Conclusions from the tasting:
What a pleasure this tasting was. Having over the years so often been disappointed with the heavy-handed / unsubtle Penfolds red wine styles, here at last I found some wines I would really like to cellar again … as I did so enthusiastically in the early 1970s. That seems to me the ultimate accolade for a wine – to want to cellar it. The tasting was fully subscribed, adding to the pleasure of sharing in it.
Penfolds reds over the years have been interesting to follow. I am not familiar with the earliest years, when Max Schubert reigned supreme. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, the wines were still notable for their richness, their style, and their relatively careful use of new oak, even if largely American then. The only drawback was the economy corks the company used, often 42 mm for wines as far up the ranking as Bin 707 Cabernet Sauvignon. Presumably this was the (in fact) reason for Penfolds making rather a hoopla out of pioneering their re-corking clinic. In this era Penfolds winemakers had access to superb grape resources, so that newly established labels like the unassuming Kalmina Dry Red Bin 28 Shiraz drew on grapes from old-vine vineyards such as Kalimna, now reserved for wines like RWT. There were some some superb wines in that era, which corks willing, continue to open well.
Later the company came more and more under the sway of technologists, probably not uncorrelated with the growing influence of both the (then) Roseworthy Agricultural College Wine School, and the Australian Wine Research Institute. At one stage, some of the reds, Grange notably, inclined to an oxidative style of winemaking … admittedly vastly preferable to a reductive one for reds … but as always in Australasia, you were not allowed to say so. The winemakers became unduly defensive about admitting to even a trace of VA. This reached a point of absurdity. Later, excess use of both new oak, and tartaric acid adjustments of the reds, the standard approach in Australia, became obtrusive to the point of ugliness, but again nobody dared say anything.
It took the acute off-shore palate and forthright honesty of Robert Parker around the turn of the century, with some extremely accurate reviews identifying exactly the issue, to finally rein the Penfolds red winemakers in, and have some regard to world standards for palatability in red wine. [ For example, Robert Parker, 2004, on the 2001 Penfolds Cabernet Sauvignon Bin 707: A clipped finish again suggests a bizarre fascination with low pH and acid levels that has nothing to do with the vineyard, terroir, vintage character, or pleasure. ... Penfolds needs to take a long, critical look at its winemaking philosophy. ... What is the purpose of sculpting wines that are essentially the products of a few oenologists ... making wines by the numbers? The lack of naturalness and soul in these wines is worrisome. In other reviews he pin-points the excess tartaric acid addition.]
Penfolds reds have always had an enthusiastic following in New Zealand, though not as enthusiastic as the Company seems to think. The ratchetting up of price for the top Bins in recent years has become grasping, to the point now where auction realisations for the top wines are generally significantly lower than the current vintage retail price. Since this tasting highlighted that current vintages of the top Penfolds Bin wines remain almost undrinkable for their first 20 – 25 years (to anyone with some respect for their taste-buds), the logic of buying at auction is almost unassailable … except for the buyers’ premium (19.55%) and the lack of guarantee with respect to ambient temperatures in the private cellar. For New Zealand that particularly means wines cellared in the northern half of the North Island. Not everybody in Auckland has air-conditioned cellars … though I guess the price Grange is now, the chances are that a surprisingly high percentage of Grange buyers do. But there is more to Penfolds than just Grange. All the designated Bins cellar well. For older wines, though, it is a question of from what date the wines were placed in an air-conditioned cellar. Wine auction catalogues are invariably shy about this vital detail.
