New crop of treasures from the
by PHILIP WHITE
Better viticulture, better understanding of terroir, more sensitive winemaking by a deadly crew, much improved cooperage, extreme good luck with the backers and an uncommonly intelligent, protective and painstaking captain with a rock’n’roll soul is what makes this the most memorable Penfolds release I can recall.
These new wines bow low to the profound and distinguished house wine style which has developed since Mary Penfold first made wine at the tiny cottage she gratefully called The Grange at what was then MacGill. But the wines also push the quality boundaries to an unbelievable degree, given the constantly-changing definitions of extreme demanded by the last fifteen vintages.
These are expensive wines; so they should be. I hope they are most profitable. Let’s be very serious now. Forget Ian Parmenter and his gastroporn chefwits at Tasting Australia: these great wines alone do more to assert South Australia’s epicurean intelligence upon the globe than no end of unaccountable taxpayer-funded junkets to Kangaroo Island or giant picnics in the park. These wines are a key part of Australia’s most lethal and revered gastronomic arsenal: our pointiest end. Yet it is a marvel that they can survive and thrive as they do, given the chaos and bilious swilling of the last decades of roller coaster business thanks to whoever owned Penfolds at the time.
Or whoever wanted to own it. Shake it out, rationalise it, gut it.
On that matter, I’ve watched the inner machinations of Penfolds and its managers with both bemusement and concern since before the days when its MD, John Spalvins, sold its major vineyard around The Grange cottage so his developer mate John Roche could replace it with a twee ghetto for the dying rich, with streets called Shiraz and Hermitage. But more than any other Grange custodian – there have been only four since 1951: Max Schubert, Don Ditter, John Duval and Peter Gago – Gago, like dear Max, seems to have spent an awful lot of energy protecting Penfolds from its owners. The thought of Grange coming from the same outfit that invented the execrable Fosters lager is perverse in the extreme, and finally coming to an end. Whew.
Before we begin speculating about who the next threat will be, we should pause a moment and consider the fact that the winemakers of the world, and its most noted wine aficionados, realize all this: early in March, Gago was embarrassed and reluctant when summoned urgently to Germany, to Düsseldorf, to the world’s largest annual Wine Fair, ProWein.
The august Institute of Masters of Wine, together with an elite jury of international winemakers and the drinks business, Europe’s most powerful liquor industry magazine, handed him the Winemaker’s Winemaker award. That’s as good as it gets, Champion of the World.
“By years of Penfolds service - only 23!,” Gago said at the time, “I am still almost the most ‘junior’ member of this team. I’m naturally chuffed and thankful. I’m also feeling guilty – it’s harvest, and I’m 12,000 miles away! Payback, no doubt, awaits when I return in a day or so!”
“Peter Gago, a man who commits heart and soul to everything he does … ” said Lynne Sherriff MW, Chairman of the Institute of Masters of Wine. “It cannot be easy to manage an iconic brand and continue to take it to a new level, but he seems to constantly innovate and raise the bar of one of the world’s most appreciated and valued wine labels.”
You never hear that said of Dom Perignon, Lafite or Margaux.
So congratulations to all you Penfolds mob: this is an astonishing achievement. As usual, Australians seem more appreciated internationally than locally: you deserved a bigger celebration! And now you release these mighty wines. The smartest bits of Australia, and the gastronomic world, are very very proud of you.
$95.00; 13.3% alcohol; screw cap; 94+++ points
It’s a year since I tasted the ripping 2009, which the world adored, but I reckon this is another step up. It has more of everything, but in a leaner, more compressed form. It has an arrogant, blank authority, in a brittle racing body. It reminds me of the sign on Ben Lexcen’s wall: “If it won’t break it’s too heavy”. Think of the Great Sphinx of Giza, but with a body as svelte as a whippet’s. It has the same acrid topnote of the 09, like the prickly whiff of a hardrock quarry after a blast, over a wedge of barely-ripe grapefruit. Then I smell lemony sabayon and crêpes suzette and delicate flake pastry and the brain sets a-wanderin’. But it’s all been concentrated by nature, some very clever growers and white wine maker Kym Schroeter and the Penfolds cellar wizards, who somehow hammered and hummed and willed all that vibe and goodness into this flinty, lemony austerity. It wears a corset of fine-grained French oak that affects its shape much more than its flavour or smell. It makes you sit up straight and marvel. It makes you hungry. It gets better in the decanter. And it’ll cellar brilliantly. A remarkable wine, surely amongst the best Chardonnays on Earth. An all from our lil ol Hills.
