“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)





05 March 2013



Penfolds Bin 23 Adelaide Hills Pinot Noir 2012
$40: 14% alcohol; screw cap; 93+++ points
First: a word on labelling. David Wynn, who created that distinctive and timeless Wynn’s Coonawarra label, would chuckle about how many changes he made to it, one year after another.  These were rarely noticed by the drinker, but he would make the tiniest tweaks here and there to satisfy his whim or to offer subtle messages to his market in response to changes of fashion or mentality.  He would derive deep pleasure, for example, in the number of times he could repeat the words Wynns, Coonawarra and Estate on the package: I seem to recall them appearing around twenty times on the bottle at the time of his sale of the company.  He would repeat them, not just on the map explaining the location of Coonawarra, but on the cork, the capsule, and the front and back labels as many times as possible. Few people noticed this – it was a repetitious subliminal indoctrination of the consumer.  Significantly, no change ever occurred without a great deal of cunning reasoning and scheming.  David would chuckle about how his constant deliberate tweakings went unnoticed. 


What tends to happen these days is consecutive generations of marketing wallahs in the smoke-free backrooms make endless adjustments and changes here and there, eventually resulting in an amalgamated wash of compromise, of accumulated wavering from the message. I pick on this Pinot label because of changes subtle AND overt: that horrid bloody pregnant woman logo has found its way onto the back.  This is discriminatory wowser bullshit: condescending, compromised, and intellectually flawed on the most embarrassingly basic level.  It is done on the recommendation of the authorities at Winemaker's Federation of  Australia (WFA). I noted the most recent release of wines I saw from Oak Ridge -- whose big director  is Tony D'Aloisio, president of the WFA -- did not carry this warning logo.  Maybe his wines are exempt.  Of course a pregnant woman can cause damage to her foetus by drinking too much Penfolds’ Pinot noir.  But evidence of this ever occurring has yet to hit my desk.  If indeed it ever happened, I’m sure the ghouls of what’s left of our mainstream media would have made a bit of a splash about how Australia’s greatest wine producer had killed or wounded an innocent unborn with its evil Adelaide Hills Pinot noir.  Must be that murderous devil, Peter Gago!  On the other hand, the logo to my dodgy peepers looks very much like a black person with malnutrition: you can’t actually see a foetus, and the pregnant belly can easily be mistaken for the horrid distension of the abdomen common amongst those smitten with this affliction.  This could be seen to be overtly racist.  But then we should consider the other part of the emblem: the derestriction sign. Most reliable English dictionaries will tell you that a circular emblem with a diagonal band signifies the lifting of the speed restriction elsewhere prescribed.  Everywhere else on Earth, this emblem indicates that one is officially permitted to return to one’s former behaviour after taking a break for a prescribed stretch of distance or time.  So this must indicate one needn’t be worried about drinking Penfolds Adelaide Hills Pinot noir if one has black skin and a distended stomach, whether the latter condition is the result of malnutrition or successful sexual congress.  On the other hand, a person could be forgiven for thinking the sign advises that it’s now cool to get back on the speed.  There’s also a picture of an over-filled stem glass with 8.3 written on it, the words “standard drinks” vertically printed, sideways, beside it.  Does this mean we should consume 8.3 of them?  I won’t even go into the recycling badge or the bloody huge bar code.  But certainly worth mentioning is all that fine print so faint and so cool that they obviously don’t want anybody reading it, especially in the light of a cellar or at a romantically-lit table.  They, whoever they are, have obviously decided that the clarity of the text on the front of the Grange bottle is too good for the Pinotphiles. At least whoever they are or were have thoughtfully supplied a faint phone number the consumer may call for further information.  I am tempted to ring to enquire about these issues so I might report accurately the response, but space is tight here, and you probably want to know how I regard the contents of the bottle.  Also, they obviously want my number.  The wine has the reek of dark marello cherry, and maybe some blackberry, certainly some blueberry. It doesn’t leap at one.  It will in a few years, but not yet.  There’s a hint of the old cinder from nine months in French barriques, but that’s hardly intrusive; it’s just enough to make this a Penfolds Pinot, and not one like anybody else would make, except, perhaps, for an Australian trying to make a point in a ripe year, like 2003, in, say, Dujac.  The texture is waxy and thick; then lemony and svelte in the tail.  The tannins are very fine: acid being the dominant component in this finish, until that fruit comes washing back up the reach. It’s pretty good wine, but it’ll get pretty gooder. 24 hours later: magnificent soulful chubby Pinot – maybe the best of the biggies yet made in South Australia.  That intense dark fruit is beginning to climb all over the oak.  It needs years.