In this Penfolds retrospective tasting, these were my top wines for the evening, all five still being clearly gold-medal-level. My views did not exactly reflect those of the group on this occasion, my inclination being towards the subtler wines. From the left: 1971 Penfolds Kalimna Dry Red [ Shiraz ] Bin 28, with a beauty of oaking rarely seen in Penfolds wines, perfect now, 18.5; 1967 Penfolds Cabernet Sauvignon Bin 707, showing beautiful ripeness of cassisy berry, confusable (just) with an oaky bordeaux such as Mouton-Rothschild, absolute favourite wine for the group, 18.5; 1990 Penfolds Coonawarra Cabernet 68% / Barossa Valley Shiraz 32% Bin 90A, wonderful cassisy ripening of the cabernet sauvignon, a little oaky, but the subtlety of the tartaric addition a delight, 18.5 +; 1991 Penfolds Grange [ Shiraz ] Bin 95, showing an almost syrah-like complexity plus a harmony and balance rare in traditional Grange, 19; and 1990 Penfolds Coonawarra Cabernet / Shiraz Bin 920, fresher in hue and aroma than the 90A, a cabernet sauvignon-led wine of remarkable beauty, the oak yet to fully marry in, my top wine, 19 +.The vision for Penfolds wines remains a great one. And it now embraces chardonnay. As in New Zealand, you sometimes wish that the winemakers tasted more widely from the great wines of the world, particularly with respect to overloading wines with new oak. Bin 707 Cabernet Sauvignon has been a particular offender, in this matter. But then the company surprises you, with a wine like Bin 138 clearly seeking to emulate the balance of a Southern Rhone Valley blend. In South Australia’s less euc’y years this wine can be gentle and harmonious. The nett impression from the tasting was, that another Penfolds reds tasting would be eagerly awaited.
Penfolds Grange is generally considered to be Australia's closest approximation to a ‘First Growth’, in the Bordeaux sense. Along with Henschke’s Hill of Grace, it is Australia’s most ‘collectable’ wine, and its highest-priced. Grange is always based on shiraz (syrah), with a few percent only of cabernet sauvignon. From the outset it has been a pioneering wine, utilising temperature control at the fermentation stage before this was at all common, and then finishing its ferment in all-new American oak, followed by elevation in all-new American oak. Tannin addition has also been part of the style, though lately with much more subtlety.
Production of the wine was inspired by chief winemaker Max Schubert’s visit to Bordeaux in late 1949 / 1950, and there experiencing (at Chx Lafite-Rothschild, Latour and Margaux, amongst others) wines including fully mature wines made by the then very different production techniques of Bordeaux. He came back to South Australia determined to create a Bordeaux-styled wine raised with significant new oak, which would age for decades. Because cabernet sauvignon was then scarce in Australia, he elected to use shiraz. Right from the outset, there was no thought that all the fruit would come from one vineyard. Schubert’s only criterion was fruit quality. His notes of the time show he was extremely demanding in this respect. Whether the initial decision to use only American oak was at that point based merely on the traditional use of American oak in Australian wineries on cost grounds, or the supposition that American oak suited shiraz better, is now not clear.
It can be argued that any supposition that American oak suited shiraz better, then as now merely reflected the traditional blind-spots that warmer-climate winemakers have as to winestyle. That is, their fruit is so ripe, it has lost much of the florality and complexity that characterises shiraz when grown as syrah in more temperate climates. So therefore, American oak was seen as ‘improving’ the shiraz. This is a hollow argument, to anybody interested in varietal quality. But certainly Grange has always been a bold wine, with a lot of both fruit and oak characters which take many years to harmonise.
The full story of Grange since the first 1951 vintage has been told many times. There are many accounts on the Net, and elsewhere. A good place to start is the the various editions of Penfolds’ own handbook, The Rewards of Patience.
The influence of the Grange approach has filtered through to virtually every cellar-worthy wine Penfolds makes. As more cabernet sauvignon became available, in 1964 the now-famous Bin 707 Cabernet Sauvignon was introduced, as a cabernet match for Grange. Like it, it too finishes its ferment in new American oak, and is raised in 100% new American oak. As a young wine it is both massive and aggressive, so our two bottles, from 1967 and 1990, will be a welcome chance to see the wine in early, and full, maturity. The 1970 Ch Leoville Las Cases (if in good order) will provide a form of ‘control’ or perspective, with its all-French oak elevation.
Schubert clearly had a restless and inquiring mind. From early on, there were many experimental Bins, defined by Penfolds as small-batch wines of less than 1000-dozen. Some of these over the years have become as famous as, or more famous than Grange itself, none moreso than Schubert's 1962 Cabernet / Shiraz Bin 60A, widely considered and still rated to be the finest red wine Penfolds has ever made. Our Bin 90A from 1990 is its direct descendant, as likewise our 1990 Bin Cabernet / Shiraz 920 is from the 1966 Bin 620.
