A group of wine writers gathered at Bella Restaurant in Auckland's Ponsonby Road to taste the latest releases of the world's greatest red wine producer, Penfolds, and to meet Don Ditter, the retired Penfolds Chief winemaker who was the successor to Max Schubert and the predecessor to current incumbent, John Duval.
It was interesting chatting to Mr Ditter prior to the tasting. He started with Penfolds in 1942 and was an ally to the great Schubert in the Grange experiment years and a great admirer of the master. He had spent some time in New Zealand in 1963, when Penfolds bought property in Henderson, and again a few years later on a promotional trip. This was his first trip for many, many years and he had come out of retirement to introduce the wines as our usual host, Peter Gago, was in the midst of vintage in South Australia.
We were presented with 16 wines in the formal presentation of this pre-release tasting which included some whites, the 1998 Bin reds plus the premium wines. For once we were treated to wines at the lower end of the price range. Here are my impressions on the day. Prices listed are approximate retail only and consumers will be advised to check the newspapers and other advertising media for the best prices once the wines are officially released (1 April in NZ), as wines are likely to be discounted heavily if the price wars of previous years are anything to go by.
We started with the Chardonnay - four to taste .
2000 Penfolds Rawson's Retreat Chardonnay.
Shy, peach-influenced aromas. A simple, citrus-flavoured wine, oily in texture and a fruity finish with lemony acid and apple and a little honeyed melon. This lightly oaked wine offers good value at the entry level end to the Penfolds white varieties. 13.5% alcohol by volume (abv). NZ$9.95.
2000 Penfolds Koonunga Hill Chardonnay.
With its light toasty, bready flavours, the Koonunga Hill is a little oakier than the Rawson's Retreat above, although ever so subtle and not at all overpowering. Stone and pip fruits and a hint of butterscotch make this a pleasurable drink for light dishes. I enjoyed the wine with its light creamy texture and clean palate and I'll be looking forward to recommending this to my readers in the Rodney Times who are looking for a good value chardonnay in the under-$15 price range. I think it is a winner. 12.0% abv. NZ$12.95 - 14.95.
1999 Penfolds The Valleys Chardonnay.
Grapes are sourced from the Clare and Eden Valleys for this rich, bready wine with lemon and spicy oak. Good fruit carries through in the palate. Some classy winemaking techniques show in this wine with pears, figs, nuts and subtle butter flavours. It is creamy and smooth with a lively finish and juicy fruits. It is a wine that can withstand quite rich foods as later we were served this wine with a Five Spice Duck Terrine, wrapped in banana crepe with a Cucumber and soybean pickle and white bean aioli. 13.5% abv. NZ$17.95.
1998 Penfolds Yattarna Chardonnay is what we were meant to taste, but the NZ Customs Department were having a good look, we were told, so while the cases of Yattarna 98 sat on the Auckland wharves, we tried the 1997 of the last years release. I noted in the release notes of the 98, however, they'd done away with the 'A' on the label, as in 95A of the initial release. It will retails for about NZ$110.
The 1997 Penfolds Yattarna Chardonnay was showing deep gold hues. Barrel ferment complexities on the nose with subtle smoke and yeast. A mellowing toasty, buttery wine showing its age already - quite appley, a little oxidised? Nuts, figs and heaps of barrel ferment complexities. Spicy lemon flavours linger in the palate along with hot buttered light toast, custard berry, poached nectarines and cinnamon pears. A good wine but I do not think it is worth the price. Do not kill the wine with a dish like the Five Spice Duck Terrine, above, as when taken with this food it was impossible to tell the Valleys and the Yattarna Chardonnays apart in the mouth..
13.5% abv. About NZ$100. Limited quantities of this wine might still be available in fine wine retailers.
The following wine was tasted on its own.
1997 Penfolds Clare Valley Reserve Aged Riesling.
Straw yellow coloured with dry lemon/lime and floral aromas. Intense in the palate with full-bodied, pure Riesling flavours. Flowers, tropical fruits and citrus spice play on the soft, limey backbone. There is a lovely development in this well-balanced wine where talc mineral and honey emerge and linger along with juicy sweet mandarin and tangelo fruits on the long finish. I think it is just delicious. 12.9% abv. and about 7.5 grams residual sugar. NZ$30.
Next we started with the reds and tried the two entry level wines.
2000 Penfolds Rawson's Retreat Shiraz-Ruby Cabernet - Cabernet Sauvignon.
Shiraz (56%), Ruby Cabernet (15%), Cabernet Sauvignon (29%) - a multi-regional blend.
Berry aromas with a hint of meaty smokiness. Hard tannins make the teeth furry. Simple berry fruit flavours in the palate that have a richer berry and plum flavour lingering once the wine has gone, but a wine that would be better enjoyed with food to cut through that furriness. Penfolds recommend pasta, pizza and red meat dishes.
13.0% abv. NZ$9.95.
