Once a year Penfolds invites The Adelaide Review to indulge in the strange process of comparing the old with the new.
It is that time of the year when Penfolds, arguably Australia’s most widely known and renowned wine brand, gathers together a collection of those weird souls whose job it is to write about wine for a showing of their new releases. It’s a strange profession, there’s no denying that. To try to codify an experience with a liquid that in reality is going to be different for everyone who tastes it depending on context, mood, personal tastes and a Mandelbrot set of other factors that make each experience with wine unique and personal.
This attempt at ossifying of some sort of vinous valence from a brief encounter with the new releases from Penfolds should be read with that disclaimer in mind. Consider it a guide.
The tastings format itself probably deserves a brief explanation. The wines are presented as a complete set before each taster in a logical order that culminates in the 2014 Penfolds Grange with an older example of Grange as a benchmark. There is little talk from the winemakers in attendance, Peter Gago and Kym Schroeter. A brief introduction but no spruiking, marketing spiels or other Jedi mind tricks.
The wines are tasted in virtual silence, allowing each taster plenty of time with each release. It is a format that works well. I’m not a huge one for scoring wines, as it is a game fraught with complications, but in the interests of transparency my scores from the tasting will be included in brackets after each wine. The wines were tasted in late August and embargoed until October until the tasting had circled the globe. It’s hard to sit on your hands for that long.
The highlights. There were quite a few. I’m not breaking new ground when I say that the white wines from the Penfolds stable have been in fine form recently and the two top-end Chardonnay wines are excellent. The 2016 Yattarna Chardonnay (95 – $175), the rounder of the pair, with ripe stone fruits and hints of lemon zest, almond paste, dried honey, drilled nuts, a slightly more phenolic backend and a persistent, nutty, spice-laden finish that trails off beautifully. The 2017 Reserve Bin A Adelaide Hills Chardonnay (96 – $125) is the star of the whites and one of the strongest examples I’ve seen. Stunning clarity and definition with gorgeous stone and citrus fruits, marzipan, almond blossom, cashew, spice, oyster shell and complex struck-match notes. It is a beautifully composed wine, a study in complexity, latent power, elegance and potential.
The 2016 Bin 407 Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon (94 – $100), though initially quite muted aromatically, grew in the glass into a voluptuous, fruit-forward style with plenty of stuffing and impressive fruit weight. The 2016 Bin 389 Cabernet Shiraz (95 – $100) was terrific, showing pure, plush fruit and some high-toned citrus rind notes and fruit-cake spice. A wonderfully structured wine and one with great cellaring potential.
The 2016 RWT Bin 798 Barossa Valley Shiraz (95 – $200) was a beauty. Deep blackberry and dark plum fruits, licorice root, some chocolatey notes and no shortage of punchy French oak at this stage of its life. A classy, superglossy style with lovely fruit-weight and a long, spicy, black-fruited finish. The 2016 Bin 707 Cabernet Sauvignon (95 – $100) impressed also. Richly proportioned with pure blackberry and blackcurrant fruits, fruit-cake spice and a rich yet tautly stretched palate shape and superb tannin profile. It’s one for the long haul.
For me, the two top wines of the tasting follow. The 2016 Bin 169 Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon (95 – $360) is a stunner with gorgeous dark and red berry and plum fruits, plenty of high-toned aromatic spark and a sprightly, graceful palate shape. Very composed with pitch-perfect balance and harmony – a study in line, length, elegance and intensity.
And finally the 2014 Penfolds Grange (96 – $900) with fruit sourced from the Barossa Valley, McLaren Vale, Wrattonbully, Coonawarra, Clare Valley and Magill Estate. It’s not a blockbuster Grange but there is no mistaking its pedigree. The colour is deep; the initial volatile and formic acid note is calm in the glass. It always astounds me how complex Grange smells even in its youth. The fruit depth and intensity is impressive along with notes of fruit-cake spice, shiitake mushrooms, hoisin, cardamom, olive tapenade, sage leaf, roasting meats and dried herbs. Weighty with a umami edge and a cascade of finely-packed, compact powdery tannins on the finish. It’s impressive.
I luckily sat next to Peter Gago on the trip to Melbourne for the tasting and we chatted during the flight. The usual stuff – weather, football, who was the prime minister this week – and then, of course, “So what are your thoughts on this year’s Grange release?”. Peter looked at me and said, “It’s a solid release … (brief pause)… But I know what is sitting in barrel.” Then he smiled and looked away. It is just that. A solid release.