10th Aug 2023
10th Aug 2023
Tasting the new Penfolds Collection Releases with Peter Gago is increasingly a global affair. This year, 14 of the 38 wines I tasted were from beyond Australia, keeping Gago on his globe-trotting toes. I caught up with him in Napa on the final leg of his round-the-world tour. He had just come from China, where the punitive duty on Australian wines still has a stranglehold on exports to there. Gago added to our Collection tasting a bottle of the first release of Penfolds’ new Chinese wine. When life gives you sour grapes, turn ’em into wine, right?
We kicked off the round-the-world Collection tasting with some bubbles—Thienot X Penfolds’ latest Champagne Releases.
“This project has been going a few years,” said Gago. “Thienot was originally our importer in France. As you may know, I started off as a sparkling winemaker, fresh out of Roseworthy College.”
These are skillfully made Champagnes of a delicate, pure-fruited style, delivering subtlety and finesse with stylish labels.
As for the reds, the caliber of the 2021 vintage and the recent improvements in viticulture in Coonawarra is evident in these new Bin 169, 389, 407, and 707 releases.
“2021 and 2022 were very good years for Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon,” agreed Gago. “It’s debatable which is the better year. Wait ’til you taste the 2022s next year!”
2019 and 2020 were a little more challenging for South Australia, given the drought conditions punctuated by waves of extreme heat, which had the vines stopping and starting. This said, I loved the gregarious style of the 2019 St. Henri, reviewed last year. The 2020 St. Henri released this year is more subdued, broody, and a little less “wow.”
As for the 2019 Grange, well, the spectacular 2018 was always going to be a tough act to follow.
“2019 was pretty good in Australia,” Peter Gago commented. “Yes, there were a lot of heat spikes, but not so bad. We’re pretty pleased with this Grange.”
What I taste in this 2019 Grange are grapes that did not achieve the full spectrum of flavor ripeness that they do in an extraordinary South Australian vintage. This 2019 is very good but doesn’t have the depth of the 2018. However, it shows impressive restraint in that classic, austere, young-Grange fashion. It has its usual rock-solid backbone of super-firm, uniform tannins and refreshing acidity—a structure designed to stand the test of time. The 2019 Grange will still age very well, like the 1999 and 1989 I tasted beside it, emerging from its cocoon in 20+ years to offer that exotic spice, cigar box, and minerals galore experience that fans have come to expect. With sufficient bottle age, the 2019 Grange will not disappoint. On the other hand, the 2018 Grange will make you feel the earth move.
It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of Australian Chardonnay. If you’re a Chardonnay lover who’s fed up with white Burgundy prices/variability, Australia is a great place to shop and this year’s Penfolds Collection offers three icon ($100+) options plus one absolute bargain: the Bin 311 Chardonnay (around $40). In recent years, the “white Grange” flagship, Yattarna, has successfully swapped over to a tight-knit, crisp, intense, lighter-bodied style that is built for aging. This label is increasingly sourced from seriously cool climate areas, with the backbone of the 2021 being from Tasmania. Meanwhile, the Bin22A Chardonnay has also morphed from a more up-front style to being a Yattarna sibling, albeit from a sunnier climate (Adelaide Hills) and with a spicy kick from a little more new oak. But the killer bargain here is the 2021 and 2022 Bin 311 Chardonnay.
Finally, we come to Penfolds’ first wine made in China: the 2021 CWT Bin 521. CWT stands for Chinese Winemaking Trial, and the 5-2-1 refers to the five regions included in the blend and the ’21 vintage. (I also spotted that the numbers add up to 8. Coincidental?) The composition is 82% Cabernet Sauvignon from four areas of the Shangri-La region in the Yunnan province and 18% Marselan (a Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache cross) from Ningxia. The bulk of production will likely be sold within China, but Gago sees opportunities to export, no doubt raising global awareness of China’s potential to produce quality wine. Until a few years ago, China was the number one importer of Australian wines. Penfolds CWT Bin 521 could be just the diplomatic ticket to easing the anti-dumping duties that brought Australian wine exports to their knees from 2020 onwards.
I also had the opportunity to taste the two Superblends and the ultra-rare g5 blend, which were released a couple of years ago.
“These 2018 Superblends are composed of wines that were of Grange or Bin 707 quality level but just didn’t fit into those styles,” said Gago. “We didn’t feel it was right to give them bin numbers. We won’t make them every vintage, just in the special years. There will probably be only two to three Superblends in a decade.”
Penfolds g5 is a blend of five Grange vintages: 2018, 2016, 2014, 2012, and 2010. The percentages are part of the secret formula, although every vintage represents at least 10% of the blend. The 2018 was still in barrel when this g5 was made, but the other vintages were in bottle and therefore were very carefully opened and added to barrels with as little oxygen exposure as possible. The g5 blend was then aged in used Grange barrels for a year before bottling. Like the g3 blend of three Grange vintages, which I tasted a few years ago, the concept takes ethos-bending, but the result is pure, hedonic genius. This g5 will need a good ten years in bottle for everything to galvanize, but I already love how all these vintages are interlocked. Each of the 2200 bottles made has been numbered. The release price was $2500 per bottle, with only 36 bottles imported to the US for distribution.
Article & Reviews by Lisa Perrotti-Brown MW
Photography by Johan Berglund
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