1999 Penfolds Koonunga Hill Shiraz Cabernet Sauvignon.
Shiraz (74%) Cabernet Sauvignon (26%), a multi-regional South Australian blend.
Reasonably appealing aroma of ripe savoury (licorice) fruit. Soft, round flavours at first but an over powering tar and olive note brings a sour flavour to the finish. A big red that is well flavoured. The sourness is overtaken by savouring lingering plum-like fruit. 13.5% abv. NZ$12.95 - 14.95.
Now the two wine that everyone loves to compare.
1998 Penfolds Bin 28 Kalimna Shiraz.
This sentimental favourite of mine is a multi-regional blend from South Australia and includes fruit from the Kalimna Vineyard at the top of the Barossa. Aged for 12 months in used American oak.
It is a richly coloured wine and the aromas are so very Shiraz-like. "This is more like it", I wrote. Smoke and spice combine with ripe red berry fruits across a spectrum. There's even some ripe black cherry in there. It is a delicious, mouthfilling wine, ripe and balanced with a ton of life ahead of it. Oak is not so overtly vanillin as in the past, but creamy and balanced to the fruit. Ripe tannins are integrated to form a seamless part of the whole package. This will surely become one of the great Kalimna Bin 28's. 14% abv. NZ$25
1998 Penfolds Bin 128 Coonawarra Shiraz.
Entirely from Coonawarra, South Australia and aged for 12 months in French oak of which 20% was new.
This brightly coloured red wine has a shy aroma. In the mouth it is mellow, spicy and more richly tannic than the Kalimna Bin 28 but get past those upfront tannins and the wine really opens up and entices. The blackberry fruit is juicy, mouthfilling and lipsmackingly ripe. It is creamy and long with a gorgeous smooth finish and is simply a lovely wine with great potential ahead of it. With those tannins I'd tend to decant to enjoy now, or leave to cellar for a year or so at least. 13.5% abv. NZ$25
The last of the lower level 'Bin' wines were tasted next.
1998 Penfolds Bin 138 Old Vine Barossa Valley Shiraz-Grenache-Mourvèdre.
Shiraz (55%), Grenache (25%), Mourvèdre (20%) from the Barossa Valley, matured for 16 months in old (six years plus) American oak. Although the wine has been produced since 1992, with varying proportions of the grapes making up the blend, the 'Bin' number adorns the label for the first time with this release.
Deeply coloured with a spicy aroma. Creamy in the palate, eventually. Dry tannins, olives, nuts, earth and spice with a sprinkle of cinnamon along with licorice. The dryness of the wine begs for a juicy steak. It is very tight and unyielding at this stage with the fruit screaming to be released but being held back by the tannins. I imagine a suggestion of cedar, too. This looks like it will be a wine for the cellar as sweet fruit eventually emerges. 14.0% abv. NZ$25
1998 Penfolds Bin 389 Cabernet Shiraz.
Cabernet Sauvignon (57%) and Shiraz (41%). A multi-region hot-climate South Australian blend, aged for 14 months in American oak of which 22% was new.
A densely coloured wine, black with bright crimson rims. Smoke, vanilla and spice tantalise the olfactory senses. American oak dominates the palate at first but quickly gives way to an elegant and balanced wine that is in fact, a subtle blockbuster. With violets, spice, pepper, licorice, blackcurrant and plum fruits and a touch of mocha, this wine has a lovely balance and flavour and is seducing me totally with its captivating charm. It is fleshy, juicy, peppery and savoury with oak sitting nicely in the background while the fruit plays on the palate. Totally mouthfilling and long with its big ripe tannins, pepper spice and emerging licorice linger on the finish. This is a great wine and a great cellaring prospect. It doesn't, however, eclipse the 1996 Penfolds Bin 389, which is one of the greatest Penfolds reds I have ever tasted. 14.0% abv. NZ$42
There has been some discussion about this wine from various quarters, especially on the Australian Internet wine forums. I asked the presenters if they had had much experience of corked 389's. "None", they said. "Not in any of the tastings we have presented in Australia over the past month". Well the person on my left said after the tasting she thought her 389 was horrible. I said mine was just so gorgeous. I poured a bit of hers into my empty glass. There is so much opulent fruit in the 1998 389 that it can mask that horrible taint somewhat in a mildly corked wine, but the nose of her wine was dull and the finish was bitter. It was definitely a faulty bottle, suffering from that dreaded cork taint (which affects about 5% to 8% of all wines sealed with the natural cork closure). I found another glass from an empty seat at the end of the table and she agreed it was a totally different wine.
One of the others said of the mildly corked wine "It's an imposter", after he had tried samples from both bottles.
Faulty wines should be returned to the retailer for replacement.
Next up was the 1998 Penfolds Bin 407 Cabernet Sauvignon, a multi regional South Australian blend, including a proportion of Coonawarra fruit, that has spent 12 months in a combination of new (23%) and used French and American oak.
