The Penfolds alter ego wines

Alongside that hearty ‘House Style’, Penfolds winemakers have experimented thoughtfully and skilfully to introduce variations on the theme. Wine Auction House

Few Australian wine brands have the same gravitas as Penfolds. Despite the machinations of corporate changes, takeovers, trends and changing fashions, not to mention the onslaughts of “brand managers,” all factors that have decimated some of Australia’s great wine names, this famous label has survived relatively intact.

Today the Penfolds name is as revered as ever as a source of completely reliable Australian wine types with nearly 177 years of tradition, but also as a producer of new-wave alter-egos to those established styles.

There are many reasons for this ongoing success, but at their heart are wine quality, and the maintenance of a distinctive, consistent house style that’s struck a chord with wine lovers across the globe.

The foundation of the modern Penfolds wine story centres on red wine. From the 1950s onwards, the style of Penfolds red wine that came to be universally recognised was the type pioneered by legendary winemaker Max Schubert with his famous Grange. A multi-regional blend, dark, ripe and profound, new-American-oaky, resting on big tannins and very ageworthy, it was a prototype for generations of Australian red wines to come. But within the Penfolds stable there were always wines that bucked the trend.

Alongside that hearty ‘House Style’, Penfolds winemakers have experimented thoughtfully and skilfully to introduce variations on the theme. Starting way back in Grange’s early days, when Max Schubert’s winemaking colleague John Davoren resurrected the 1890s St Henri, the idea of “alternative” Penfolds red wine styles has been a constant theme, despite the primacy of the Grange type.

St Henri was lighter, less overt, less robust than Grange. It was made from grapes of similar high quality, untouched by new oak, and generally made less formidable and opulent. In his outlook John Davoren was a more conventional Australian winemaker than Max Schubert, but St Henri still occupied an important place in the Penfolds product hierarchy. Until the 1970s it was a true alter ego of Grange – with the same price tag.

That famous Penfolds red wine style was established by Schubert, and it continued to be championed by subsequent chief winemakers. Peter Gago, who currently heads up the Penfolds team, refers to Grange and the other Max Schubert-inspired wines like Bin 389 as “the classics that are still there from Max’s day. The rock-solid anchors.”

But Gago also points out that Penfolds winemaking was never completely set in stone.

“It was always a voyage of exploration,” he says. “And as resources expanded and the wines evolved, experimentation continued.”

There have only ever been four Penfolds Chief Winemakers, and all have maintained the tried and true House Style well, tweaking it here and there in the quest for constant improvement, but at the same time developing ground-breaking variations on the theme.

After Grange, Max Schubert developed the Bin range of reds that became the company’s mainstream, typified by 389, 28, 128 and 707, but he also messed around with a legendary range of experimentals and show wines, with a plethora of out-of-the-norm Bin numbers like 60A, 620, and oddball names like Kalimna Burgundy.

Don Ditter, who followed Schubert as Chief Winemaker in 1975, continued the experimentation, developing Magill Estate Shiraz in 1983. Where Grange was a blend of regions, Magill was a single vineyard wine from Penfolds original estate in the Adelaide suburbs. Grange matured in American oak. Magill employed a proportion of French. Grange was all about power, Magill was finesse.

Ditter also expanded the Penfolds house style into a new market with the cheaper but true to style Koonunga Hill, and he re-released Bin 707, a sort of Grange made from cabernet sauvignon after a hiatus of six years.

Next, in 1986 at the Penfolds helm was John Duval who introduced a wine known oddly as Red Winemaking Trial, or RWT and lately Bin 798. Grange was all about muscle, structure and concentration, RWT was fleshy, fragrant, smooth. Only French oak was employed, and it was 100% Barossa rather than a blend.

Duval continued producing legendary specials like 90A and expanded the Bin range with 407, a much less macho cabernet than 707, and Old Vine Barossa Valley, now Bin 138, a three-way blend of shiraz, grenache and mataro given only old oak. John Duval also set in motion the quest for a “white Grange” that resulted in Yattarna, a super-premium chardonnay to rank with Australia’s best.

