“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)





24 October 2015


All these photographs were taken by the author at Penfolds Magill Estate

Penfolds plunges into the future:
a powerful array of brilliance
amongst their newest luxuries

Many small winemakers, even largish rivals, dread the leviathan Treasury Wine Estates with a profound paranoia.

As I've gradually added reviews to this story over the week, some such littlies, whatever their provenance, are already complaining that I pay too much attention to Penfolds, the pointy, profitable end of the Treasury fleet. Some think I'm in its pocket, even on its payroll, both of which are plain fiction and would be insulting if not so plainly stupid.

I watch Penfolds, and review their best, because this company more than any other opens the sort of super-premium doors that all smart quality winemakers in Australia should be delighted to enter.

Having spent eighteen months pondering, remembering and writing A year in the life of Grange, a multi award-winning book about the 2012 vintage published and photographed by Milton Wordley, I feel I have a better grasp of the workings of this great outfit than many.

Wine Australia's Export Report September 2015 shows the strongest rate of growth since the peak of October 2007. While the bottom end of the wine business is pretty much cactus, the top end, as occupied significantly by Penfolds, is booming like never before.

Export wines in the A$20-$50 segment increased 13 per cent to A$88 million; wine above A$50/litre rose 54 per cent to a record A$133 million - that's only 0.2 per cent of total exports by volume, but 7 per cent of total value.

Here lies profit.

More than any previous release of the Penfolds premiums, this year's shows the precise planning  intelligence and gastronomic smarts that makes all this money.

Chief winemaker Peter Gago, and his team, have faced a tricky arsenal of problems in recent years. Like how does a brand like Grange evolve to fit a modern marketplace without such overt changes of style as to drive habitual buyers away, along with the very nature of the wine's provenance and remarkable history?

How does one continue to produce wines with dominant, unfashionable American oak without looking really old and dorky?

Continual, subtle fine-tuning does it, and considerable daring in developing and launching new luxury products to fill the gaps left as old rusted-on customers go broke or die.

Which is not to decry old styles smartarses like me might consider de trop. Just as many of the Australian newcomers to Penfolds gradually moved up through its range, making possible wines like these, markets the size of China have just commenced that same gradual stroll up to Base Camp 1. 

Relentless pursuit of the very best fruit, wherever it lies, is the key. Having the cool and consideration to understand hundreds of premium vineyards across all our vignobles and knowing when to pick them and which product they're intended for is essential.

Getting all those tonnes to the winery in top nick on time is another logistical mess that many winemakers seem incapable of handling. 

Getting all those wines made to style without compromise or error or silly marketing interference, no matter how well-intentioned, is another confounding knot to unravel.

Having the political nous, patience and determination to drive all this through changes of ownership and fashions of corporate philosophy - like mindless budget cutting - takes a rare calm hand at the helm.

Those numbers above, and the reviews below, show that Gago and his crew deserve only praise for their passion and persistence. No other company on Earth can stack on an array of products like this.

I have avoided dissing wines whose traditional templates clash with my personal wine philosophy. Like I know there are many who love the sappy woodiness traditionally essential to extravagances like Bin 707,  but I prefer to avoid trying to explain why I'd give it 75 on my prejudiced point scale, while agreeing that as far as the wine's commitment to style and recipe goes, it should probably score 95+++.

I haven't got the time. But I've made the time to here recommend my most favoured wines of the release: a set of mighty things in any keen ethanologist's language.

I'm sure that if you're a tiny or modest-scale winemaker it's probably okay to hate the politics and envy the power and weight of Treasury a little bit, but there's no point in dying of hatred.

And it's just plain dumb to hate Penfolds so much that you can't learn from their astonishing, driven success.

Get your plastic and your main squeeze up to their brilliant new restaurant/bistro tasting area and cellar sales at the old Grange at Magill, have a leisurely taste of your own, then see if you still hate me for passing the advice. 

Penfolds Bin 51 Eden Valley Riesling 2015 
$30; 11.5% alcohol; screw cap; 92+++ points 

It's a cruel way of offering the novice explorer of the world of Penfolds an introduction like this at $30: while a ravishing beauty to sniff, in the mouth department, the wine is typical High Barossa stone: as austere and tight-lipped and close-knit as some of those old households in the ranges.

But the bouquet is indeed just that: a bouquet: a bunch of flowers. It's thick with the aromas of fleshy white petals like the magnolia and jasmine, with some delicate lime blossom and the pith of its fruit. If you could make a luxury bathroom cosmetic that smelled like this I imagine you'd be very successful.