Penfolds Bin 138 Barossa Shiraz Grenache Mataro 2011

$38; 14.5% alcohol; screw cap; 92++ points
Mellow, subdued and intense, this baby’s got a touch of shy that verges on surly.  It won’t look you in the eye.  Hoover the bouquet out of it, and you get some fresh earthy beet with dark turnip greens, fresh juniper berries and some mulberry, with soft fresh licorice and saddle-soaped leather. While a tad reluctant in this its youth, it does seem very Australian in style, with subliminal suggestions of stables and oilskins. The palate is gentle and subdued, rather planar and polite.  The wine shows no hint of the botrytis which infested the Barossa in 2011, opening the possibility that its shy nature may be the result of some of its components being purged of the rot some winesmiths turned to advantage by making wines which resembled those of France.  This does not remind me of a mild south-of-France botrytis-affected red, which is the style many of the best winemakers managed with this tricky year.  It’s inoffensive, safe, clean Barossa of a rather amorphous type.  But 24 hours later it’s become relaxed and it’s oozing deeper glories as it gradually awakes. It’s a much better drink, with a little of the faintest botrytis glycerol emerging - it’s become more French.  It needs years!

Penfolds Bin 2 South Australia Shiraz Mourvèdre 2011
$38; 14% alcohol; screw cap; 92++ points
In this instance, “South Australia” means Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale.  I can’t quite twig why they’ve used the French  term, Mourvèdre, in place of the Australian name, Mataro, when this is perhaps a more Australian-feeling wine than the Bin 138, which uses the Mataro name in a French Burgundy-shaped bottle.  Not to mention that varieties which end in O are very popular right now.  Oh well.  The wine has the classic prune, dried apple and fig, harness and black prosciutto aromas typical of the blend, which has been an annual fixture since 1960.  It has more spice than usual, but this does not appear to be a simple oaky fix: it’s the Mourvèdre/Mataro talking.  It also has a pronounced aroma of dashi, the delicious Japanese broth made from Kombu seaweed.  Its texture is lush with umami to begin and strapping as it departs, and the whole effect is one of cheer and reward: the wine makes me smile as I slurp it.  Perfect with acidic chalky chêvre, it’s one of the best Bin 2s I can recall.

Penfolds Bin 8 South Australia Cabernet Shiraz 2011
$38; 14% alcohol; screw cap; 91++
Soot, carbon, forge coke, hot metal, tobacco, leather, summer stubble in the red dust … all the smells of South Australia in the summer of ’48 be here, and I mean 1848.  Of course there are fruits – blackberry, mulberry, prune – simmering on the woodfire stove, reminding me of the cruel reality that fruits ripen in the summer, when it’s far too hot to run a fire in the kitchen.  But that’s when you must, if you need to make jams and preserves to avoid wasting your precious produce.  After all that, the wine is surprisingly  slender and sinuous, without jammy gloop, and it finishes snaky and slithering, with very fine-grained, drying tannins balanced neatly with savoury acids.  It’s classic Penfolds claret in style, hovering between lite and elegant, which probably makes it an even better buy for the hungry.  Neat and tidy!  And pretty much the same drink after 24 hours of air.  Could it be ever-so-slightly  salty?  (Just curious.)

