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Penfolds Goes Into the Future(s)

Don't miss the chance to get two of Australia's most impressive wines ahead of their release

Harvey Steiman
Posted: August 26, 2005

Penfolds, the venerable Australian winery, is trying to recapture some magic with a couple of new 2004 wines now being offered as futures. "Block 42" and "Bin 60A" mean as much to a serious collector of Australian wine as "Martha's Vineyard" does to a California Cabernet buff or "La Tâche" does to a Burgundy nut. Only, the Aussie wines are even rarer.

These two reds will be expensive and hard to find when they are released in 2007. But serious collectors won't want to miss them.

Neither wine is made often. Block 42 has been bottled separately only five times, but only the most recent, from the 1996 vintage, was identified by that name. It is a Cabernet Sauvignon made from what may be the oldest Cabernet vines on the planet, planted in the mid-1880s. Bin 60A is a blend of Barossa Shiraz and Coonawarra Cabernet. Penfolds winemakers made cuvées along the same lines in 1980 (labeled Bin 80A) and 1990 (Bin 90A), but this is the first vintage labeled 60A since the 1962 vintage. I first tasted it in 1994, and it still stands as the greatest Australian red wine I have ever had.

Both wines started with Max Schubert, the experimentally-minded Penfolds winemaker who created Grange Hermitage, the wine now known simply as Grange. Although he had been inspired by red Bordeaux, he famously chose Shiraz for Grange because there was a lot more old-vine Shiraz available than Cabernet. There were, however, some Cabernet vineyards that produced outstanding quality. Block 42 in Barossa Valley's Kalimna Vineyard was among them. Other portions of Kalimna produce the core material for Grange.

In the 1950s and '60s, Schubert fiddled with a lot of different sources and blends and labeled them with fanciful bin numbers. Australian collectors have had a high old time tracking these down at auction and from other collectors. Over the years, the standouts (other than that 1962 Bin 60A) have been several wines made from Block 42. The first, made in 1948, was a pilot project, not sold commercially. The 1953 vintage was called Grange Cabernet. The 1961 and 1963 vintages, called Bin 64, were warm-ups for the debut Cabernet Sauvignon Bin 707 in 1964, which was entirely made from Block 42 fruit. Later vintages of 707 blended Block 42 with other sources.

There were not enough outstanding Block 42 grapes in a vintage to bottle separately without losing the essence of Bin 707 until 1996. That wine is a beauty. It's big, still tastes incredibly youthful, and promises great things as it develops further.

If anything, the 2004 is even better because it's more elegant, the product of a Barossa vintage in which purity of fruit character seems to be the hallmark. To keep that character, the wine only saw 13 months in barrel. Often, Barossa reds are big and gooey, offering ripe, sometimes overripe, flavors, as in hot vintages such as 2001 and 2003. Many wines from the very cool 2002 vintage taste underripe, and with Cabernet that means minty, herbal or vegetal character.

The beauty of 2004 is apparent in the Block 42, which I expect to be among the greatest wines of the vintage, and in my book, the best straight Cabernet Australia has ever made. I was absolutely floored by it when I tasted it in Australia earlier this year, not because of its size—it's a reasonable 13.2 percent alcohol—but because of its gorgeous flavors, elegance and incredible length. Tasted blind in the Wine Spectator tasting room in San Francisco, it had all of the same characteristics. Here's my note:

"Delicious stuff, not huge but impeccably balanced, nuanced and tremendously long and pure, a cascade of currant, blueberry and plum fruit shaded on one side by subtle, toasty oak, on the other by hints of minerality and exotic spice. But it's the elegance and the length that make this a winner. 97 points."

None of Penfolds' attempts to duplicate the depth and subtlety of the 1962 Bin 60A have come close, although the 1990 is developing nicely in the bottle. Blending Shiraz with Cabernet has worked well in Australia, inspiring such outstanding wines as Wolf Blass Black Label and Majella's The Malleea, but only a few reach the 90-plus level. The new Bin 60A gets close to classic, using a blend of 56 percent Barossa Shiraz from the Kalimna and Koonunga Hill vineyards with 44 percent Cabernet from Penfolds' Block 20 in Coonawarra. Here's my blind tasting note:

"Rich in flavor and supple in texture, a seamless stream of toasty blackberry, bay leaf, cherry and licorice flavors, wrapped in spicy oak. It has tremendous depth but remains elegant, finishing long and lithe. 94 points."

John Bird, who was on the winemaking team when the original Bin 60A was made, said this one is "bloody close to the mark," adding that "the original ... looked very similar at this stage." Maybe so, but I'd say it's also overshadowed by the extraordinary Block 42.

Both wines will seduce serious collectors when they are released in 2007. They will be priced the same as Grange—currently $225 a bottle. The problem is going to be getting your hands on them. Less than 1,000 cases were made of each wine (compared with 8,000 to 10,000 for Grange). Penfolds says it is releasing "a small volume" of the production to the trade as futures so that consumers can have a chance to reserve their allocations now through retailers.

A footnote: Half the production was bottled under screwcap, making these the most expensive screwcapped wines in history. Get 'em while they last.

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