At first gulp, in bright contrast, you're all a-pucker. It's like licking the slaty doorstep or the walls of a Lutheran church: stony of texture and steely of resolve. It is classic high country Riesling, guaranteed to live for many years beneath its reassuring closure. That's all abruptly obvious.

Then as the flavour receptors acclimatise, shards of acidic fruits begin to emerge: tight lemon and hints of gooseberry; even oxalis. It's a severe rinse that turns the salivaries all a-gush, and had my lot dribbling for fat chicken stewed in Kiwi Savvy-B with white onions, heaps of garlic and lots of fresh tarragon.

Otherwise, like most of Penfolds very best, it's for the cellar. Look again in six years. 

Here's another review of the same wine from 13 August: 

You know those big plush petals of the magnolia flower? That's the first thing this lovely drink brought to mind. Texturally confident, and creamy to sniff. There's lime blossom and lime pith too, of course, as you'd expect of Eden Riesling.  But this is not as austere, stony and steely as many of those high country austerities. This is almost fragile. It's a total delusion, but the wine has so much of that naive and simple cleavage flesh that you forget to look at the amazing business going on in the engine room.

Which you encounter in the mouth division. Clunk. You hit the real old rocks here. The wine seems a bit short at first. Abrupt. But you give it six or seven hours and the damn thing starts to begin to think about showing its cards. It literally crawls out from beneath its rock, like something serpentine or lizardish after hibernation: real slow and drowsy but very very deliberate and hungry. Blue tongue flicking.

I've been taking flak lately for recommending so many wines that I suggest need some cellaring. I dunno how to deal with this: my stance must seem effete, unreasonable and unattainable. But c'mon cobber, that's the heart of this business. Would you prefer to drink the 1971 Grange or the 2011?

This wine will kick total arse like unforgettable in what? Another generation? A decade? A forgetfulness? (93+++ points) 

Penfolds Bin 311 Tumbarumba Chardonnay 2014
$40; 12.5% alcohol; screw cap; 94+ points 

The Immediate Gastronomic Delight Graph makes a perfect meeting with the Spend Curve in this bonnie Rumba. I think it's the best value adventure in the whole dazzling release.

While it has the classic butterscotch and cinder toffee wave, with grilled cashews and citrus rind, and some white kassler or goose fat, in its style it's still more along the lines of ripe Chablis than full-blown Burgundy.

It's very very fine and poised and tickled my hooter with a brisk maritime/dunal grasses edge.

It exercises the mouth just enough to make the lips smack: the cool region natural acid is just right.

Try it as a between-meals drink, elevenses or fourish. Sit and ponder and marvel with crumbly apple struesel from a good German baker. 

Penfolds Yattarna Bin 144 Chardonnay 2013 
$150; 12.5% alcohol; screw cap; 95+ points 

"Royal, polished, reserved, genteel," the notes go. "Waxy. Some pith, some burlap, sabayon, juniper ... " at which point the electricity failed in the brilliant new restaurant and tasting rooms at Penfolds Magill. I swear the stripes on the table moved. But a sudden blackout's always a good measure of a clientele, and I swear there were many more ooohs and aaahs than panicky shrieks from the restaurant full of mums of all ages breaking fast with Yattarna and/or Grange by the glass and some polite poussin on the other side of the partition.

"The power just went off," my scrawl continues, "and I lost my electric spittoons."

This collision of sensory overload with the unexpected deprivation and the thrill of the risk reminded me of dinner at the Bue Bellbird in Healesville in November 1982. We'd located a bottle of Darren Kelly's best vintage of his Kellybrook Yarra Valley methode champenoise Kingston black apple cider - was it '76? - and had just watched it poured and clinked coupes when the lights began to swing on their lines and the floor rocked like a four-tonne sommelier had just rumbled past and the power went off with the first anxious mouthful.

The Wonnongatta faultline over the range had slipped, sending 5.4 Richters of shock and panic through the Victorian Alps. That cider didn't last long in the dark.

Anyway it was by no means dark when the power went off on the Grange range, although the post-post modern jailhouse shadows swerved and twisted like serpents, I guarantee.

This grand Chardonnay makes me want to simply sit and ponder. I can't claim to have Richter-tested it, but it sure stayed smug and ungiving through a power failure and it was very cool to have an excuse to commit the act of swallowing when the rinsers went off in the electric spitters.

Typically Yattarna takes its time to exhale much of its royal miasma ... it was a good half hour before this one began edging its way out of the glass, and then it was with a "so whatter you lookin at, punk?" disdain. Answer: cool bottle and decant. Not to put too much in the way of gender specifics on the matter in hand, but you best defeat Her Majesty by releasing her.