Penfolds Bin 389 South Australia Cabernet Shiraz 2010

$75; 14.5% alcohol; screw cap; 93+++ points
I can recall 389s that had less of the sap this one’s American oak contributes – it’s as if the crew are so determined to make a junior Grange in style that they’ve exaggerated the worst aspects of the most awkward, woody Granges and the most rigidly over-oaked Bin 707s of yore.  But 389 is the darling of the lumberjack set, and whole choirs of them sing about being okay as they cross-dress, so I set forth soooo sensitively with them in mind: unshaven and brassiered beneath their thick plaid shirts; tattered fishnets disappearing into their smelly Kodiak boots.  Soot comes next.  And then a sink of blackness: the balls are all aniseed; the bar all Choo-Choo; then anthracite, fresh HB pencils with their graphite and hot red paint … it’s like the best of the 80-90s and then some, as far as true to style stuff goes ... it’s perfect for the hard-core traditionalists: I could imagine John Spalvins licking it off the floor.  Once you get some sliding round the laughing gear, it’s surprising in its supple catty slink, and even the chopperphobes like me can’t help trying to forgive it for being so true to the Penfolds carpentry genre.  The tannins are dusty and suck, the acid’s strapping and bruising, the fruit bullwhip slender but vibrantly fresh when it finds raw flesh. The points above are for the regular 389 addicts; folks who know and understand my preferences will forgive me for a private score of about 75, and trust me in saying that this wood will never ever subside. For me it’s a theological thing. Apart from being the world’s most famous winemaker after Maynard James Keenan, Jesus Christ was a carpenter who made his best wine in terra cotta. 24 hours later, it’s relaxed a little, but is still a mean, sassy, sappy wine with attitude.

Penfolds Bin 128 Coonawarra Shiraz 2011
$38; 13.5% alcohol; screw cap; 92++ points
Pretty scents of marello cherry and blueberry provide these fruity topnotes; a hint of juniper berry with star anise and Dutch licorice fill the middle, while in the basement the older French hogshead influence is overwhelmed by the 25% component of new ones, said wood being close to understated, but supportive, if a little dry and dusty.  In fact it’s sufficiently dry and dusty to intrude in the topnotes, which to me means a little too much.  The aroma overall is nevertheless sweet and heady, aided by the lower alcohol number.  While it’s marginally fuller and more generous, the palate seems to follow the shape of a good Côtes de Bordeaux Cabernet Merlot, finishing with mild velvety tannins and lingering lozenge versions of those fruits we smelled in the beginning.  It’s dignified, but a little cheeky, in the traditional Australian claret style.  It’d be perfect with a creamy rabbit stew with pink peppercorns, capers and green olives. 24 hours later, the cherries are moving to the fore, and some pretty confectionary sugars and musk are emerging, but that typical Penfolds oak hasn’t budged.


Penfolds chief winemaker Peter Gago in the Kalmina Vineyard

Penfolds Bin 28 Kalimna South Australia Shiraz 2010
$38; 14.5% alcohol; screw cap; 80+++ points
Kalimna is a very important vineyard in the north Barossa.  It contains what is thought to be the world’s oldest block of producing Cabernet sauvignon. Using this sacred name on a blend of grapes from McLaren Vale, Langhorne Creek, Wrattonbully and Robe, as well as the Barossa in general, is surely equal to Pernod Ricard’s blending of almost anything in the Steingarten brand, just as it stretched Jacob’s Creek to include most of South-eastern Australia, from Rockhampton to Ceduna, and perhaps now to its vineyards in China.  I suppose the Melbourne office imagines from afar that as Grange comes from anywhere but the Grange, they can repeat the trick and make enormous amounts of money with Bin 28.  But this is no more Grange than that sappy 389.  It’s a jolly wine, oozing somewhere between fresh conserve, with its intact macerated berries, and jam, which is more sugary, cooked, homogenized and gloopy.  The old American hogsheads give the aroma just the right splinter of spicy wood to balance.  The palate is chubby for a moment, but then thins quickly to a strappy oaksap-dominant taper, with quite some acid (slightly metallic) and fine-grained tannins which seem more woody than grape-derived.  The wine has a form which follows the Wolf Blass Bilyara style more faithfully than Penfolds Magill or Penfolds Nuriootpa.  It’s pleasant, inoffensive, and industrial, and, I suspect, a wee bit salty. 24 hours later? Not much change.

