“Sod the wine, I want to suck on the writing. This man White is an instinctive writer, bloody rare to find one who actually pulls it off, as in still gets a meaning across with concision. Sharp arbitrage of speed and risk, closest thing I can think of to Cicero’s ‘motus continuum animi.’

Probably takes a drink or two to connect like that: he literally paints his senses on the page.”

DBC Pierre (Vernon God Little, Ludmila’s Broken English, Lights Out In Wonderland ... Winner: Booker prize; Whitbread prize; Bollinger Wodehouse Everyman prize; James Joyce Award from the Literary & Historical Society of University College Dublin)





09 May 2011


Penfolds True Blue Frontline
Final Hot "A"-Lot From Fosters

Gago True To Huge Max View


In the tribute queue at Max Schubert’s funeral I found myself following Ross Wilson around Max’s flag-bedecked coffin. Bacchus knows that Heysen Chapel is about as bland a departure lounge as you can get, but the whole affair felt rather strange, being managed by Penfolds PR consultant of that day, Adrian Read, who’d couldn’t seem to remember my name. The service was largely about Penfolds. There was good mention made of Max’s war service, and his widow, Thellie, and even his family got a brief mention, but it was by and large a Penfolds affair.

As we placed our blooms on the casket, Ross (left), the managing director of Southcorp - which was his burgeoning baby and included Penfolds - looked me in the eye and said “Bloody hell Whitey. I know Max gave the company his life, but I never thought I’d bought his soul.”

Since then, Penfolds grew mightily – aided a great deal by the Wilson’s enlightened leadership and the sudden atmosphere of glasnost he instilled in place of the old realm of secrecy, a hangover from the days of the Penfold-Hylands. But as it grew beyond Wilson, and through the Rick Allert thing, the company shed many more casualties. The Rosemount/Bob Oatley/Philip Shaw reverse takeover, for example, saw utter carnage. When the long knives eventually scraped on the door of Grange maker John Duvall, The Advertiser street posters yelled “GRANGE MAKER QUITS”.

Winemakers don't get that sort of coverage anywhere else on Earth.

One gets the feeling that the current Grange custodian, Peter Gago, will not be giving his soul to Fosters, current owners of Penfolds. Bacchus also knows that Gago has quite literally given the company his life since his ascension after the Wild Oats coup: like Max, he has become Penfolds, in the sense that his major role seems to have been to protect the company from its owners.

This he does, in my opinion, by inspiring his team to tirelessly ensure constant improvements in the wines of Penfolds, and then travelling the globe relentlessly to ensure everybody knows about it.


So while various corporate raptors struggle to convince Fosters they should be selling Penfolds separate from the rest of its troubled Beringer-Blass axis of wine brands, and Fosters determinedly refuses as it repackages the whole wine side of its arsenal for sale with the bland name Treasury, I think we can rest assured that Gago will still be there in the flesh protecting Penfolds and his beloved Grange.

Intrigue of the intensity that Grange and Penfolds triggers makes each year’s release of the top range of Penfolds wines a time of aggravated frisson around the wine world, as anxious editors try to force their contributors to break the May 1 embargo, and publish the first tasting notes of the new Grange.

I’ll sleep straight tonight knowing that true to form, I waited a whole damn week.

Penfolds Reserve Bin 09A Adelaide Hills Chardonnay 2009
This year, I think this little sister to the “White Grange”, Yattarna, has doffed its cap to the more expensive wine, and sits a little further down the scale than last year’s. But this is still a mighty wine, sharp with the acrid prickle of matchbox sulphurs and wild yeasts, and probably a new benchmark for big company Chardonnay in Australia, given some appropriate rest. It really does need the sort of cellaring usually reserved for mighty reds, in which time its pithy citrus fruits (grapefruit and blood orange) will bloom and better balance that appetizing, prickly bouquet. Although it’s had nine months in French oak barriques (62% new), and has undergone a full malolactic ferment, it is probably best regarded as the grand, but austere Chablis of the pair, such is its elegance. ($90; 93++ points)

Penfolds Yattarna Chardonnay 2008
Tasmania and the Adelaide Hills provided the fruit; France provided the barriques, 49% of which were new. And we’ll have to say France has also provided the inspiration: this is more than a tribute to the great Chardonnays of Burgundy – its power and grace will give a good deal of them a run for their money. The bouquet adds ricotta and lemon custard fats to the wine’s mellowing butter-smooth pear and magnolia florals, and there’s just the right amount of nostril tickle going on thanks to much stirring of the lees in barrel. It is a bigger, smoother, rounder, more relaxed wine than the 09A, but will cellar equally well. ($130; 94+ points)

Penfolds Bin 138 Barossa Valley Grenache Shiraz
Mourvedre 2009
This one’s a beauty: maybe the best Grenache yet from Penfolds. From an awkward year, when a brief heatwave damaged Grenache pollens at flowering, causing a severe drop in yields, the wine was left to relax in old American hogsheads for a year, then blended with 21% Shiraz and 11% Mourvedre from similar oak. It’s bright, living, classic soulful Barossa, packed with bitter cherries, blood orange, tamarillo and fig aromas as much as the omnipresent mulberry and blackberry. The palate is more cuddly and unctuous than that aroma indicated, yet the finishing acids and tannins very long and pleasantly astringent. Ten years of dungeon will produce a true wonder, but it’s just slurpishly cute now. (price varies; 93++ points)

