Penfolds St. Henri Shiraz: Old School

May 12, 2008

For those who like to cellar wines instead of drinking them right away, Penfolds St. Henri Shiraz is just the thing. In some ways it's the polar opposite of Penfolds Grange, Australia's most famous (and extremely ageable) Shiraz. But while Grange tastes amazingly good upon release and continues to develop extra nuances in the bottle, St. Henri takes a few years to show what it has.

That point emerged clearly when I tasted 19 vintages of St. Henri with Penfolds winemaker Peter Gago on Saturday at his new tasting room at Magill Estate. The wines went back more than 50 years, and, as has been the case with every vertical tasting I've done of Grange over the years, nearly every vintage was still very much alive and worth drinking.

The sneaky little secret that so many savvy Australian wine collectors know is that, yes, St. Henri can age as long as Grange does. Check out my video for a look at the 1962 and 1956 vintages.

And you only have to pay a fraction of the price per bottle. Where Grange currently sells for $250 (maybe more, when Grange 2003 is released in the U.S. in June), St. Henri goes for $42.

If you opened a bottle of St. Henri on release, you would probably think, "OK, I got what I paid for; this is nice stuff, but where are the bells and whistles? Where is the complexity, the depth, those extra nuances?" But if you cellared it for, oh, 20 or 30 years, you might have something like the phenomenal 1976 (95 points, non-blind). My note: "Rich and meaty in flavor, with a gamy grace note to the vibrant blackcurrant and plum flavors, riding on a supple frame. Fine tannins, round and generous, with power and elegance. Just now developing an old-wine character. Almost under-developed for a 32-year-old wine. Spectacular."

Compare that to my published review of the St. Henri 2002 (90, $40): "Fresh, exuberant, juicy with blueberry and plum flavors, shaded with hints of white pepper and sage as the finish lingers against fine tannins." I liked it about two points better this time, in the context of its brethren, non-blind. The point is, it's all fruit and spice now, none of those extra nuances, none of the textural delights that come with age. That's why you cellar St. Henri.

St. Henri is the odd duck in the Penfolds high-end portfolio. Where Grange ages in American oak barrels and RWT in French barriques, St. Henri matures in large old oak vats that contribute no wood flavor. Where Grange is built around century-old vines in Barossa and RWT uses exclusively Barossa fruit, St. Henri comes from grapes sourced mostly from cooler parts of South Australia, notably Adelaide Hills, Coonawarra and Eden Valley.

This was intentional. The history of St. Henri predates Penfolds. It was originally made in the 19th century by Auldana, a vineyard and winery adjacent to Penfolds' Magill Estate in the near suburbs of Adelaide. Penfolds bought the property in 1944, and in the 1950s, while winemaker Max Schubert was creating Grange in part by introducing French oak barrels to dry red wine in Australia, another winemaker at Penfolds, John Deveran, re-created the original Auldana style.

Gago opened the Penfolds library's last bottle of Deveran's first try, an experimental 1956 never commercially released. It's still very much alive, with a phenomenal nose of dried cherries and caramel with touches of sweet earthiness. Very silky in texture, it was just delicious, with layers of flavor and it still showed a sense of freshness, 93 points, non-blind. The 1958 (85 points, non-blind) tastes much older.

My favorite wine in the tasting, and proof positive of the ageability of St. Henri, was the 1962, which I rated 97 points, non-blind, in half bottle (much better than a full-size bottle tasted first, fresher and more complete). It fills the mouth with cherry and hints of earth, and that signature roasted meat character. It showed great balance and intensity.

Other standouts for me were 1971, 1976 and 1986. More recent wines tasted too young. Even the 1971 (94 points, non-blind) felt tight and juicy, with plenty of savory notes, adding meaty, bacon-y touches to the black cherry and dried blueberry flavors at the center. The tannins are a tad aggressive. Maybe it just needs more time than the 37 years it's already had.

It's not that the unready wines are harsh or difficult to drink. On the contrary, they are really pleasant. But they get so much better with longer cellaring.

Of the younger wines, try to get your hands on 2002, 2001, 1996 and 1991, if you can find them. Preview tastings of 2004, 2005 and 2006 showed more intense, focused fruit flavors than I noticed in previous vintages, without losing that distinctive balance that trades South Australia's usual plushness for a more refreshing structure.

Auldana is long gone, having been swallowed up by Adelaide housing, but St. Henri remains as a reminder of Australia's old school winemaking. They had more patience in those days.

Australia Red Wines Syrah / Shiraz

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