valley. In outstanding vintages, there is enough Block 42 to make a separate bottling of it. It is a very different wine from 707, purer in fruit character but not as complex as 707, which uses other old-vine parcels.
Gago noted that in 2002, a cool vintage that made it difficult to get all the Cabernet ripe, he looked for fruit from warmer sites to compensate and take what would have been a hard edge off the wine if he had not done so.
"We chose different vineyards, with different vine-training, to come up with a style of wine people expect from 707," he said.
That's similar to what winemakers in Bordeaux do, where they vary the amounts of Merlot, Cabernet Franc or Petit Verdot they use, depending on which grapes do best in a given vintage. "We use 100 percent Cabernet Sauvignon in Bin 707," Gago added, "so we shop around for other vineyard resources with different characteristics."
It's still terroir-based, in that it focuses on individual locations, except it blends them into an ensemble instead of relying on a solo voice. That works for me, and the wines shown in this tasting amply demonstrate how rewarding the process can prove.
Larry Schaffer — Central Coast — November 5, 2008 11:22am ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — November 6, 2008 10:51am ET
Alan Lambert — November 6, 2008 1:52pm ET
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