Penfolds is Australia’s most famous winery. Their flagship wine, Grange, has achieved legendary status. And this was a brand that was important to my journey in wine.
When I first got into wine, back in the early 1990s, the Bin Series wines from Penfolds were tremendous bargains, and aged well – if you had the discipline to cellar them. At this stage, in 1993, Grange was available for £35 from high street wine shops such as Threshers. For me, this seemed expensive at the time, and instead I dieted on Bin 389 (£13) and Bin 28 (£11).
Since then, these wines have been repositioned in price. You could say that they have found their place in the global market, and before they were underpriced relative to their peers. That this may be the case is indicated by the fact that demand exceeds supply for some of these bottlings, such as Bin 389. No longer can normal people afford to buy a few bottles of Grange and stash it under their stairs. Even the likes of the lesser Bin Series wines are reasonably pricey. But the strength of these wines is their consistency, their accessibility (in flavour) and their ability to drink well on release but age well too.
Part of the story is the way that Penfolds success has relied on blending across vineyard sites, regional boundaries and even state boundaries. The winemaking team know what style they are going for with each wine, they are good at grading fruit and wines, and they have access to top vineyards across a range of regions that allows them to maintain the quality level across vintages.
This, the tasting of the new Penfolds collection, was held remotely. Peter Gago, who has been at Penfolds for 31 years now, presented the wines from 12 000 miles away via a Zoom link, and I was one of a group of six journalists tasting along in the UK at 67 Pall Mall. Gago appreciates the technology, saying this is the best compromise possible, but adds, ‘It would be much nicer if I were in that room with you.’ Yes: this would have been ideal, but the tasting went really well. Gago is one of the best in the business when it comes to running a portfolio tasting: he’s sharp, informed and knows exactly what to say (and what not to say).
The wines showed really well. There’s definitely a Penfolds style: a polish and accessibility. The reds are ripe wines that seduce and impress, but they retain balance and don’t veer off into jammy excess. What of the new release of Grange, the 2016? This carries such high expectations that it left me a little perplexed. It’s a concentrated wine, for sure, but the American oak imprint is currently very strong, and at first it seems too accessible and sweetly fruited. But the tannins here are quite strong. Is it a great wine? Too early to tell, and with the track record this has, you’d be bold to bet against it coming together in time. It would be madness to drink it now, though, in its infancy.
Penfolds Bin 51 Eden Valley Riesling 2020 Australia
12% alcohol, dry, pH 3.06. Lively, rounded and intense with nice pure citrus fruit. Crystalline and refined with nice textural notes, some lime, and a bit of yellow fruit, too. There’s an ease and precision to this wine with some stony minerality on the finish. Lovely primary, expressive dry Riesling that avoids being too dry. 92/100
Penfolds Bin 311 Chardonnay 2019 Australia
13% alcohol. Historically this was from Tumbarumba (14% now), but as the production grew Tasmania (52%) and Adelaide Hills (34%) are in the mix. 35% new oak. This is quite lovely: there’s a touch of sweet oak here, with vanilla and cedar, as well as some ripe peachy fruit. But the core of the wine is lively and mineral, with a hint of matchstick and some very fine lemon notes. Juicy and expressive, with a tapering finish. Superb: accessible but fine. 94/100
These are wines made from vines right on the cusp of physiological ripening, so it’s nice to have that flex from multiregion sourcing. ‘We don’t care where the fruit comes from as long as it is exactly the right style for these house wines,’ says Gago.
Penfolds Reserve Bin A Chardonnay 2019 Adelaide Hills
13% alcohol. 80% new oak. Very mineral and matchsticky on the nose with some smoky flint and piercing lemon aromas. The palate is lively and bright with a lemony core of fruit and some crystalline character, underpinned by nice mineral notes. There’s also a touch of sweet pear and melon fruit, adding generosity. Finishes with generous fruit: a really fine wine with a long finish. 95/100
‘With Yattarna it is not what goes into the blend, it’s what we take out,’ says Gago. It’s made in a more balanced style.
