Return to glory days

Penfolds (tastings) has entered a period of fertile creativity that rivals that of the 1950s and ‘60s when Max Schubert was chief winemaker. A welter of great red wines were launched in that era, and the same thing is happening now – only they’re white as well as red.

Penfolds recently conducted the tastings for the seventh edition of its cellaring guide-book, The Rewards of Patience. This happens every five years. Edition VII will be published next year. At the tastings, Penfolds winemakers, led by Peter Gago and Steve Lienert, pull the corks on almost the entire winemaking history of Penfolds that’s still in drinking order – back to the 1950s.

One of the features of this ROP was the might of the extraordinary 2010 vintage.

Virtually every bracket of wines was book-ended by a great old vintage from the early ‘60s, and a sublime youngster from 2010, most of the latter yet to be released. Is 2010 one of the greatest vintages of our lifetime? Most certainly, especially in South Australia. It’s difficult to overstate how great. At Penfolds, 2008 is also a great vintage, because they picked most of their grapes before the notorious late-summer heatwave, and ’09 is superb too, but more patchy. The end result is there are many wonderful wines to look forward to in the near future.

Peter Gago summed up: “2010 is one of the strongest years across the board for all the Penfolds wines. 2008 is big and will age well, but 2010 has the class, across all regions and varieties. And great ageability.”

One way to gauge the quality of a Penfolds vintage is to look at whether they made any Special Bin wines. These are the crème de la crème, continuing a tradition begun by Schubert, and in my view, some of these wines this past decade have eclipsed Grange as Penfolds’ greatest. If pricing is a guide, Penfolds agrees: the 2008 Special Bin 620 Cabernet Shiraz (tasting) was released earlier this year for $1,000 (the current Grange is $625). And the wine chosen to seal inside a glass ampoule in 12 sculptural time-capsules this year, retailed for $168,000, was not Grange but 2004 Block 42 Cabernet Sauvignon. This was made from a single plot of vines in the Kalimna vineyard in the Barossa which has been yielding great fruit for nearly 130 years, and is thought to be the oldest cabernet sauvignon vineyard in the world.

The first Bin 707 Cabernet Sauvignon (tastings) came from Block 42, and there have been a handful of single vineyard wines released from Block 42 over the years, all great, but very few because the fruit is just too valuable for other wines, especially as a component of Bin 707, says Gago.

The bloodline begins with the one-off 1953 Bin 9 ‘Grange Cabernet’, and continues with 1963 Bin 64, the 1964 Bin 707, then the 1996 and finally 2004 Block 42 cabernet sauvignons. These are the ultimate in collectors’ wines.

Back to reality, and affordable wines. Coonawarra Bin 128 Shiraz ($20-$38 tastings) is back on a high these days, and there hasn’t been an ordinary vintage since the 2003. The line-up began with the 1963, still drinking superbly and a great wine. The 2010 is another peak vintage, following lovely wines in ’08, ’06 and ’04. “The 2010 will be a pretender to the ’63: a 50-year wine,” says Gago.

Where does Penfolds fit in the world pantheon of wine these days? At the very highest level, in my view. At dinners, Gago serves Yattarna alongside Bonneau du Martray Corton Charlemagne (tastings) and ’62 Bin 60A beside old Chateau Latours (tastings), and they’re not outclassed.

There are more great Penfolds wines being made now than even in Max Schubert’s heyday. I scored more wines over 95 at ROP than I ever have before. A handful, such as 2008 Bin 620 (tasting) and 1990 Bin 90A (tasting), I scored 99/100. Several others scored 98/100, including 2004 Bin 60A, 1996 Block 42 and 1990 Bin 920. When they’re mature, these wines will spin people’s heads just as 1962 Bin 60A and 1964 Bin 707 do today. If you’re lucky enough to taste them…

Latest 169s have an heir of superiority

One of Max Schubert’s experimental wines which has recently spawned a son and heir is the 1973 Bin 169 Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon. From a decade that yielded precious few great wines for Penfolds or anyone else in Australia, this amazing wine still powers on: the bottle we tasted at ROP was superb. As Penfolds watchers will know, the company released a 2008 Bin 169 Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon (tasting) earlier this year. Coming ‘out of the blue’, it was one of the highlights of this year’s Penfolds luxury wine release, and the debut price of $350 let us know immediately how highly Penfolds regards this wine.

Well, I can say the follow-up 2009 (to be released next year) is pretty nearly as good while the baby-faced 2010 is truly mind-boggling. It’ll be worth sleeping out on the footpath for (tastings).

Although Bin 707 Cabernet (tastings) began in 1964, it vanished for six years from 1970, re-appearing in ’76, because of a shortage of suitable cabernet fruit. Gago confesses Bin 169 “took a while” to re-appear. “We have limited Coonawarra cabernet. We may have done this 30 years ago if we could have.”

Bin 169 is an alter-ego of Bin 707. It’s all Coonawarra and matured in French oak, whereas Bin 707 is 100 per cent American oak and a blend of regions. “We see this as a guardian for Bin 707, as RWT is a guardian for Grange,” says Gago. What he means is that these ‘modern’ wines satisfy the fashion for regional wines (RWT is all Barossa while Grange is a blend), so that Bin 707 and Grange can remain as they are.

Penfolds isn’t about to change the style of either. “Chateau Latour don’t want to change Chateau Latour, and we don’t want to change Grange or 707,” he adds.

First published in Sydney Morning Herald, Good Living – 28 August 2012.

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