It's only February and the Penfolds 'Bin' wines from 1999 are being released into the New Zealand market - three months earlier than the May release we've become accustomed to. And the New Zealand release follows an even earlier November release across the Tasman. So what's the story?
I find the explanation in the brochures we are given. "Vintages vary and the wines themselves should decide the timing of release" writes John Duval, Penfolds' chief winemaker, adding that 1999 produced reds with softer tannins requiring less maturation. "These wines have now reached the required balance of fruit, tannins and oak so there is no point in holding them back".
Steve Lienert, the Penfolds senior red winemaker responsible for the premium reds made in the Barossa winery, is our host today and confirms the story. "We are happy with the quality from the 1999 vintage", he says, "but the wines will be overshadowed by the big, rich, concentrated wines from 1998. 1999 has produced sweet, full flavoured wines in the definitive Penfolds style, but the tannins are less pronounced and the wines are softer, more approachable and ready to drink already".
There's a good line-up of wines to get through in the formal tutored tasting at the Hilton Hotel before we adjourn for lunch.
We start with a trio of whites.
Penfolds Clare Riesling 1997
Straw gold with fantastic floral & lime aromas. Richly flavoured with concentrated lemon/lime and a toasted honey character sitting on a tight, well-structured palate. Sweet full citrus fruit lingers well with zesty spice. Good acidity makes the wine seem quite youthful. Not a new release as we tried this wine last year. I love the positive development in this wine and I totally recommend it for lovers of aged riesling. It's dry in style and has no influence of botrytis. "Riesling is making a comeback", says Lienert. RRP NZ$29.95.
Look forward to the 2002 riesling being released in a quality screwcap wine seal.
The two chardonnays tasted are sound commercial styles.
Rawson's Retreat Chardonnay 2001
Yellow gold, quite rich for a 2001 (don't guess the age of a wine by its colour) while the flavours emphasize lifted citrus and melon. It's yeasty and warm in the palate with juicy melon and citrus and very little influence of oak. The fruit is sourced from a warmer area, which gives the fuller colour. 13%, NZ$13.95.
Koonunga Hill Chardonnay 2001
Straw gold and paler in colour than the Rawsons. The influence of 4-5 months in oak is quite subtle and nutty behind the stonefruit and melon flavours. It's creamy in the palate and pineapple flavours emerge on finish. A little tight in style tight now but good potential to open up as the 2000 did so nicely. 13%, NZ$17.95.
The red wines at the lower level see two additions to the portfolio with the introduction of a straight Merlot in the Rawson's Retreat range and a Cabernet Merlot in the Koonunga Hill range.
Rawson's Retreat Merlot 2001
Brightly coloured medium-body red. Fruity nose with vibrant fruit cake flavours of cherry & plum. Dry and crisply spicy at first in palate with a smoky berry flavour and ripe spicy plums lingering. Would like to see this develop for about 6 more months to let those upfront dry tannins integrate. 13%, NZ$13.95.
Rawson's Retreat Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Ruby Cabernet 2000
Good deep colour and creamy, biscuity aromas with spicy notes. There's more substance and juiciness than the Rawson's Merlot and a good lingering flavour of raspberry, plum, and blackberry on the juicy finish that has the subtle complexity of oak. 13%, NZ$13.95.
It was interesting to compare these two 'entry-level' Penfolds wines side by side. Both are good fruit driven styles, though the latter is the pick for current drinking.
Koonunga Hill Cabernet Merlot 2001
(80-85% cabernet sauvignon)
Good deep colour, as are all the wines are from now.
Attractive, slightly smoky berry & biscuity aromas while tobacco and blackcurrant fruit are quite dominant in the palate. It's creamy with a smoky fruit cake richness. A juicy, fruit driven wine. 13.5%, NZ$17.95.
Koonunga Hill Shiraz /Cabernet Sauvignon 2000
Typically Australian with those creamy vanillin leap-out-of-the-glass aromas of American oak, though the notes say there's some French oak too. Good tannins underlie this juicy flavorsome wine with flavours of spice, raspberry, plum and blackberry on the creamy spicy palate. More typically what we expect from Koonunga Hill. 13%, NZ$17.95.
Now to the 'Bin' wines from 1999. Would I be as disappointed as some of my colleagues over on the Left Island (see Murray's review here.)
Penfolds Bin 138 Old Vine Bar Shiraz /Mourvedre /Grenache 1999
(Varieties are kept separate and blended just bottling).
