Penfolds: The Australian Wine Legend you Can Count On
Wine regions are often classified as either “Old World” or “New World”, a convenient, if blunt, dichotomy that in reality means Europe and everywhere else, respectively.
But many “New World” producers are quite uncomfortable with being called ‘new’, given a lot of them have been around for over a century. They’re also wary of the negative connotations the label has with most regular consumers, where it is often thought that the ‘new’ can’t ever be as good as the ‘old’.
But until a more satisfactory and snappy categorisation can be agreed on, then the old Eurocentric terminology will be with us for some time yet. That doesn’t stop New World producers understandably raising the issue in exasperation every now and then, however.
Once such occasion was in 2013, when Australian winery Penfolds was named Best New World Winery by the respected Wine Enthusiast magazine in the US. At the same time the publication also named the famous Spanish producer Marqués de Riscal as their European Winery of the Year, colloquially known to all involved as the ‘Old World Winery of the Year Award’.
Peter Gago, the Penfolds Chief Winemaker, accepted the award in New York on behalf of the winery, and though he was truthfully very honoured he couldn’t help but raise the old bête noire in his acceptance speech.
Gago pointed out that the ‘historic’ Marqués de Riscal was founded in 1858, a full fourteen years after Dr. Christopher Rawson Penfold established a small winery at Magill Estate, near Adelaide in South Australia, in 1844.
So, effectively, the best “New World” winery that year was older than the best “Old World” winery. And though Gago didn’t labour the point, the inference was crystal clear: the hackneyed terminology we so casually use is not only condescending and potentially damaging, it’s also simply factually incorrect in many cases.
Though it was generous of Gago to raise the flag once again for the “New World”, he personally didn’t need to fret as his winery has perhaps done more than most to take on the big boys of the “Old World”, often winning out in many cases. For Penfolds is one of those wineries that induce misty-eyed admiration from all creeds of wine lovers, given their history, prominence and aspirations – and now thanks to a new innovation by their Irish importers we’ll have a chance to ‘Experience’ Penfolds more easily this Autumn.
In The Mix
Sam Stephens, European Brand Manager for Penfolds, relayed the above anecdote to us this August while he was in Dublin to launch for the first time a set of four mixed cases of wine dubbed The Penfolds Experience Collection.
Tackling the range of Penfolds wines can be a bit daunting, it has to be said. Apart from their critically acclaimed Koonunga Hill range at the introductory level, the vast majority of their wines are known by their ‘bin numbers’, which historically indicated where in the warehouse they were stored.But there isn’t any hierarchy nor any obvious pattern to the numbering, so getting your head around the Bin Range can often be a case of rote learning rather than deduction.
This is where this new collection of mixed cases comes in. Bringing “learning by doing” to a new context, Irish consumers now have the opportunity to taste through themed cases of Penfolds wines rather than choosing one – often at random – from your off-licence shelf.
A Journey of a Thousand Sips…
The experience begins with The Explorer’s Collection, a set of five wines that serve as a wide-ranging introduction to the rarefied world of Penfolds’ Bins, allowing a glimpse of Penfolds’s blending prowess, a taster of a number of grapes they’re adept at producing, and a side-by-side comparison of two takes on that most Australian of grapes, Shiraz.
The case contains the Bin 8 Cabernet Shiraz, their approachable version of the famous “Aussie Blend”; the Bin 138 Grenache Shiraz Mourvedre, Penfolds’s take on the famous trilogy of grapes that call the Rhône their home; the Bin 2 Shiraz Mourvedre, originally released in 1960 and again recently reinstated after hiatus of a few decades; and finally two ‘straight’ Shirazes: Bin 128 which is sourced exclusively from Coonawarra, and Bin 28 Kalimna which is a multi-regional blend.
As the name suggests this is the perfect set from which to start your Penfolds exploration and, despite being from the same producer, offers a wide range of styles to enjoy. Ideal for Christmas, if I may be allowed to mention ‘The C Word” this early!
A Good Year
Things start to get serious pretty quickly from then on in. Next up is The 2013 Vintage Collection, a set of three pairs of wines retailing at €350 which – you guessed it – were all harvested three years ago.
But it’s not a random assortment, thankfully, and it’s clear some thought has gone into the wines that make up the mix: a 100% Cabernet in the guise of Bin 407, the 100% Shiraz Bin 150 Marananga, and then a Cabernet / Shiraz blend via the famous Bin 389.
This innovative assembly not only allows the chance to hold your own ‘horizontal tasting’ – that is, sampling wines across a common vintage – but it also allows the opportunity to experience two 100% varietal wines before seeing what they taste like blended together. It’s almost like being a winemaker for the day. Almost.
The Wine from Dr. Penfold’s Back Garden
If you were paying attention earlier then the name ‘Magill’ will ring a bell – yes, it’s where Dr. Christopher Rawson Penfold established his winery in 1844, so these wines are literally from where it all started.
I’d highly recommend searching for “Penfolds Magill Estate Winery” on Google Maps to witness the unusual sight of what is today a fully-fledged vineyard and winery in the suburbs of a major city, an oddity resulting from the city gradually extending out to – and eventually around – the original Magill Estate vineyard.
The Magill Experience Collection contains three pairs of vintages of the eponymous wine – 2008, 2010 and 2011 – allowing the superb opportunity to taste through the seasons of this tiny walled vineyard that is a mere 8kms from Adelaide city centre.
It’s truly the serious collector’s case and a chance to taste 170 years of history.
The Wine at the End of the Earth.
The pinnacle. The zenith. The wine that was initially made in secret, such was its revelatory approach. The wine that is only one of a handful in the world to ever achieve 100 points in both the Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator for the same vintage. One of the most collectible wines in the world and the only wine to be listed as a Heritage Icon by the South Australian National Trust, such is its prominence.
So Penfolds Grange is an important wine, to say the least; a legend in the truest sense. Many wine lovers would consider themselves lucky to even taste Grange, let alone get their hands on a flight of three different vintages.
But that opportunity is a distinct possibility today, thanks to The Grange Experience Collection. Though not cheap at a hearty €3,000, to buy a single bottle on its own can cost roughly €700-€800, depending on the retailer. If you can find a bottle, that is.
The 2009 is best enjoyed first with its generous lush fruit. Then you can argue over whether to sample the concentrated and intense plum and baking spice of the 2010, or the supple eucalypt tinge of the 2011.
Or, indeed, get the Coravin out and enjoy a tasting glass of each over the course of a decade or more. Either way, these wines are in for the long haul.
THREE TO TRY
The Explorer’s Collection
€180 from select specialist off-licences this Autumn.
This really is an excellent intro to the world of Penfolds.
The 2013 Vintage Collection
€350 from select specialist off-licences this Autumn
I really enjoyed the thoughtful, straight-forward approach of this case, from the rich but elegantly balanced Bin 407 Cabernet to the heady and opulent Bin 150 Marananga Shiraz, finishing at the famous “Baby Grange” that is the decadently delicate Bin 389 Cabernet Shiraz.
The Magill Experience Collection
€600 from select specialist off-licences this Autumn
A real collector’s case, offering three different styles of wine from three distinctly different vintages. Start with the austere, maturing 2008 then move on to the fuller but still restrained 2011 vintage, before finishing on the opulent 2011 tinged with baking spice and blackberry.
The Motley Cru has been working in the wine industry since 2008 and is currently studying the WSET Level 4 Diploma in Wines & Spirits.