This is not a white Grange. You can't make any sort of Grange from Chardonnay. But it sure is one king-hell Hell-queen mutha of a Chardonnay, layered with so many levels of indulgent gastronomic wickedness that it takes the form of a record-breaking trifle, composed say of brioche soaked in Krug as much as spongecake soused in Max Schubert's legendary soup sherry, with a compote of drunken peaches and passe-crassanne in kirsch with sabayon and crème caramel and crunchy almond biscotti crumbled over the top. Dammit, you might just as well set fire to it with Louis XIII Cognac to finish the presentation with the regal dignity and force due a wine of this stature.

Otherwise, wait five years and repeat. 

Penfolds Bin 2 Shiraz Mataro 2013 
$30; 14.5% alcohol; screw cap; 94++ points 

Bacchus only knows what I would have/could have pointed this wine on the blind anywhere else than in the Penfolds red den, but I loved it for being such a true-to-form, traditional, composed and dignified Penfolds Bin 2. There's no coconut from raw Quercus alba, but more of your shellack and Marveer - even a whiff of warm Stradivarius. Nah, nah, not the fiddle. The viola. 

Fruit? More like pork ribs in cherry cola and curry tree sauce. I'd just commenced writing of how Max would approve and how good that old-fashioned chocolate custard aftertaste was when the electricity switched back on, with the spittoons. Then the windows silently grew bigger as some mysterious hidden solenoid decided I needed a touch more contrast on the table. I felt like Saul turning into Paul on the Damascus track. Epiphany. Terrible magic; lovely wine. 

But I'm gonna blame that music on the blackout. There must have been a mistake. Get Gago to choose all of it. 

Penfolds Bin 128 Coonawarra Shiraz 2013 
[reviewed August 15]
$40; 14.5% alcohol; screw cap; 93+ points 

I don't reckon I've ever mentioned the word sexy in a Penfolds review, so get that straight out of your mind. When this first came forth, it seemed another of those Penfolds Coonawarras that are nothing like much else out of that big red cigar apart from maybe Zema. Which made me think it was a matter of venerable vine age, but it's not that simple.

I'm trying to be, how you say, transparent.

The Weather Undergound vigilants of deep Penfolds get stuff out of Coonawarra which is somehow pure Penfolds. Not Wynns, not Blass, not anything alse. Not every year or anything like that, but regularly. With the vagaries of the vintages, this stuff comes and goes and goes up and down like the tides. But here you have a classic Penfolds Coonawarra Shiraz.


It's in the great framework of traditional Australian claret, smooth and dignified and elegant with just the right see-saw of yin-yang baby fruit and future.


I need urgently to sit with Peter Gago, David Wynn and Max Schubert to drink this and watch 'em  skite. A spoon of ripe Stilton would be the go. You got a special corner somewhere in there Pete?

new review after fresh tasting:

It's become a habit, me dreaming of drinking Peter Gago's wine with him and other hero mentors long gone. I hope it's not droll. This is never to overlook the amazing work that Peter does, leading the Penfolds team into the now by rethinking and perfecting the past, with deep respect and care.

He sometimes gets excited, but believe me, Gago has the deepest cool. 

Steering Penfolds must often be like driving a supertanker. It ain't no Ducati.

This is a good example of Penfolds somehow getting something from Coonawarra that no other maker seems to get, except maybe occasionally Zema. This wine's more Penfolds than Coonawarra, but it sure is Penfolds Coonawarra.

After the gently acrid whiff of dry chalk and cigar box lies a smooth, dignified, elegant syrup, Bible-black and increasingly profound as its tannins build to the tight dry finish we used to expect of what we were still allowed to call claret before the Frogs went nuts and said it was their name. Which it may have been when it was still clairette, meaning pale rosey wine from Bordeaux. But once the cockney wharfies and the Brit trade bastardised that to claret, meaning good elegant intense dry red, I reckon you'd be hard-pressed to call it a French word.

Just sayin'. I get cheesed off by stuff like this. You can't control language.

This is a lovely wine to drink now. It absolutely kills the Bin 28, which comes from everywhere other than Kalimna. In which instance I reckon David Wynn would enjoy rejoining the crusty spooks' circle (93). 

Penfolds Bin 150 Marananga Shiraz 2013 
$80; 14.4% alcohol; screw cap; 93++ points 

Whoever owned Penfolds at the time obviously thought little about selling their amazing Seppeltsfield vineyards when they flogged that bit of their empire to Warren Randall. Now we see them moving back next door to reclaim their slice of the Seppeltsfield/Marananga/Greenock Creek action.