Max Schubert (1915 – 1994), in his Penfolds office, 1983 / 1984.
Photo: Philip White, with thanks
Thanks to Ray Martin of Lower Hutt, this tasting will feature three vintages of Penfolds Grange, Australia’s most famous red wine, initially labelled Hermitage, then Shiraz, the 1967 made by Penfolds most famous winemaker, Max Schubert. To match it we have 1967 Penfolds Cabernet Sauvignon Bin 707, likewise a Schubert wine. There will be a third 1967, Penfolds Shiraz / Oulliade, Bin 426 … a rare wine now [ strictly, Oeillade ].
There is no doubt that Schubert's vision of the wine world was dramatically transformed by his visit to Bordeaux in 1949 / ‘50. He came back committed to the notion of making an equivalent quality wine from Australia's great grape shiraz, since there were old-vine sources available to him. To judge from the style that Grange adopted, Schubert was mightily impressed with Ch Latour … but despite searching I seem to have no old Ch Latour left. So instead we will have 1970 Ch Leoville Las Cases, at times quite a ‘big’ claret’. To match the vintage of that wine there will be 1970 Penfolds Bin 389 Cabernet / Shiraz, and the Shiraz Bins 28 and 128 from the great year 1971. Bear in mind that in those days, Bin 28 was all Kalimna fruit, that is, of a quality that Penfolds RWT aspires to now. Then we have a set of 1990 wines totally new in my experience, so I hope in yours too: 1990 Grange Shiraz, 1990 Cabernet Sauvignon Bin 707, 1990 Cabernet / Shiraz Bin 920 (rarer than Grange), and 1990 Cabernet / Shiraz Bin 90A, a rarer than rare wine. The latter follows in the footsteps of 1962 Penfolds Cabernet / Shiraz Bin 60A, thought by many to be Australia’s greatest red wine ever. Finally, 1991 Penfolds Grange.
The rationale for including samples of the more everyday Bins is to provide both a more modest setting in which, perhaps, the rare wines may shine, and to offer the opportunity to taste these wines at full maturity. Bin 28 in particular was in those days a much less commercial wine than it is today, much of the fruit being drawn from the famous Kalimna vineyard itself, before the days of the more specialised Bins (such as RWT) which now absorb its entire production. The 1960s and early 1970s too, were before ‘the red wine boom’. Schubert was certainly ahead of his time.
The tasting cannot be cheap: the current shelf price of 2012 Grange in New Zealand ranging from $750 up to $900. The rarer-than-Grange Bin wines such as 920 and 90A are only made every 10 years or so, and are dearer still. If you cost out the wines below on wine-searcher, the cost per head works out to over $400 per person. I trust therefore that the chosen price ($165), having regard to New Zealand wine auctions realisations (which I monitor), seems realistic and fair.
The stimulus for this tasting came from Ray Martin, of Lower Hutt, who generously offered to make the three vintages of Grange available, should I care to build a Penfolds Library Tasting around them. Thank you.
Evans, Len, 1973: Australia and New Zealand Complete Book of Wine, 528 p. Paul Hamlyn (hardback)
Evans, Len, 1978: Complete Book of Australian Wine, Third Edition, 512 p. Summit Books (softback)
Halliday, James, 2002: Classic Wines of Australia and New Zealand. Harper Collins, 386 p.
[ no author ] The Rewards of Patience. Various editions, various paginations, initially published by Penfolds.
Robinson, Jancis, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz, 2012: Wine Grapes. HarperCollins, New York, 1,242 p.