Penfolds Bin 389 South Australia Cabernet Shiraz 2008

While the total volumes of this, a huge earner for Fosters, are a well-kept secret, you can pretty well presume that the vague appellation, “South Australia”, indicates this is a huge blend from all over. Given that, it’s a triumph of the sort of cross-regional blending that made the wine export boom possible. It’s cheeky, flirtatious red, rather than presenting as the meaty old blood pudding and sweaty harness offerings of the past. It has enough of the avuncular cardigan-and-slippers wisps of tobacco, briar and tweed, to keep it in the Penfolds corral, but there are vibrant freshnesses and frivolities abundant, too. Let’s just say the old uncle is enjoying the company of some wicked late-teen nieces. Max always thought the presence of some beautiful women greatly enhanced proceedings, so I suggest this is perfectly fitting. (price varies; 88++ points)

Penfolds Bin 707 Cabernet Sauvignon 2008
Coonawarra, Barossa, and Wrattonbully grapes spent fourteen months soaking up 100% new American oak hogsheads, and emerged with that forestry pretty much absorbed, in the aroma department at least. This is nothing like the sappy old AmOak lumberjacks of the past, but a very stylized, beautifully designed and structured wine of great allure. It has sultry feminine florals – musk, violets, lavender water – teasing and entwining around the well of fresh crème de cassis we expect of the very best Coonawarra fruit. The palate is intense and challenging in this its stroppy punk stage, and it is here we first encounter oak sap. This wine is not for drinking now. The tannins and acid force evident in its mighty finish will not settle for many years. It’ll be smoothing out in 2020, utter luxury in 2030. ($190; 94+++ points)

Penfolds St Henri Shiraz 2007
The crew took Shiraz from most of the best SA vignobles for this esteemed old trooper, but the biggest component came from the marine dunal geography of Robe, giving the wine hints of an aroma akin to the floral dune succulent we unfairly call Pigface, very much after the style of bouquet we find in Mornington Peninsula wines. This adds allure to the standard red berry aromas common to the old St Henris, somehow enhanced by extended maturation in big old oak vats that are older than me. Or does it? That marine DMS reek could be seen as an unwelcome intrusion to the traditional St Henri addict. Time will tell. I like the wine, then query it, then like it, then query it … fifteen years dungeon will sort it out, and I expect I’ll have to wait til then. ($90; 90+++ points)

Penfolds Magill Estate Shiraz 2008
The old Grange vineyard’s typically big sars fruit sits much more happily in the predominantly French barrel library now secure at Magill – this is a much more wholesome and satisfying wine than those from the old days of sappy 100% new American hogsheads. And it is a star in this release. The Magill vineyard ripened well before the terrible heatwave of 2008, and that oaking has added sexy musk and cedar, maybe even sandalwood to the vineyard’s moody, autumnal bouquet – very much, indeed, like the aroma of an old fruit grange on a hills farm, ripe and burnished with the aromas of old pears, apples, cherries, parsnips, spuds and burlap. The palate is still a little shy, but perfectly-formed and velvety; the aftertaste a little brash, needing time. Ideally? 2030. ($115; 94++ points)

Penfolds RWT Barossa Valley Shiraz 2008
As Peter Gago says, it looks like the Red Wine Test proved its point, after fifteen years. You CAN make good red wine with Barossa Shiraz and French barrels. Amazing already! But then, the Barossa’s pig-headed sluggishness to even trial French oak was probably equal to its notorious reluctance to accept the chilli pepper, which I first smuggled in there in 1988. The Barossa ate mainly white food: fritz, cabbage, bread, spuds, carrots, cauliflower, pork, chicken, and yabbies. The most powerful of the flavours there came from the butchers’ smokehouses. Many of the valley’s most influential winemakers (Peter Lehmann, John Glaetzer, Max Schubert) grew up in smoky kitchens and were chainsmokers by the time they were twenty. The smell of charred American oak was right up their gastronomic alley. The more subtle French oak was something the Barossa coopers couldn’t get their head around until it was nearly too late. Anyway, this is amazing, luxurious, and sinister red which would look plain dumb if it had been bashed with new AmOak. It has more than a dash of scary black slithery things and the sort of tannin you’d find in dried Devil’s wings: I’m almost surprised that it doesn’t make a rustling sound as I drink it. It certainly has the flavour of the drippings from the grille at the bottom of Hell. Astonishing, utterly wicked, delicious dry red. I wish Gerard Jaboulet could come back for a bottle. ($175; 95++ points)

Penfolds Grange 2006
Grrrrrrrrrrrr. This is a mighty brute of a Grange, and one which will take about thirty years to get a civil tongue in its head. White pepper, figs and licorice come to mind, while the anticipation of more carnal wickedness rises in the sensory sector. There are hints of dark charcuterie meats (Italian more than German), and very little in the way of fresh berries. It’s intense and immediately demanding. It draws the moisture from your salivaries, and makes the blood course close to the skin behind the lips. I can imagine sitting in the little office with Max, drinking this with a grand cheddar: he’d love it! One of the most traditional-feeling of the modern Granges, and one of the very best. This wine entwines the souls of Schubert and Gago, but remind yourself as you drink or dream: they may have given their lives to Penfolds, but the Grange got all their souls. ($600; 95+++ points)

FOOTNOTE: Would the anonymous pea-brained scum purporting to be "The Fosters Cellar Crew" who makes repeated attempts to post gutter-level libelous scandal on this site realise that I can trace them? Desist. Grow up.

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