This is a deep purple-red, cool, tarry, tannic-rich wine with sweet berry fruit and eucalypt but tannins totally dominate the mouth. I think it will need years in the cellar to experience the pleasure of the sweet red berry fruit. The oak is integrated but the flavour is rich, tarry and fairly savoury - the 'soy' descriptor in the Penfolds notes say it all. 13.5% abv. NZ$31
Now to the premiums.
1997 Penfolds St Henri Shiraz.
A multi-regional South Australian blend of 100% Shiraz grapes harvested from the Barossa Valley, McLaren Vale, Eden Valley, Padthaway and Adelaide Hills. Matured for 12 months in large, old oak vats.
This is a big, black wine with red hues. Rich and savoury meat aromas combine with the fragrance of violets and a lovely, clean expression of Shiraz spice. This is a classy wine that shows Shiraz in its element without the encumbrance of oak. With licorice, spice, violets, rich berry fruit and eucalypt it is very ripe, round, full of flavour and absolutely delicious. Drinking very well now though a wine that will age well. A totally intriguing wine - it is vinous, velvety and long, long, long. 'Yum' - one of my favourites of the tasting. 13.5% abv. NZ$47
1998 Penfolds RWT Barossa Valley Shiraz.
100% Shiraz from the Barossa Valley, matured in new French oak for 15 months.
Dense, deep crimson, red. Nose reeks of cream and spice and the merest hint of oak, which is more dominant in the palate with mocha, chocolate and cedar notes. This is a stylish, finely structured, but hugely tannic wine. There is richly concentrated fruit with prunes and blueberry and a smoky finish. It is a massive wine. A second sample tried later was clean, slightly minty, with juicy blackberry and raspberry fruit and vivid peppery spice. I hardly noticed the tannins at all and wondered if this was from a different bottle. 14% abv. NZ$100.
1998 Penfolds Bin 707 Cabernet Sauvignon.
A blend of South Australian Cabernet Sauvignon grapes from Coonawarra, Padthaway, Kalimna and McLaren Vale, matured in new American for 15 months.
Deeply coloured, almost black and the aromas are just gorgeous. There's cedar, all right, and opulent ripe fruit with a creamy complexity. In the palate rich, juicy berry fruit of cassis and plum combines beautifully with the coconut-like flavours of the American oak (I love this flavour) and fine oak tannins marry into the wine to add structure without intruding. The flavour is impressively long. It is a wine to sip and savour with your eyes closed - a totally delicious dreamy wine and one I would be prepared to buy. If I had been scoring the wines, this would have been my highest pointed wine of the tasting - so far. 13.5% abv. NZ$100.
Then the flagship wine was poured and in an elegant glass, instead of the normal tasting glass.
1996 Penfolds Grange.
A multi-regional blend from Kalimna, Barossa Valley, McLaren Valley, Magill Estate and Padthaway. A small proportion of Cabernet Sauvignon (percentage not stated) is combined with Shiraz. The wine was matured for 19 months in new American oak.
Refined aromas - spice, subtle cedar, violets. Quite satisfying and complex - a wine you could smell for ages. Licorice dominates the palate at first and there is also a flavour reminiscent of chocolate-coated Turkish delight. Fine and vinous, a fusion of so many characters. Ripe, silky tannins combine with chocolaty cedar, spicy black pepper, ripe fruits of citrus, plum, and blueberry, with licorice savouriness and creamy flavours lingering. It is such a treat to try beautiful wine. Yes, words like 'opulent' can be used. Ripe and mellow already but tannins say "Rewards will be had with patience". A truly great wine that cannot be faulted except for its price. 13.5% abv. NZ$250 - $300, depending on where you shop.
Conclusions: This was a magnificent tasting, without a doubt. I savoured the Grange and as we were waiting for lunch to be served I poured another taste to try with the food.
We had a Duck and Five Spice Terrine, mentioned above, with the Valleys and the Yattarna Chardonnays. The food made the wines indistinguishable and I do not recommend drinking a Chardonnay that retails for about $100 with this kind of food.
The main course was a Beduin Spice Cervena, with goat's cheese pudding and Macadamia nut and date sambal accompanied by the 1998 Bin 138 Shiraz Grenache Mourvèdre and its 1992 counterpart. The food was fantastic and the tarry characters of the 1998 wine combined well. I think the 1992 had a fault. It was a little stinky.
We finished with a selection of cheese accompanied by the 1998 Bin 407 Cabernet Sauvignon and the 1990 Bin 407 Cabernet Sauvignon. To anyone who has the 1990 in their cellar - this wine is drinking beautifully now. It is rich and creamy yet mellow. It has that hallmark Penfolds signature of a great wine from a great vintage. I think the 1998 407 will go the same way and easily withstand 10 years cellaring.
As for the Grange, forget the food and enjoy this magnificient wine on its own.
One of the great tastings of the year. Thanks are warmly extended to Southcorp for the invitation.