www.winecompanion.com.au = initally James Halliday as for many wines in this tasting, latterly diluted by other authors and less satisfactory, since the reviews are not initialled (subscription needed)
www.jancisrobinson.com = Jancis Robinson MW & Julia Harding MW mainly (subscription needed)
www.robertparker.com (subscription needed)
www.winespectator.com< (subscription needed)
www.wickman.net.au/Grange_Prices.aspx = for good info on Grange pricing
THE WINES REVIEWED, MAINLY SHIRAZ, SOME CABERNETS: (bar one):
1967 Penfolds Hermitage Grange Bin 95, Magill, 6% CS
1967 Penfolds Cabernet Sauvignon Bin 707, Kalimna (no Coonawarra)
1967 Penfolds Shiraz / Oulliade, Clare Valley, Kalimna (for the Oeillade)
1970 Penfolds Cabernet / Shiraz Bin 389, Barossa Valley, Magill
1971 Penfolds Shiraz Bin 28, Kalimna
1971 Penfolds Shiraz Bin 128, Coonawarra
1990 Penfolds Shiraz Grange Bin 95, Barossa Valley, Clare Valley, Coonawarra, 5% CS
1990 Penfolds Cabernet Sauvignon Bin 707, Coonawarra, Barossa Valley, McLaren Vale
1990 Penfolds Cabernet 65% / Shiraz 35% Bin 920, all Coonawarra
1990 Penfolds Cabernet 68% / Shiraz 32% Bin 90A, Coonawarra / Barossa Valley
1991 Penfolds Shiraz Grange Bin 95, Barossa Valley, McLaren Vale, 5% CS
1970 Ch Leoville Las Cases, Saint-Julien Second Growth, Bordeaux
Wine values shown are current wine-searcher estimates, which the Australian wine auction trade clearly notes are unrealistic. An indication of the original release price follows in the text, where available. Though the Penfolds website is not the easiest to use, the depth of information in the Tasting Notes pages (www.penfolds.com/our-wines/tasting-notes/the-penfolds-collection) is good as far as it goes. Unfortunately some wines are missing, and for others the notes do not go back to the early vintages of most interest now. Why, I wonder, Penfolds wines being so cellar-worthy and collectable ? Also, some pages are reluctant to load. In the notes below, mostly the first tasting note is as Penfolds see the wine, on their website … where available, or in The Rewards of Patience. The second is from Halliday, where available. Where possible, the third is from preferably jancisrobinson.com, or robertparker.com, to provide an overseas view.
Ruby and velvet, the deepest and second-most-red / freshest wine. Bouquet is wonderfully cassisy and aromatic, the oak on a knife-edge as to excess or not, but on balance, the bouquet is ripe, fresh (i.e. not over-ripe), cassisy and cedary, the cabernet component having the upper hand. Freshness continues in the rich palate, wonderful texture again cassis but some blackberry, oak noticeable but there is excellent richness to absorb it. This wine is a nearly-beautiful example of the Penfolds style, without being a caricature of it as so many are. Ideally the oak would be less assertive, though. It has a finesse scarcely known to Grange, with the shiraz fleshing out the cabernet beautifully. Tasters were not as enthusiastic about this wine as I was, no first places, one second. Cellar 10 – 30 years. GK 09/17
Ruby and velvet, still surprisingly red, the freshest wine and the second deepest. Bouquet shows a dramatic volume of fresh shiraz, so fresh as to nearly have syrah varietal qualities – and thus it is immediately a rare wine in the Grange portfolio. Like the 1990 Bin 920, the fragrant Penfolds cedary oak is there, and you wish it were less, but it is still a remarkable example of Grange, relative to the often clumsy Penfolds idiom. Palate continues the excitement, the wine still nearly hinting at syrah, particularly the blueberry quality of the fruit, and nearly cassis, no hint of prunes or over-ripeness. This is the freshest and best-balanced Grange I have ever seen, almost a wine to compare with J L Chave Hermitage or (good years) Jaboulet La Chapelle, one of the few one would want to own. Again, tasters were not as enthusiastic about this wine as I was, no first places, but there were two second places. Cellar 20 – 35 years. GK 09/17
Ruby and velvet, the third deepest wine, markedly older than the Bin 920. Bouquet is in the same cassis-led style as the Bin 920, clearly cassisy but a little less fresh, mulberry as well as cassis, a little more oak apparent. Palate shows similar wonderful cassisy and rich berry, good freshness and length, the ripeness of the cabernet component as good as the Bin 920, but the whole wine skewed to excess oak, not an harmonious balance by Bordeaux standards. The curious feature of this Bin and Bin 920 is the seeming subtlety of the tartaric addition, neither wine being coarsely Australian in this respect. Once again, tasters were not as enthusiastic about this wine as I was, one first place, one second. Cellar 10 – 30 years. GK 09/17