Penfolds Yattarna Chardonnay 2018 Australia
65% new oak. From Tasmania, Tumbarumba and Adelaide Hills. This is tightwound, concentrated and primary at the moment. Has subtle matchstick, with a juicy edge to ripe white peach and yellow plum fruit. This is mineral and fine, with well integrated oak adding some cashew and spice. Very expressive. Give this time to open out: this has subtlety and balance and has a sense of ease to it. 94/100
Penfolds Bin 23 Pinot Noir 2019 Australia
76% Tamar Valley, 14% Adelaide Hills, 10% Henty. 31% new oak. No sulfur until bottling. Mostly wild ferment. Sweetly aromatic berry fruit nose leads to a smooth, pure, supple palate showing red cherries and raspberries, with a silky texture and nice precision. Fine and pure with nice harmony to the fruit. A bit of bite on the finish. Such a smooth, joyful, ripe Pinot showing lovely accessibility and purity. 93/100
Penfolds Bin 138 Shiraz Grenache Mataro 2018 Barossa
The varietal mix changes each year. This is kept in component form until blending just before bottling. Like Pinot Noir, Grenache can be unpredictable in barrel and they don’t know what they have until later in their lives. These two varieties are similar. Everything else they blend early. No new oak here. This shows dense sweet berry fruits with some blackcurrant, a hint of cherry and some notes of herbs and tar. Great concentration with some ripeness and a spicy undercurrent. Has some savoury grunt here, too. Very stylish in a ripe mould. 91/100
Penfolds Bin 128 Coonawarra Shiraz 2018 Australia
First released 1962. Used to see American oak, but only French now. This shows sweet blackcurrant fruit with some ginger-spice overtones. It’s broad and rich with some acid sticking out. Very ripe and seductive, but also with this ginger spice flourish. Has lovely focus, but I find it tastes a little made and forced, with some grip and citrus peel brightness on the finish that isn’t really in harmony. Needs time? 90/100
Penfolds Bin 28 Kalimna Shiraz 2018 South Australia
First made in 1959, and always seasoned American oak. 33% Barossa, 32% McLaren Vale, and then lots of other South Australian regions. Lush, sweet and seductive with some sweet blackberry and black cherry fruit. Has some sweetness and a sense of ease, with lush soft fruit and good concentration. There’s some depth here, and smoothness. Very fine in a lush, forward style. 92/100
Penfolds Bin 150 Marananga Shiraz 2018 Barossa, Australia
14.5% alcohol. Use puncheons (500 l) in preference to hogsheads (300 l). This is from the Marananga subdistrict in the Barossa. This is a pure, fine, aromatic, elegant expression of Barossa Shiraz with lovely purity to the black cherry and blackberry fruit. It’s smooth, lush and expressive with ripeness but also balance. Slight salty, tarry and spicy on the finish. Manages to combine ripeness, smooth texture and elegance. A lovely wine. 94/100
Penfolds Bin 407 Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 South Australia
The stylistic template is 100% Cabernet with varietal expression and accessibility. French and American oak, but with a friendliness to the Cabernet tannins. The mid-palate is filled by the multiregion blending. First vintage 1990. This is aromatic and delightful with some leafy, minty notes supporting ripe blackcurrant fruit. It’s quite creamy and lush on the palate, with the emphasis on the pure blackcurrant and black cherry fruit. Very fine and expressive with subtle chalk and gravel on the finish. Ripe and polished, but still very much Cabernet Sauvignon. 93/100
Penfolds Bin 389 Cabernet Shiraz 2018 South Australia
57% Cabernet, 43% Shiraz, 38% new oak. 37% McLaren Vale, 17% Barossa, 16% Padthaway and a few others. There’s freshness and focus here with some spicy oak sitting under the sweet blackberry and black cherry fruit. It also has some nice blackcurrant character from the Cabernet. Shows sleekness and ripeness with a hint of meat and olive supporting the lush fruit. Good balance here, with potential for development. This has a juiciness, with good acidity. Shows some grip and density. I find it a bit ‘made’ and angular right now, but this wine cellars so well. 94/100