Penfolds Yattarna Chardonnay 2009
$130.00 (Cellar Door); 12.9% alcohol; screw cap; 94+++ points
Like the Bin A, this Yattarna seems to be another authoritative step forward in a very distinctive house style. The difference? I was going to say it’s more right wing, but that’s not true. The Bin A is a rock maple Telecaster; this is a solid rosewood Les Paul: basically a plumper, even more permanent sort of thing. More of a pyramid than a Sphinx. It seems to have been sitting there somewhere for millennia, never changing. Why would you? Your face won’t fall off if you’re a pyramid. But now it’s been iced, and on the smell of the stone there’s all those precise citrus fruits gradually sinking in a fresh nougat wallow, with chips of rind, maraschino cherries, almonds and hazelnuts. The oak is more prominent, too, but its ginger and spice sits real pretty with all those hopelessly mexed mitaphors. It’s a blend of Derwent Valley Tasmanian fruit (50%), Henty (south-western Victoria - 43%) and 7% Adelaide Hills, a component which I reckon adds to that stone. It’s great and rare to drink a Chardonnay that sets the imagination whizzin’ so. Got a perfect cellar? Start checking at six years, but it’ll probably be jim dandy in a decade.
Penfolds St Henri Shiraz 2008
$95; 14.5% alcohol; screw cap; 93+++ points
Maybe I’m dreaming, but I thought the 07 had really fresh marine terroir aromas, like Bordeaux, I suppose. It was pretty, but I mumbled that it was a little out of character for St Henri’s soulful heritage, and blamed it on the component of Robe fruit in that blend. This wine has similar tweaks, in a much less obvious way. It’s like the intense, fresh smell of Mornington Peninsula Shiraz. Here, it adds to the glory. But there’s no Robe this year: this is from the Barossa Valley, McLaren Vale, Langhorne Creek, and the Adelaide Hills, in that order. It’s 91% Shiraz, and 9% Cabernet Sauvignon. Maybe it’s the Langhorne Creek fruit adding that ethereal estuarine air. The wine is smooth, but much more velvet than silk so far: it’s gonna live for a very long time. It has the aromatic patina of the blacksmith’s cottage kitchen with Christmas coming on: prunes and poached almonds and grilled bacon … currants ... fruit mince … fig and date and dumpling dough. The polished iron wood-fired stove. Holy hell. Bring it on, Granma! Pity they couldn’t release it at forty years of age … but like RIGHT NOW.
Penfolds Magill Estate Shiraz 2009
$130; 14.5% alcohol; screw cap; 94++ points
Here’s another one that reminds me of the blacksmith’s cottage in the early ‘sixties: the sooty chimney’s not quite extracting the dark fumes from that iron pot of blackberries stewing on the stove … Mary Penfold’s little cottage kitchen in The Grange would have smelt like this every year when the figs, or blackberries or mulberries were ready … there’s gunpowder, too, and polished black leather: the deaf birdscarer’s come in for a cuppa, no milk, ta Mrs Penfold thankyou … aniseed, poppy seed … boisterous rollicking tannins … green coffee beans going in the roaster … The wine has a savoury edge – as in the herb, savoury – that draws one’s blood to the back of the lips. It’s intensely appetizing wine rather than satisfying, its madly individualistic fruit getting supportive, harmonious oak. Then, once I’d sat back and thought properly about it, like swallowed a fair bit of it, I reckoned that it’s a brash thrash cut of a real old doo-wop style … it’s got red hair and I’ll bet there’s a bright red kilt in there somewhere.