Current Chief Winemaker Peter Gago took the reins in 2002 and enthusiastically embraced the Penfolds culture of experimentation and established it worldwide. He continued producing special one-offs and special additions to the range like the single-vineyard cabernet sauvignon Kalimna Block 42, and a Coonawarra Bin 169, a French-oaked alternative to the Grange-like 707.

Then onto shiraz: a subregional Marananga Bin 150, a Kalimna Bin 170, a Clare-Barossa Bin 111A… and a Gago masterpiece known as g3, an extraordinary blend of three different Grange vintages where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

A g4 followed, and a g5 is on the way. Peter Gago also loves Champagne and pinot noir, and as a result Penfolds now produce an excellent range of top-shelf Champagnes in France in collaboration with French house Thiénot. Gago’s interest in pinot noir has expanded the standard bin range with Bin 23, a wine that points in a new direction for the company.

Today the Penfolds name is as revered as ever as a source of completely reliable Australian wine types with nearly 177 years of tradition, but also as a producer of new-wave alter-egos to those established styles. Some of the latter are rare and very expensive, but others expand the more affordable end of the Penfolds range into new territory. It will be fascinating to see what the future brings.


5 thoughts on “The Penfolds alter ego wines”

  1. Avatar
    Mahmoud Ali says:

    “Today the Penfolds name is as revered as ever as a source of completely reliable Australian wine types with nearly 177 years of tradition, but also as a producer of new-wave alter-egos to those established styles.”

    I don’t think Penfold’s is revered at all, especially among wine enthusiasts. Among my wine drinking friends, serious or casual, Penfold’s almost never makes an appearance. In fact, over my entire wine drinking journey, I don’t think anyone has served me a Penfold’s wine other than the one person who opened a bottle of 1982 Penfold’s Bin 820 that he had bought at auction.

    There are far better wines available for markedly less. Sorry to say but Penfold’s is, for the most part, irrelevant.

    1. Ralph Kyte-Powell
      Ralph Kyte-Powell says:

      As I am a wine enthusiast, can I give you some advice? I think wine views and opinions should be a reflection of personal experience. Since by your own admission you have almost no exposure to Penfolds wines, I would caution you against writing them off.

      I suggest that you taste some Penfolds wines, preferably with a bit of age, from masked bottles, and alongside other wines. Then you’ll have an informed opinion.

      Certainly large numbers of wine enthusiasts purchase Penfolds reds every year, and in the Australian wine industry story they are very significant. Over my own wine drinking journey I have been impressed by many superb Penfolds wines, as have many other wine enthusiasts.

  2. Avatar
    Chris Anstee says:

    As Penfolds Senior Red Winemaker from 1984-1990, during which time he also served as the international ambassador/winemaker for Grange, Daryl Groom made a major contribution to the traditions, quality and international recognition of the brand.
    It is difficult to ascertain the reasons for his being consistently airbrushed out of the the history of the brand in subsequent years. But I fear the process is almost complete…

    1. Ralph Kyte-Powell
      Ralph Kyte-Powell says:

      Thanks Chris, point taken, but the story only touched on what happened under the direction of each of the four Penfolds Chief Winemakers with each of them as a focus. Daryl was influential, I particularly recall his knowledge of the US market, but I don’t think his role was the same. Not sure of any airbrushing, and certainly not by me. I do recall some pretty good old vine reds Daryl subsequently made under his own label.

      1. Avatar
        Chris Anstee says:

        Apologies Ralph, I should have made clearer that I don’t think you were in any way attempting to airbrush away Daryl’s role. (Your comments were about the top role and I don’t think Daryl was Penfold’s Chief Winemaker at that time.) I was merely observing that as I see it there is a process under way, in other quarters, to marginalise his significant contributions.
        And, apropos your commendable perspectives in the adjacent correspondence, I was lucky enough to share a bottle of 1967 Penfold’s Bin 7 (Coonawarra-Kalimna) last week (a wine previously unknown to me). Simply great, by any international measure.

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