Penfolds St Henri Shiraz 2017 South Australia
3% Cabernet Sauvignon. Mainly Barossa, Eden Valley, McLaren Vale, with some Port Lincoln (near the see). 14.5% alcohol. Matured in large old vats. The story of St Henri goes back to the late 19th century, but Penfolds resurrected it in the late 1950s (first vintage 1957), but it’s made in the old fashioned style, matured in foudres with no small oak. They were worried about the 2017 St Henri. The 2016 was an amazing St Henri (2010, 1990, 1971 its peers). ‘2017 is more what St Henri should be: the savoury, textured nature,’ says Gago. Concentrated, brooding, yet sleek and ripe with lovely density to the black cherry and blackberry fruit. Such a wall of flavour here: ripe, but structured, with power and balance. A different kettle of fish, this! Has great intensity to the sweet fruit, with some nicely integrated structure. Primary, still, but quite delicious. Carries its ripeness very well, showing summer pudding fruit on the finish. 95/100
Penfolds Magill Estate Shiraz 2018 South Australia
14.5% alcohol. This vineyard has been harvested now for 176 years: this was the original Penfolds vineyard. 5.2 hectares of vineyard remain, surrounded by urban sprawl. Half has just been replanted by the best of heritage clones. Two thirds French oak, a third American, with around 20% new (although this varies by the vintage). This is very fresh and fine with supple black cherry and raspberry fruit and a hint of mint adding freshness. The palate shows great concentration and nice structure, swallowing up the new oak effortlessly. There’s some pepper here as well as notes of roast coffee and dried herbs. Very stylish. 96/100
Penfolds RWT Bin 798 Barossa Valley Shiraz 2018 Australia
14.5% alcohol. French oak (64% new), 100% Shiraz. Brooding black fruits nose with some taut spicy, roast coffee oak. The palate is very structured with polished but taut new oak blending with the intense, vivid black fruits. Very savoury and structural, with really intense fruit: this is just so primary, a melange of intense dark fruit, oak and tannins. Massive potential here, but its currently latent and unrealized. Lots of coffee, spice, tar on the finish. 94/100
Penfolds Bin 707 Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 South Australia
100% Cabernet Sauvignon, 100% new oak. McLaren Vale 26%, Coonawarra 25%, Barossa 19% and some others. Brooding blackcurrant fruit nose leads to a concentrated, dense palate showing well integrated spicy new oak. Shows cedar, coffee, spice and tar with a touch of creamy vanilla. This is really intense with a juiciness to the blackcurrant, and some firm tannins. There’s a massive intensity to this wine, which shows a lot of polish and intensity. Has lots of complexity and a long future ahead of it. 95/100
Penfolds Bin 95 Grange 2016 South Australia
67% Barossa, 17% McLaren Vale, 14 Clare, 2% McGill Estate. 97% Shiraz, 3% Cabernet Sauvignon. Concentrated and intense with some accessibility, though. Gago says, ‘it takes a few sips to get the wine. This will drink well in 60 years time, no problem, but it has accessibility as a young wine. It has massive tannins, but they are not aggressive.’ Taken off skins quickly and finishes the ferment off the skins. There’s some sweet oak here, with vanilla and coconut, and lush black cherry and blackberry fruit. This is a concentrated, ripe wine with dense berry fruits and sweet oak swirling round in a dance in the glass. It reminds me of a very ambitious Rioja, such is the presence of the oak in the mix. Beguiling and intense, this is a very stylish wine showing real intensity. There is a lot of oak here, and quite a bit of structure, but it is surprisingly accessible on release. Will no doubt be spectacular in time, but don’t drink this young, it will be a bit underwhelming. 95/100
Find these wines with wine-searcher.com