Penfolds RWT Barossa Valley Shiraz 2009
$175.00; 14.5% alcohol; screw cap; 95++ points
Blackberries in dark Val du Rhona Chocolate; apple slices in same. Bright and vivacious the flash of Spanish eyes. Split stone. Australian summer dust. And as I probably say every year, not only do we know that through this Red Wine Trial, yes, you can make Barossa Shiraz in French oak, and yes, it still looks utterly Australian. The battle betwixt the oaks of France and Missouri is much more interesting to watch since vast improvements occurred in the cooperage and maturation of American oak: the standard spongiform/balsa/bourbon/coconut stuff is no longer all you get from the Quercus alba. But on the other hand, this French oak is gingery: fresh powdered ginger. The flavours are silky wicked: they got the red-bellied black snake sheen. So imagine a wine with the sinuous texture of a great Hermitage but a nose that’s really 100% Australian Shiraz. Sheep beneath the gums. Hot black tea from a pannier bubbling in the eucalypt flames. And that wicked blackberry syrup. Awwww. Thirty years?
$625; 14.5% alcohol; cork(!); 93++ points
This is a Grange. There’s no doubt about that. It has all the fractal chaos of any baby Grange. It has the tar and the boilerstoker’s apron; the fig and quince and syrupy black cherry liqueur; it has panforte and dates and over-ripe persimmon and tamarillo. It has black Iberian ham and the balsamico; it has the glowering warmth and the soul and the enveloping reassurance that dear Max likened to a mother. It has the faint swarfy whiff of Max’s father’s smithy, and if in this its infancy a wine could have a sound this one would ring like a forge, especially if it were under screwcap. It’ll live for decades if you’re lucky with the cork, and it will always be a properly luxurious delight. It is an exceptional wine. But it’s not a great vintage. Simple as that. Not even Penfolds can fix the weather.
Penfolds Bin 169 Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon 2008
$250; 14% alcohol; screw cap; 95+++
Here we finally have Peter Gago’s French oak Cabernet. Just as the RWT French oak Shiraz offers a Francofoil to the American-oaked Grange, this one offers friendly epicurian rivalry to the ritually American-oaked Bin 707 Cabernet. Man, it’s out there on the nether edges of Cabernet territory: a wine that will take decades to understand. Its aroma set my hand off on its own, scribbling “nettles and tomatoes … curry tree … mace … blueberry … juniper … sage … wormwood … blood.” Drink it. “Fluffy … cotton wool tannins… brittle acid … nettles … Cheong’s tea-smoked deer gristle … sweet musk and violets aftertaste … lemon pith … steely flux-like acidity … extreme longevity” and so forth. It’s like you have a windscreen made out of pure Cabernet and it shattered, and only Old Father Time will have the patience to reassemble it. But it is indeed a beautiful, rare, and totally uncompromising Cabernet of the highest order, and one day it will be perfect. Penfolds have opened this new royal lineage with some very blue blood indeed. It’s too early and tight to tell, but eventually, this wine will probably blow the exquisite 707 clear off the table.
Penfolds Bin 707 Cabernet Sauvignon 2009
$250.00; 14.5% alcohol; screw cap; 96+++ points
I never thought I’d see this: my hands typing a review of an American oak Cabernet with points beyond 95. Why? How? Try this: “coffee, mocha, coffee, mocha, balsa, cedar, mahogany, rosewood, sinister tropical vines climbing smartly up the stairs … bitter lemon, orange bitters, ginger … camphor … drinks like a wild Indian adventure … lotsa citrus and ginger … hack a way through will you Stavros? … all vines and stranglers this wine … then the gentle wash of velvet as the wave recedes … you know, to me, this is still Penfolds conquering Cabernet, rather than letting it skank about all over them ... it’s the gayest wine in Australia … probably the most sophisticated in the original sense of the word … bitter viny teethmarks … now an highly polished liqueur more than a wine: a Kahlua as much as a Cabernet, and one which holds an extremely powerful position in the Coca-Cabernet steaks. [Spelling deliberate].” I simply don’t know how they did this in 2009. It’s majestic.