Garnet, ruby and some velvet, below midway in depth. Bouquet is exceptional, showing an integration of browning cassisy berry and cedary oak which could be confused with Bordeaux, in particular Mouton-Rothschild … which can also be too cedary. Alongside the 1970 Leoville Las Cases it shows a perfection of fruit and berry ripeness which is astonishing. Palate is still showing remarkable fruit, but the cassis is well-browning now with just a hint of decay complexing it. On the later palate yet again you wish for a less heavy-handed approach to the oak, but the berry richness eclipses anything from New Zealand at that time (naturally – there were only two serious cabernet sauvignon wines). It would I imagine triumph over pretty well anything from the fragrant but lean and acid 1967 year in Bordeaux. The nett impact of this wine captivated tasters, it recording six first places and five second places (from the 21 tasters), clearly the favourite in the 12 wines by a considerable margin. It is the pinpoint ripeness of cabernet sauvignon that is enchanting, this wine highlighting the trace under-ripeness in the 1990 Bin 707. At a peak now: the fruit will soon be declining, the hint of decay will increase, and the oak will become more noticeable. Still 10 years in it (if it has been cellared in a cool climate). GK 09/17
Garnet and ruby, some velvet, midway in depth. Bouquet is stunning on this wine, showing a quality of browning plummy berry with savoury and even truffly suggestions which is enchanting. In mouth the wine is velvety, no other word for it, a wine showing a perfect fruit / oak ratio, and thus an enviable rarity in the Penfolds scheme of things. It is wonderful with food. In all the years since the release of the 1970 and 1971 Penfolds Bin 28, both of which I bought by the case at the time, I have searched for comparable quality … pretty well in vain … and like many New Zealanders, ultimately you just lose interest in the heavy-handed, over-oaked, acid-adjusted Australian approach to red wine, as it ‘developed’ in later decades. To see this wine now, at full flowering, is a great experience. Will hold but not improve. Four tasters shared my pleasure in this wine, two first places, two second, and four were sure it was bordeaux. GK 09/17
Rich ruby, velvet and some garnet, fresher than the 1990 Grange, above midway in depth. Bouquet is dramatically cabernet-varietal, but slightly edgy, showing just a whisper of sautéed red capsicum in the cassisy qualities. Comparison with both Bins 90A and 920 highlights the perfectly ripe cabernet sauvignon went into those wines in 1990. Nonetheless the volume of bouquet, and the apparent ratio of berry to oak on bouquet, is impressive. On palate again there are great cabernet flavours, but just the piquancy of trace methoxypyrazine freshens things up in one sense, but also robs the wine of the perfection of ripeness shown by the two rare-Bin wines. On palate too the oak becomes more apparent, in the all-too-familiar Penfolds style, and that heightens the perception of trace capsicum. Length of flavour is remarkable, and one can only wonder yet again at the manner in which cabernet sauvignon harmonises cedary oak in a way shiraz can never do. The relationship between the 1990 and 1967 Bin 707 wines is crystal clear – both are dramatically varietal despite the elevation. Altogether, three tasters rated this a favourite wine, one top, two second. As always in a New Zealand tasting group, some participants did not see the hint of green at all. Cellar for 15 – 30 years. GK 09/17
Ruby, garnet and velvet, just above the middle for depth. Bouquet here is the more usual hugely overpowering Penfolds oak alongside rich fruit, which makes Grange so often a caricature of itself. The actual quality of the fruit is hard to tease out from the oak, but it seems to avoid over-ripeness, no boysenberry, plenty of blueberry and darkest plum, wonderful richness, tactile viscosity. But the oak builds up in the mouth, and dominates the aftertaste, rich though it is. As is always the case, tasters were seduced by the oak, four rating this 1990 their top wine, and one second. It will cellar for ages, but end up a harder and more oaky wine than the lovely 1991. Cellar 20 – 30 years. GK 09/17
