Penfolds 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 decided he’d attempt to create Australia’s answer to the great wines of Bordeaux. Penfolds St Henri and Grange were born, amongst many experimental bins, that remain some of the flagship wines of Antipodes to this day. Recently, head winemaker Peter Gago (right), led me through a tasting of Penfolds premium wines from the legendary 1990 vintage, including some cult classics like Bins 920 and 90a. What a wonderful opportunity to taste these rare wines.
Penfolds (Australia) Bin 407 Cabernet Sauvignon 1990
The grapes for this wine came from Padthaway and Coonawarra, and the wine was matured in one- and two-year-old American and French barrels for one year. It has a wonderfully opulent nose, with masses of bloody, gamy kirsch-like black fruit with cherry notes, but deep and full. The palate still has beautiful richness and weight, with lots of spice and a meaty depth of black fruit that is still sweet and mouth-filling, before creamy tannins lead into a long finish. Lovely stuff.
Penfolds (Australia) Bin 389 Cabernet Shiraz 1990
Bin 389 was developed in the 1950s by Max Schubert, as an experiment in blending Cabernet and Shiraz, and finding compatible oak treatment. The 1990 is one of the all time great 389s, and the nose on this bottle is quite funky and dank, with some very earthy tones verging into the farmyard. The palate has a spiciness and richness, but this is leaner than the Bin 407 from the same vintage, and is in a more linear style. There are solid, cedary, pepper and spice flavours, and an underlying richness of blackcurrant fruit with spicy tannins. Perhaps not the best bottle of this?
Penfolds (Australia) Bin 707 Cabernet Sauvignon 1990
Big brother of Bin 407, the 1990 707 took advantage of an outstanding vintage in Coonawarra with the majority of fruit from there, supplemented with fruit from McLaren Vale and the Barossa. It spent 18 months in new American oak. The nose is fabulously minty and spicy, with chocolate peppermint aromas and cool, classy, very composed black fruit. The palate is extremely focused and precise, with glossy blackcurrant fruit and some black olive notes. It is savoury on the mid-palate, with good weight and texture and a fine tannin and acid balance. Long and refined, this is an outstanding Bin 707. See stockists of all Bin 707 vintages on wine-searcher.com
Penfolds (Australia) Bin 920 Cabernet Shiraz 1990
One of the gems of Penfolds’ back catalogue, the Bin 920 was the product of this exceptional vintage, with 100% Coonawarra fruit aged in new American oak for 18 months. There’s an earthy character on the nose, and a touch of barnyardy aroma, but a cool minty fruit quality emerges with youches of incense and smokiness. On the palate the fruit is quite dry and fairly severe, with a lean quality and plenty of grip. There is a huge dry extract quality to this wine and a savoury, smoky style, but it perhaps lacks a little elegance and is drying slightly. This cult wine sells for $400 (about £200) in Australia.
Penfolds (Australia) Bin 90a Cabernet Shiraz 1990
Another wine with cult status and selling for hundreds of dollars, the 1990 Bin 90a blends Conawarra Cabernet with Barossa Shiraz, and matures them in new American oak for 20 months. It has a smoky, spicy, very interesting nose with ash-like dry components, a nicely leafy Cabernet character and plenty of minty and ripe fruit beneath. On the palate this wine is juicy and elegant, with a sense of life and finesse about it, showing a beautifuly pure core of blackcurrant fruit and supple, polished tannins. Acidity to is balanced and elegant, into a long finish.
Penfolds (Australia) Grange 1990
How wonderful to have the chance to taste a legend, the vintage when the name of this wine changed from ‘Grange Hermitage’ to just ‘Grange’, and a wine that many think is one of the best Granges ever produced. At auction expect to pay £400 or more per bottle. Predominantly Shiraz, fruit is sourced from Coonawarra, Barossa and Clare, and maturation is in new American oak hogsheads for 18 months. It is immediately smoky and deep on the nose, with a bloody note, plum fruit and a rich seam of blackcurrant beneath. The palate is composed and refined, perhaps even a touch lean (but in a positive, restrained way), with a juicy ripeness of fruit merging with cigar-box spice and smokiness, and unfolding complexity suggesting espresso, tiny blueberry and cherry notes, and plenty of muscular depth to the tanninc structure. This just lacks a little something to get absolute top marks, but is an outstanding wine.