Say what you like, Penfolds knows how to do things in style… just as you’d expect from Australia’s most famous winery. Even from the country’s leading wine writers (of which I’m not one), there’s a sense of excitement when the invite to taste the latest releases arrives. This is the wine equivalent of Versace’s latest fashion releases, or the new Smartphone in the Apple store. It’s showtime. And it’s not just Grange, Australia’s most famous red, either… there are a whole list of top-shelf offerings: their top cabernet, the Bin 707 at a none-too-shy $350 a bottle, the RWT shiraz at $175, Yattarna chardonnay at $150, Magill Estate shiraz at $130, and so on. All up, twelve new releases for tasting – half of which crack the $100 mark (some easily, as you can see), another at $95, and three more at $80. You’re talking the big boys here.
For the record, normally a winery will send a bottle of each of their wines to wine writers and retailers around the country for tasting and evaluating, along with the winemaker’s tasting notes and technical information on how it was made. But in recent years Penfolds has shunned this, preferring to get the wine writers together for a lavish tasting. First, there’s the initial email to see if you’re interested in going to Melbourne – at their expense – to try the new range. Then comes the official invite in the post, followed by flight details (tailored to suit you best), confirmation that there will be a limousine at the airport to take you to the hotel , the luxurious Crown Towers no less, where you will stay overnight. In my case, coming from Newcastle, there was also the additional flight from Newcastle to Sydney – no problem. So, I’m in Melbourne, in a mini bus along with a handful of other wine writers from around Australia and New Zealand, going from Crown Towers to the Luminare function centre in South Melbourne for the tasting. The room is set up with individual tables, about 30 in all. On the white linen tables are 16 Riedel wine glasses , each with an identity tag listing the wine and vintage so you won’t get confused. About half the glasses are full, the others to be poured as you taste. There’s also a stainless steel spittoon (spit bucket) as swallowing these tasty treats isn’t really the point, a plate with cheese, olives and crackers, a pen and three books. The first book is the high quality Rewards of Patience book, a superb hardback written by Master of Wine Andrew Caillard about Penfolds’ history, vineyards and wines with extensive tasting notes. Next is a glossy magazine with full-page pictures and all the technical data on each of the wines we are about to taste, and another on Penfolds Tawny Collection (ports). After a quick word of introduction, during which time waiters are coming around offering us a choice of still or sparkling water, we are informed that Penfolds’ top three winemakers, including head man Peter Gago, are in the room and free for a chat or question at any time.
Formalities over, it’s time to taste. For me, the first thing to do is arrange the table. That means get the spittoon close. Several others are like me. While the top guys keep the spittoon on the floor and spit their wine with tracer-bullet speed and unerring accuracy, not me. If I tried that my table would resemble the aftermath of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre – a red, ankle-deep , liquid mess. No, to borrow from Clint Eastwood, a man’s gotta know his limitations. Off we go. Sniff, swirl, spit, reflect, jot down a few tasting notes, starting with the Bin 51 Eden Valley riesling. Then the Reserve Bin A Adelaide Hills chardonnay, then the final white, the flagship Yattarna chardonnay. Next up, the reds. As a special treat, we’re told, there will not just be the new release Grange – the 2010 – for tasting, but the previous two vintages to compare it with, the 2008 and 2009. I’d not met Peter Gago, the head winemaker before, so about a half hour into the tasting he quietly sidled up to my table, kneeled beside me and introduced himself - a nice touch. We’re a few hours into it by now, at a stage where you take a break for a minute or two and drink some water, try a cracker to cleanse the palate. At about this time two other wines were added to the tasting, a cellar reserve durif and cellar reserve cabernet. But we’re not finished. No sir. The flagship reds come last. The quality, even for a punter’s palate like mine, can’t be denied. The 2010 Grange, the 2012 Bin 707 cabernet, and RWT shiraz are stunning quality – wines that will sit alongside Australia’s very finest. The Magill Estate is not far behind. And in the whites, the 2012 Yattarna is a stand-out, maybe the best yet. For me, it wasn’t all roses though. I’m at odds with a few of the other wine writers I discover in informal chats afterwards over the 2011 St Henri. I found it too leathery for such a youngster, although other more knowledgeable palates than mine liked the individuality it offered. Horses for courses, I guess. Finally a couple of tawny ports. Both dazzling, but the second, the 50 Year Old Rare Tawny is just that – very rare, with only 330 bottles available. The entire US allocation? Just six bottes at $3500 each. The verdict? The last word of my tasting notes will suffice. Wow! After all that it was out to the balcony with its stunning views of Melbourne’s skyline for cold beers or a 1996 vintage Salon Champagne. A stunning day. Like I say, when Penfolds do something, they do it in style.
2010 GRANGE: At $785 it would want to be good. It’s better than that. Will be one of the outstanding Grange vintages and sure to be in huge demand. Immensely powerful, but beautifully behaved. 2012 Bin 707 cabernet ($350): A ripper. One experienced wine writer predicted it will sit alongside the finest cabernets Australia has ever produced. I loved it from first sip and was knocked over by the quality. 2012 RWT shiraz ($175): Behind Grange in the shiraz pecking order, but an outstanding Barossa wine. Powerful, dark chocolate and soy flavours. 2012 Yattarna Chardonnay ($150): One of the best Yattarnas so far, no doubt. Everyone loved it. Was a clear notch above the Reserve Bin A Adelaide Hills chardonnay ($100), which was no mug either. Tight, citrus flavours with toasty almonds.
For me, the next rung down were the Bin 389 2012 ($80) and the Magill Estate Shiraz 2012 ($130). Both good wines in their own right