Penfolds Bin 150 Marananga Barossa Shiraz 2010
$75; 14.5% alcohol; screw cap; 94+++ points
Now we’re talking.  This is high-order Penfolds.  This wine has some serious poise, purpose, place and breeding.  Its mixture of half-and-half  French and American oak, with half of each of those batches being new, gives just the right balance of dust and sap to the thick, hearty fruit of Marananga.  Here, the ancient (750 million years plus) Proterozoic rocks adjoin the Tertiary (less than 50 million years) Rowland Flat Sands, which are the Barossa’s equivalent of McLaren Vale’s prized Maslin Sands, with similar age, composition, source and ironstone capping.  So the wine should be good!  It’s dense and prickly, with perfect acridity from that ground, and wholesomely fleshy fruit from all that sunshine.  It has the comforting umami of great aged soy and seaweed soups; even oyster sauce. That’s all aroma.  In the mouth, its texture is modest compared to the intensity of its flavour, with that complex nuts-and-berries panforte character the old rocks from Marananga to Greenock Creek typically impart. It is indeed a seriously wondrous drink, true to the Penfolds brand of yore, with perfect stacks of acidity and fine tannin to carry it well for decades of dungeon. 24 hours later? The fruit has withdrawn a little, leaving a sinuous slither of oak and acid.  It needs many years.

Penfolds RWT Barossa Valley Shiraz 2010
$175; 14.5% alcohol; screw cap; 94+++ points
The instant the waft of this gorgeous thing hit my hooter, I found myself yearning for the company of my dear dead mate from Hermitage, Gerard Jaboulet.  Gerard loved Grange, and was bemused by its incorporation of raw American oak.  His hallowed La Chapelle Hermitage, in contrast, used only old blackened  French barrels.  It was just funny one day in that gloomy cellar when amongst all the old oak we came across one bright new barrel.  “Oh, of course for research purposes only, Philippe,” he chuckled. I never once set foot in Gerard’s Tain l’Hermitage office without him pulling the cork from an old Grange to drink beside a Syrah from his family’s Paul Jaboulet Aine vineyards.  This wine would have been right up his alley, with its mix of old and new French barrels.  It’s obviously Barossa Shiraz, not Hermitage Syrah – it’s much more woody than anything Jaboulet ever released - but he’d really guts this down, and we’d sit there at his desk on La-Roche-de-Glun, laughing out great clouds of tobacco smoke as he teased Englishmen on the phone about Australia thrashing them somewhere on a cricket field.  Fresh-sawn timber, chocolate and anise, harness leather and dusty horse, dried Turkish figs with Ditters dried sliced apple and prunes and fresh dates all simmer away happily in here, with some mysterious compote of fruits which are all black but utterly imaginary.  Blueberry, blackcurrant, mulberry and blackberry might get close, but these phantom fruits are blacker and more beckoning in their strangely sinister way.  The palate’s slick and snaky, with sinuous acidity and velvet tannin, and it makes me as hungry for that perfect Wisconsin cheese Lulu served at Smelly Cheese on Saturday as it makes me yearn for one more afternoon on the rag with the brilliant Gerard.  And you know who else would be in on it?  Max.  There now Mr. Gago, you’ve got me blubbering.  You’d better come too.  We’re old enough to sit with the dead, and young enough to tease them with wonders they never beheld. 24 hours later?  More snakey black leather, like Satan’s barbed tail.  It needs many years.

Penfolds St Henri South Australia Shiraz 2009
$95; 14.5% alcohol; screw cap; 95+
Swoon.  Softness.  Silky.  Breast flesh.  Powdered.  Just that tease of edgy sweat.  Forget the fruit and the timber balance we always bullshit about, this is pure carnal pulchritude, simple  and true.  I want to doze on it, sink into it, surrender to it, listen to it coo to me and tell me everything’s alright as we together so dreamily slide into sin so slippery and safe and permanent that we could never even consider coming back.  Selah.    

Peter Gago presents Grange to the fortunate enthusiasts at the Wine Spectator tasting in LA last year ... the photo, by Milton Wordley, is from our forthcoming book which covers everything from the wine's history to those who drink it: A Year In The Life Of Grange