How? By continually honing very fine wines like this.

Unlike the rest of Barossa Valley floor, which is young alluvium (< 5 million years) the old rocks between Stonewell and Greenock, a stretch which includes Seppeltsfield and Marananga, are from the neoproterozoic Tapley's Hill Formation, Yudnamutana subgroup and the Upper Burra group, all deposited between 700-800 million years back.

These rocks often give red wines a distinctive panforte di Siena character, that complex fruit and nut chocolate cake with all its honey, dried figs, candied citrus peel and the telling spices: cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, coriander, ginger and pepper.

Classic A. P. John oak - it's matured in 500 litre puncheons, young and old, American and French - has made this as much a Penfolds product as a Marananga one - it reminds me of the reds Penfolds boss Don Ditter was making in the early 'eighties, but with more subtle wood than he could afford.

So what have a we got? A chocolate panforte you can drink, with the appropriate dusting of confectioner's sugar.

Which means it's true to the sub-regional style. Whether the marketing division buggers this famous Marananga name by stretching the brand to include fruit from everywhere - as they stupidly did with the now dreadful Kalimna Shiraz - remains to be seen. 

Penfolds Bin 389 Cabernet Shiraz 2013 
$80; 14.5% alcohol; screw cap; 93+ points

Straight down the middle Penfolds here, again reminding me of the best of the 'eighties 389s, but without so much volatile acidity and sappy American oak.

It's slick, juicy, traditional Australian dry red, disarming and dead honest. In one sense, I felt it was more of a Cabernet than the Bin 407. But thinking about it, the Cabernet influence once again is more Penfolds than your actual Cabernet: its presence is best betrayed by an alluring waft of sun-dried tomato amongst all those chocolatey fruits, spices and balsamic.

While it's a delightful drink right now, it's not about to disappoint any of the cellar fanatics: it'll probably go twenty years. 

But what about the popular fiction about it being the "poor man's Grange?" Some of its wood may have been in contact with Grange, sure, but this is nothing like Grange.

Penfolds St Henri Shiraz 2012 
$100; 14.5% alcohol; screw cap; 95+++ points 

One of the true stars of the release, this is right back on Max's track. Or Birdie's, or whoever else amongst the stalwart cellar crew drove such things through changes of winemaker, however rare that's been. Which is the track of John Davouren and Edmund Mazure before him: winemakers who determinedly invented and developed this soulful old style of red, with 13 months in big 50-plus year-old oak vats instead of sappy, expensive, small-format modern.

The stern reds of 2012 can be so taut and withdrawing that many of the better ones are droll in their youth. Here, the old-style winemaking has softened and opened the heart of the year, putting it on a plate as much as a tasting glass: it's soft and genteel and warming and always perfectly polite.

I think that in recent years the inclusion of larger parcels of Robe fruit had focused St Henri in a leaner, less soulful and hearty way than in this determined return to style: this model shows more of the reassuring warmth and generosity - even calm sensuality - of the Barossa and McLaren Vale base wines.

As history has shown, a St Henri made as well and carefully as this will live for extreme periods in the right cellar: Peter Gago says 2045 is not an unrealistic opening date for this vintage.

Him and the crew all deserve to be very proud of this wine.

A proper decanting sees it react beautifully to oxygen even in this its extreme youth: it's already disarmingly luxurious and soothing. It'd do wicked stuff to a dribbling aged pepper steak with mashed potato and parsnip and a stack of beefy field mushrooms. 

Penfolds RWT Barossa Valley Shiraz 2013
$175; 14.5% alcohol; screw cap; 94+++ points

The best: the sweetest, smoothest, most seductive Barossa Shiraz in beautiful new and seasoned one-year-old French hogsheads? Makes sense to me.

If they hadn't thought of it before, the French who outlawed our respectful use of the word 'hermitage' would have every reason to do it now with wine like this: this French oak puts it much closer to the best of that grand French appellation on the Rhône than the Granges once called Hermitage ever got. No need for cheap American oak in France.

But then, I've never smelled a Hermitage that reminded me of old Martin guitars, which is what the oak's done here. Otherwise, it smells of your entire fruitshop, with some fig hinting at Marananga.

Its staunch, dry, savoury finish is just one indicator of its outstanding promise in the cellar. In this case, patience will certainly pay.
Penfolds Bin 169 Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 
$350; 14.5% alcohol; screw cap; 95++ points 

This is the Coonawarra French oak partner to the RWT Barossa Shiraz. Together, these two make the alternative American oak Bin 707 and to lesser extent Magill Estate, which has some overt new French as well, look really Spalvins in style.