Glowing garnet and ruby, the lightest wine. Freshly poured, the bouquet is a standout in the set, soft, gentle, browning rose florals, browning red fruits, like a fully mature pinot noir from a previous era of richer wines, from Burgundy proper. Palate is simply seductive, tactile fruit, no hint of new oak yet a clear gentle tannin structure, the wine velvety and infinitely food-friendly. This wine was the surprise of the tasting to me, illustrating that in fact Schubert aspired to a diversity of wine styles. Tasters did not share my enthusiasm for the wine, one of only two with no first or second places. Only one least though. It did not stand as well as the others, particularly losing its enchanting rose florals within 24 hours. I wonder how many bottles in fact survive, today. A treat. GK 09/17
Ruby, garnet and velvet, deeper than the 1967 Bin 707, midway in depth. Bouquet shows the complexity of fully mature rich shiraz wine, browning darkest plummy fruit and berry, suggestions of roast chestnuts, mushrooms and leather, just a hint of complexing decay, and a lot of tannin and complexed oak. The oak is well married in, but it is simply excessive. Palate is drier than expected, the chestnutty oak flavours standing firm all through the rich browning berry, not displeasing exactly, but it would be a better and more harmonious wine if the balance were in favour of fruit. The richness is still remarkable, as is always the case with Grange. As you sip on it, you do wonder if it would sit happily with many foods, or even if a second glass would be as good as the first. A fully mature wine now, but no hurry to finish up, if the older flavours are liked. One taster rated 1967 Grange their top wine, and three their second favourite. GK 09/17
Garnet and ruby, the second lightest wine. Though not apparent at decanting, by the time of the tasting this wine showed trace TCA / cork taint, detected by one third of the tasters. It had completely dissipated 24 hours later, enabling more accurate description. The lovely thing about this wine is the extent to which it captures the original (ie 1950s) concept of ‘Coonawarra claret’. Total palate weight is near-identical to the Leoville, the ripeness fractionally better, richness also fractionally greater, but the net freshness of berry and subtle oak is a delight. Received opinion / wine snobs wouldn't give you tuppence for a 45-year-old Bin 128, yet this wine has a charm, balance and freshness which would be perfect with food, right now. Even impaired, two tasters rated it their top wine, and one second. I could see why, the next day: quite a thrill. Fully mature, but no hurry at all. GK 09/17
Ruby and garnet, remarkably similar in hue and density to the 1967 Bin 707, fractionally deeper. Likewise, the similarity of bouquet between the two wines was staggering. You had to look at the two wines very closely indeed to finally conclude that in the Las Cases the cedar was gentler, and the browning cassis was not quite as perfectly ripe. In mouth the latter aspect was much more apparent, the wine leaner, total acid a little up on the Leoville, and the suggestion of under-ripeness translating to a leafy hint, tobacco-leaf flavours, in a medium-weight palate only, clearly tending lean. This is not a fine example of a 1970 bordeaux, even allowing for wines being subtler and smaller then. With its better fruit to oak ratio, however, it would still be attractive with food. Tasters liked this more than I did, four first places, two second, the analysis yet again demonstrating how wonderfully individual wine appreciation is. Curiously, only two tasters were sure it was bordeaux, at the blind analysis stage, so it fulfilled its 'foil' role quite well. The wine is holding, but will not improve. GK 09/17
Garnet and ruby, below midway in depth. This was the (relative) disappointment of the tasting, particularly in the sense it was supposed to be the marker wine for the 1970 Leoville. But whereas the Leoville (and the Bin 128) were fresh on bouquet, this 389 smells a bit broad / baked / leathery / biscuitty (or oxidised), the fruit tending over-ripe. That aside, it has plenty of fruit, and a much better ratio of berry to oak than some of the other wines, so it is quite fragrant. Palate is soft, rich, ripe and round, plummy and a little bit pruney, hard to see the cabernet, but with the lower relative oak, still a worthwhile wine with food. Tasters also thought this a lesser wine, one of two only to not record a first or second place, plus three least votes. May well be a lesser bottle, the corks being so short, 42mm. This bottle fully mature, but no hurry at all. GK 09/17
1968 Penfolds Cabernet Sauvignon Bin 707
1971 Penfolds Cabernet / Shiraz Bin 389
1990 Penfolds Grange [ Shiraz ] Bin 95