Penfolds Magill Estate Shiraz 2010
$130; 14.5% alcohol; cork (!); 93+++ points
When you consider the vast sweep of vineyards that covered the piedmont of the Adelaide Hills from Skye to Seacliff, and remind yourself that this is the only northern remnant – the tiny Marion Vineyard of Patritti is the last skerrick in the south – I can’t see you approaching this glass without its loveliness being interrupted by a rise of hatred and rage at the mindless greed of Adelaide’s “developers”.  I shall be around to visit them all eventually, one after another, with my trusty chainsaw, cement mixer, and ute full of hungry Argentinian Dogo mastiffs.  Then I’ll call on the politicians who encouraged those ravening vandals in the first place, just to have a bit of a word.  My Dogos will be thirsty by then.  This intense glory smells more like a texture than a fruit.  It smells like an old Harris tweed whose various pockets hold Redheads matches, a briar pipe full of half-burnt Sobranie Balkan tabac, a Parker fountain pen leaking Quink Royal Blue and an unused but venerable chequebook.  Gago correctly suggests it’s like Jeffrey Penfold-Hyland in a leather armchair in a library of ancient books.  It also smells a little like his Minerva and Hispano-Suiza motor-cars, with dripping oil, caking grease, cracking leather, and polished walnut and oak.  If we must talk wine, it reminds me of the best reds of Vacqueyras in the smell division, but only the Adelaide Plains on the palate.  Red dust, schist, sandstone-in-the-summer tannins nail it, then they’ll nail you. It’s genteel, confident, Bible-dry wine that’ll get smoother and sweeter and eventually even sing hymns to you.  Spooned Stilton in the meantime. 24 hours later, it’s a lot more Hispano-Suiza than Minerva.  As Max would say, the Hispano is a lot faster.

Penfolds Bin 95 Grange 2008
$685; 14.5% alcohol; cork (!), 96+++  points
This smells like an old slate gravestone covered with lichen.  In the summer.  Beneath, you can also smell the old dead Lutheran way down there.  They smell a bit like ancient linen in a cupboard not opened for generations.  A good place to learn what I mean is the cemetery at Salem, by the Bremer east of Callington. If you can’t get there, watch Hammers Over The Anvil, the 1991 South Australian movie starring Charlotte Rampling and Rusty Crowe, which features that cemetery and has so much tense erotic footage shot in old stables that it’s one of the most aromatically evocative movies I know. It also features a wicked shot of Rusty’s bare arse riding a frisky horse bareback out of a dam.  Rusty aside, you can get a hint of the aroma at the Gomersal cemetery, in the Barossa, but that’s got modern stuff and blue agave near it, so the smell’s not pure like Salem.  If you need a modern wine allegory, go for a good dry port with crushed ants predominating. The palate is rock solid and impenetrable, with maybe a lick of aniseed ball.  That’ll do the flavour, other than to say it’s typical north-western Barossa with a dash of Clare and a little Magill Estate, which is real Grange.  Nobody’ll understand the rest of it.  The texture is like licking that tombstone, when it’s cooling after sundown.  The finish never seems to arrive.  I wouldn’t even think of pulling the cork out of one of these for fifteen years, and then it’d need six hours in the jug.  If it had a screwcap, it’d rise, ever so slowly, to be forever with Him in Glory. While it quite sensibly lacks the extreme volatile acetic acidity that some old ones had, this is the Grangiest Grange in many many years.  So forget it, right?  You won’t live long enough.  24 hours later, some faint insinuations of berries are beginning to emerge, suggesting it is a wine, after all.  But it’s more shiny raven than Crowe.  Unbelievable, distinctive, hyper-Oz: Grange.  There is no other wine like it.

Coming soon: reviews of the Cabernets


Kim Brebach ‏@briardpuppy said...

Thank you for your sanity, Philip, on a day when other wine sribes sound like Penfold PR flaks

Charles Leo said...

It was good to read the above info regarding drinks.

Sanjay said...

"At least whoever they are or were have thoughtfully supplied a faint phone number the consumer may call for further information. I am tempted to ring to enquire about these issues .." - I'm both glad and disappointed I no longer answer that 1300 number on the back of Southcorp bottles. Your call would no doubt have been one of the most difficult and entertaining! (mainly the latter)

Finally it seems as though St Henri is truly getting the accolades it deserves. Won't ever again be the equal in price as Grange but maybe the critics' and drinkers' favourite.


Kim Brebach said...

Just a footnote on the St Henri - good to see how much you liked it, Philip. The best Penfolds red I ever had (and I've had my share of good ones) was a 1986 St Henri, 2-3 years ago. More elegant than the recent ones, mind you, which is my preference.

Anonymous said...

Did you ever manage to post a review of the Cabernets?