Plum with a hint of menthol on the smoky, meaty nose. It's a leathery, crushed berry, meaty, savoury wine with mocha, crisp spice and ripe fruit (blackberry, blueberry) complexity and soft full-flavoured tannins. A wine of depth and some intrigue with a creamy texture and an almost salty nuance on finish. Although in oak for 14-15 months, the oak does not intrude. It's a totally different style to any of the wines here today. NZ$26.95.
Penfolds Bin 128 Shiraz 1999
Berry nose with a cedary, mocha note. Cedar influences the pepper spice and creamy berry fruit in palate. Big tannins with mocha, raspberry and plum. It's a style that will reward cellaring as tannins make the wine quite tight at the moment. I like the spicy creamy complexities on lingering finish. 13.5%, NZ$26.95.
Penfolds Bin 28 Shiraz 1999
Smoky, vanillin, biscuity, wood grainy nose. Creamy, warm and bright in the palate with a good combination of fruit, soft tannins and vanillin oak. Sweet and juicy with spicy vanillin berry characters lingering well. This wine is so very approachable. Easily my favourite. 13%, NZ$26.95.
Penfolds Bin 407 Cabernet Sauvignon 1999
Slightly minty nose with creamy cedar. Sweet lifted fruit, typically Cabernet Sauvignon with vibrant cassis at first in palate then a leafy, slightly leathery complexity. Good tannins but fairly high acidity and that leathery note lingers on finish. Mint, biscuits and cassis are the dominating characters in this wine that is very tight at this stage of its life. A definite 'cool climate' style. Possibly the most controversial wine of the tasting with some saying too leafy and green but to me there was no doubt that this was 100% cabernet sauvignon with its expressive varietal typicity. It is just not typically Penfolds 407 in style. 14%, NZ$29.95.
A later tasting saw cassis and smoke on the nose, grainy tannins in the palate with sweet cassis/blackcurrant fruit, tobacco, a touch of licorice then spice and leather on the finish. Good acidity. A classic ripe cool-climate cab.
Penfolds Bin 389 Cabernet Shiraz 1999
Black in colour. Smoky nose with vanillin creamy spice and blackberry fruit. A fairly rich wine with quite big tannins (for me), sweet vanillin flavours with hints of chocolate and dark fruit with wonderful flashes of spice. A lovely wine. I liken this to the 92 on release and imagine it an excellent cellaring proposition. Those 92's are drinking very well now. Recommended. 14%, NZ$39.95.
In summary, a good release hard on the heels of the blockbuster 1998, although I don't know how much hype we will be seeing this year. After all, there are still plenty of the 1998 'Bin' wines still languishing in some stores. Still, as I find out at consumer tastings every week, there are styles that some like and other styles that others like. With a choice of 1998 and 1999, there should be Penfolds' wine out there to satisfy everyone.
Adjourning to 'White' the Hilton Hotel's acclaimed restaurant, we were privy to taste the May releases with our lunch. Prices not indicated at this stage.
Penfolds St Henri Shiraz 1998
Rich and spicy. All the typical Penfolds trademarks with a sweet smoky vanillin aroma, dense spicy palate and lovely ripe fruit with plums, raspberry, cherry and blackberry. A lifted wine with a rich palate weight, texture and fantastic tannin structure. This is a wine to pursue and buy. Fantastic! Expect 15 to 30 years cellaring. 14%.
Penfolds Bin 707 Cabernet Sauvignon 1999
Smoky lifted cedar and cassis nose. Biscuity, rich and spicy with denser cassis and plum fruit on the creamy vanillin palate with soft integrated tannins, rich cassis concentration and smoky oak. Extremely approachable in its youth but has the hallmarks of a great wine. The best cabernet of the Penfolds range. Includes fruit from 120y-old vines from the Kalimna vineyard. This stunning wine is the standout of the 1999 vintage. Sweet and juicy. Yum. 13.5%.
Penfolds RWT Barossa Valley Shiraz 1999
Spicy dense nose with rich rose perfume and a touch of mocha.
Leathery style in the palate with plenty of spice & fruit concentration. Biscuity yeastiness, grainy texture, plenty of spice and lingering stone fruit. Creamy and vinous but very tight at this stage with crisp raspberry and licorice emerging on the finish. 13.5%.
Penfolds Bin 95 Grange 1997
Undeniably a special wine. Cedary aromas with lifted spice and berry fruit. Vibrant sweet ripe fruit (cherry, blueberry, blackberry and black peach) in the palate with violets, spice and creamy chocolate, Typical waves of flavour and complexity. Thick velvety plush grainy tannins. Good acidity and balance. Rich and vinous though remarkably drinkable with the backbone and acidic lift to make it last. 14.0%.
This is what is so incredible about Grange - approachable yet ageable. 14% alcohol by volume.