For those who came in late, Janis Gunnars Spalvins ruled Penfolds through his Adelaide Steamship Company until the whole thing went arse-up in 1991 when the recievers moved in and he moved along.

Spalvins just loved American oak.  I doubt that a wine of this royal distinction would have survived in his time. I was startled to hear him reappear in the public fora last week to tell everybody that Treasury is over-valued.

It is classical, regal, sublime Coonawarra Cabernet, ripe enough to have disposed of any of the angular leafy methoxypyrazine acridity which so easily mars unripe over-cropped high-foliage Cabernet in Coonawarra.  This is smooth, sensual, slightly syrupy claret that in the recent Cabernet stakes is beaten only by The Max 2012. 

Penfolds The Max Schubert Barossa Coonawarra Cabernet Shiraz 2012 
[tasted 13 August] 
$450; 14% alcohol; screw cap; 95+++ points 

I can imagine a health farm somewhere in the mango/paw-paw tropics where you wash this on your face every morning and go and stand naked in the rain

This wine somehow rises above drink. I reckon you can inhale something this silky, luxurious and smooth through your pores.

It'd go straight into your genes.

More along the Bin 60A lines than Grange, it's a perfume. Barossa provides the well-dressed saddle, plush and soft; Coonawarra perfume rides the horse. Confectioner's sugar; musk; jellied mint; crystallised violets. Persian pashmak: the original floss candy.


All this insinuates itself onto your tongue where it does a totally disarming Medlar Gel sort of a seduction and you end up sitting there like a dumbstruck zombie, wondering what could possibly happen next.

I don't mean to sound ambiguous.

What happens next is the damn thing does its long dryout tease with those perfect tannins and still leaves a marshmallow waft of blackcurrant/blueberry/red currant/aniseed ring magic sitting in the middle of your head.

Not to mention the perfumed fields of Provence. 

Bliss out, baby.

Watch everybody come over all quiet.

It will become a very famous and much more expensive wine than this.

Trust Unca Phil.
Penfolds Grange 2011 
$785; 14.5% alcohol; cork; 93++ points 

2011 was the trickiest year: rains at vintage saw much beautiful fruit fall to botrytis, much after the thunderstorm style more common in, dare I say, Bordeaux, and to lesser degree, the Rhône.

So Gago and his team faced a difficult problem: sourcing fruit for a wine of such lofty provenance would have been beyond winemakers without that amazing library of great vineyards to which Penfolds has earned access.

Most of this fruit came from the old rocks and bits of calcrete in the red loams of the north western Barossa: the eastern slopes of the Nain Hills of Greenock.

As Gago puts it with typical candour: "such tough conditions required tough decisions in the vineyard, at the fermenter, in barrel, on the bench ... at half its average total volume it's a real Grange in the 1974 and 1983 style ... we had nowhere to hide ... is it one of the best Granges ever? No. Is it one of the finest reds from the South Australian 2011 vintage? Yes ... but it's not trying too hard to be something it isn't."

It's nowhere near as complex and confounding as, say, the 2012 is certain to be.

The wine is very well formed and less angular than most baby Granges: the winemakers have worked wonders getting that traditional new American oak to withdraw to the point where it's barely discernable amongst that much softer-than-usual fruit syrup.

In which sense it's more of a St Henri in style. After half an hour in the decanter, sensual flesh and saucy, cheeky aromatics begin to emerge - soft licorice and sarsaparilla roots for starters - but the whole thing stays in balance, slightly sullen and reluctant, but supple and right up the comforting line that Max called "Motherly."

I'd be giving this one a nudge in about five years, but it's not about to fall over. Ten or twenty more is well within its calm, quiet reach.

Jerard Jaboulet once sent me to his favourite country restaurant, somewhere on the humid flats of the Rhône delta, where its alluvium spreads at the end of its gorge. He insisted I drink his legendary 1978 La Chappelle with his recommended dish. A large flat white plate emerged, bearing a thin layer of green lentils cooked in pork stock with little lumps of belly flesh and softened skin, slices of carrot and fresh truffles. A grind of black pepper set it dancing.

I ate it with a spoon.

This Grange would fill that role with gentle antipodean authority. Hey Peter, where's Gerard and Max when we need them for lunch? Ray? 

Imagine that.

There, I did it again.

these prices are from the Penfolds cellar door


SNOWDEN said...

nice snaps whitey
you getting paid?

Philip White said...