By Henry Little, Trainee Manager, Majestic Belgravia
Each year Penfolds’ finest “children”, the Icon and Luxury Release, the top 3% of their endeavours, are presented to the world in a series of tastings. Titles such as RWT (Red Wine Making Trial) and Bin 09A may sound more like lab samples or pieces of military equipment than anything else, but these wines are some of the finest in Australia, and some of them rank among the finest in the world. A hot ticket indeed.
Penfolds has always been an operation driven by precision and refinement, and the endless Bin series and the surrounding technical jargon are reflections of this. But what is so intriguing is that, at the heart of these laboratory hives, where you might expect an efficient boffin type beneath the white coat and safety specs, you almost invariably get a good old no-nonsense Aussie. It’s more George’s Marvelous Medicine or Doc from Back to the Future than nerdy chemists; a reassuring wine paradox indeed…
So for such a prestigious tasting the atmosphere remained pleasantly informal, though highly technical in parts, with Tom Portet the winemaker guiding the tour. Although most people perceive Penfolds as a red wine operation, they are strengthening the white wine offering significantly over the next ten years, with Tasmania as a up-and-coming centre for Chardonnay in particular, and the two whites to make it into the Icon range on the night were the aforementioned Bin 09A 2009, a fine, slightly funky, Adelaide Hills Chardonnay, and the 2008 Yattarna, the “White Grange”. I was seriously taken with this, the electric mouthfeel and crystalline complexity delivering much and promising more in the future, the flavours a mouthwatering, unusual blend of ripe and unripe fruit in perfect poise, like the heavenly child of a stick of celery and a peach, if that’s not too ridiculous an image to contemplate. Penfolds have reigned in the use of oak pretty much across the board and the wines are better balanced for it, with mineral bracing rather than overt creaminess showing in the whites.
The 2007 St. Henri Shiraz led the reds off, for Penfolds a not unusual, though in relative terms somewhat extraordinary wine, blended as it from no fewer than seven different regions. 2007 was a difficult vintage for the St. Henri and I found it a touch hot and angry, though hugely powerful and intense. When considering the way in which this wine is made, and the emphasis on science in Penfolds, it is worth considering the almost incomprehensibly vast area which the winemakers have at their disposal. Multi-region blending may seem to stand in opposition to the attractive idea of single vineyard wines, but the systematic, scientific approach is the way to make sense of the possibilities, and the fruits of all the experimentation are really just coming through.
2008 was also a difficult year in many regions, owing to a fifteen day heatwave in March interrupting the harvest (daytime temperatures did not drop below 40°C and the nighttime below 30°C). One of the wines, the 2008 RWT, however, is rated as an equal to the best, if not the best ever, and was seriously good, lots of hot, shiraz fruit but so much in the way of savoury, bitter, intense aromas and flavours, from bitter mocha to smoky spice. The 2008 Magill Shiraz again tempered sticky ripe fruit with serious, bitter notes of black tea and cedary tannins, but just stood out a touch less than the RWT (which did end up being voted the overall favourite by Majestic staff on the night).
The 2008 707 Cabernet Sauvignon stepped thing up a notch, with fierce concentration and more structure, layers of flavour and great potential. This was Tom Portet’s favourite from the bunch, and the only bad thing about attending such a tasting is wondering longingly what the future will bring for these wines, all of which are still complete babies, many with the potential to fifty years, for the 707 has a great story to tell.
The oldest wine tasted, the wine we had all been waiting for, was of course the Grange, the most famous, iconic, and expensive Australian wine of all time. The 2006 is apparently classic in style, with 2% Cabernet structuring the Shiraz, and I was swept away on its sweet streak of liquorice, light yet intense, powerful yet poised. This was my favourite of the night, the Yattarna a close second. I count myself very lucky to have tried it and will count myself even luckier to try it again. Whether there was any element of knowing what it was and being influenced by the desirability and the price of such a wine I’m not sure, but they certainly were an excellent selection.