Penfolds, one of the world’s most recognised wine brands, was established in 1845. But the year 1951 is just as significant in the Penfolds story, as that is the date when winemaker Max Schubert returned from a study tour in Europe, to create Australia’s answer to the great wines of Bordeaux. Penfolds Grange was born, and remains the flagship of Antipodean wines to this day. Recently, head winemaker Peter Gago, whom I last met five years ago, led me through a tasting of the latest releases of Penfolds premium portfolio.
Penfolds (Australia) Yattarna Chardonnay 2003
I tasted this wine in a line-up of very impressive whites when I visited the Penfolds winery in October, and thought it was the most impressive Yattarna yet. Yattarna 2003 is entirely sourced from the Adelaide Hills (whereas 2001 was 83% fruit from Tumberumba) and it saw 69% new French oak (whereas 2004 will have 0% new oak), showing a sensitivity to vintage conditions that couldn’t always be found in Australian wines. This has a really meally, nutty, coffee and oatmeal nose with melon and lime fruit and a savoury character. On the palate it is a mouth-filling wine, with toasty, hazelnut characteristics and a creaminess set against pure, lemony fruit and a fine, pure core. There is some spice and a toasty richness into the long finish, but this has poise and pin-point acidity. 92/100.
Penfolds (Australia) St Henri Shiraz 2002
Always one of my favourite Penfolds reds, St Henri is aged only in large, older oak vats with no small barrel treatment and has a history as old as Grange’s. It has a pure, deep blackcurrant throat lozenge aroma. It has a meaty muscularity, and little notes of pepper and cream, but is composed and elegant. On the palate there is a great thrust of blue/black fruit of immense concentration. Nuances of leather and tobacco join a liquoricy black fruit that is solid and supple. Lovely spice and pepper notes highlight the finish. 93/100.
Penfolds (Australia) Magill Estate Shiraz 2003
Though most wines are made at Penfolds large, main facility in Nuriootpa in the Barossa, the historic Magill estate within a stone’s throw of Adelaide, is where some of the best wines are made in old open-top fermenters (right). Grapes for this wine come entirely from what’s left of the original vineyards surrounding the winery and it was matured in a mix of new and old American and French barrels. The oak is very evident coming after the St Henri of course, and there’s a gamier character to this wine with a powerful core of black fruit, but cedar, dark chocolate and those earthy notes add to the mix. The palate has plenty of mouth-filling texture and real density of fruit. Fine, ripe fruit floods the palate, with a roughening textural richness of tannin and lingering presence. 91/100.
Penfolds (Australia) RWT Barossa Shiraz 2003
RWT stands for “Red Winemaking Trial”, though in fact this has been a regular in the premium portfolio since the 1997 vintage. Only around 1000 cases are produced from all Barossa fruit (whereas Grange is a normally multi-regional blend) and the wine spent 15 months in French hogsheads, 70% of which were new. It has a bright, full, almost minty nose of extremely ripe fruit, with plenty of pencil-shaving oak and a glossy sense of depth and richness. It has a solid, smooth, muscular yet composed character in the mouth, with a lively blackcurrant-skin tang of bittersweetness and masses of fruit. Ther are supple tannins supporting a long finish, and a cedary, savoury balance. 91/100.
Penfolds (Australia) Grange 2001
The blend for Grange this year is 99% Shiraz and only 1% Cabernet Sauvignon. Whether or not that 1% can have much influence on the character of this wine is a moot point, but Peter Gago says the quality of this Cabernet was so good that it earned its place in Grange. For the first time ever, this Grange is made from all Barossa fruit and spent 17 months in all new American hogsheads. Chocolate and spice dominate the nose, with a great, dark, plummy, brooding presence. There are hints of tobacco and pepper, but this is mostly about a weight of ripe, thick black fruit. On the palate there are flavours of plum and Agen prunes, with huge concentration. Tannins are svelte and dense, with a liquoricy quality and lots of gripping texture. There is plenty of length here in a supple, outstanding Grange. 95/100.