Penfolds 2013 Bin Release: a stark window on La Niña vintages 2010-2012

The first Thursday in March sees the launch of Penfolds 2013 Bin Release – a release whose wines mark the transition from a succession of drought vintages to the cooler, wetter La Niña years of 2010-2012.  I had a sneak preview on Friday when Australian winemaker and Master of Wine Justin Knock talked us through them.

The 2013 Penfolds Bin Release wines offer a stark window on the vintages.  In 2010 and 2012, winter rainfalls replenished soils, making for good spring growth and canopies.  Relatively mild vintage conditions (no heat spikes) produced powerful yet refined wines of terrific balance, flavour intensity and colour.  I’ve tasted some tremendous Australian 2010 reds and 2012 whites this year and, of Penfolds’ current crop, the muscular Bin 51 2012 Eden Valley Riesling shone, as did all four 2010 reds, especially the Bin 389, which was in megawatt form.

In 2011, the wettest year since 1974, the rain kept coming and, for many winemakers, it was the worst vintage they’d ever seen.  I can recall visiting the Barossa in July that year and seeing vineyards left unpicked. Where it paid to be selective, Knock speculated that Penfolds’ production was perhaps just 20-30% of what they usually make; according to Penfolds’ UK Fine Wine Controller Ranulf Sessions, Bin 128 was 90% down on production in 2011.  Nonetheless, save for Bin 707, Penfolds has made every wine in 2011 (even Grange).

How so?  While 2011 was “tricky,” Sessions believes that the wines show the benefits of multi-regional blending (which, of course, underpins Penfolds’ winemaking philosophy). Confirming that McLaren Vale was a highlight (it rained more in the Barossa, which received an unheard of mid-March downpour of 3-4 inches), Knock said Penfolds sourced a proportionately higher percentage of McLaren Vale in 2011.  Referring to Grange he added, “we bring in a lot of grapes – 15000 tons/year – so if can’t get 5-10 good tons we have a bit of a problem.” 

And what of the 2011 wines? They were as pale and light as I’ve ever seen from Penfolds.  In this very unPenfolds, albeit the fruit quality was pristine and the wines had Penfolds’ customary polish (for Knock a testament to the winemaking team in a year which he described as “botrytis-riddled”, with lots of browning where the oxidative laccase enzyme lingered).

While I agree with Knock that 2011 makes for a lighter, drinkable style, it’s one which I more readily associate with Australia’s cooler climate regions, whose edgier, cusp of ripeness wines offer greater flavour intensity and aromatic lift. Take Jimmy Watson Trophy winner Bests Bin 1 Shiraz 2011, which positively reverberates with Great Western’s trademark peppery spiciness. A rip-roaring success and priced at AUS$27 per bottle versus AUS$38 for Penfolds Bin 28 2011.

Here are my notes on the wines:

Penfolds Bin 51 Riesling 2012 (Eden Valley)

Poor weather affected fruit set in 2012, so production was 30-50% down and fruit concentration is excellent.  Indeed Bin 51 is pretty muscular for Eden Valley, its citrus (lime) fruit segueing into fleshier yellow mirabelle plums. Ripe, round but persistent acidity makes for a long finish with lifted kaffir notes and a chalky minerality. Very good.  12.5%

Penfolds Bin 23 Pinot Noir 2012 (Adelaide Hills)

As Knock put it, Bin 23 “is always a Penfolds wine first” and while there’s no denying its juicy sweet red fruited, fresh and stylish palate, it lacks the fluidity, the sensual dimension and lift – soaring aromatics – of which the variety is capable.  It’s a careful Pinot, assembled from around 25 different Adelaide Hills vineyards.  Made from free run juice only, this deep ruby wine is matured in French oak barriques (16% new) which lend pronounced smoky bacon/charcuterie notes at this early stage of its life.  As it opens up, its juicy red berry, cherry and currant fruit show riper kirsch, dried raspberries and white chocolate/vanilla notes.  14%

Penfolds Bin 128 Coonawarra Shiraz 2011 (Coonawarra)

Quite pale ruby, this is a skinny Bin 128, with a tart rhubarb acid line which makes for a slightly unforgiving finish.  On the plus side, this red fruited mild mannered Shiraz shows dried sage and violet hints; fine, ripe powdery tannins integrate well.  13.5%

Penfolds Bin 138 Shiraz Grenache Mataro 2011 (Barossa)

A bright ruby hue and equally bright, pure fruit – crushed raspberry, red cherry and blackberry – which is flecked with sweeter dried strawberry, raspberry and white chocolate.  Grainy tannins and a touch of black pepper spice contribute a subtle, savoury edge to the medium-bodied finish.  Undoubtedly well made for the vintage, though that spear of rictus acidity sacrifices the sensuality I associate with both the Barossa and this varietal blend.  14.5%

Penfolds Bin 2 Shiraz Mourvedre 2011 (South Australia)

The Mourvedre lends grip and spice to this deeper coloured 2011.  On the nose it shows vanilla/milk chocolate, with black and green peppercorn notes as it opens up.  In the mouth sweet, jubey Shiraz notes meld with darker berry fruits, liquorice and spice.  Firm sinewy tannins (and acid) bring grunt and grip.  Characterful, if a little lean and coarse.  14%

Penfolds Bin 8 Cabernet Shiraz 2011 (South Australia)

McLaren Vale is the lead region and this deeply coloured 2011 has an attractive core of blackcurrant and berry fruit with violet lift.  Again, the firm underlying structure – tannins and, more so acid – makes for a slightly harder landing/finish than perhaps was necessary?  14.5%

Penfolds Bin 28 Kalimna Shiraz 2010 (South Australia)

And here, in 2010, we are back on familiar territory.  Deep purple with a rich, evocative nose, Bin 28 2010 reveals an expansive, exuberant and lively palate awash with sweet-scented and succulent black fruits.  Cross-your-heart long-grained tannins are as expansive and supple as the fruit they girdle.  Lovely balance , concentration and length, with a hint of warm, tarry earth to the finish.  14.5%

Penfolds Bin 150 Marananga Shiraz 2010 (Barossa Valley)

Deeper and denser in hue than the Kalimna, this solid purple wine is nonetheless surprisingly expressive – louder and looser lipped, with its eucalypt, mocha, soy and leather edged sweet, juicy blood plum and perfumed blueberry mid-palate.  Plenty of fruit intensity here on a long rolling cocoa-dusted finish, with very fine powerdery tannins to boot. Classic Barossa in its mocha choca/ blackforest gateaux generosity.  14.5%

Penfolds Bin 407 Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 (South Australia)

While Bin 707 Cabernet always has a core of Barossa and Coonawarra fruit for structure, Knock explained that, for Bin 407, Penfolds is not looking for the same ripe stamp or tannins, so this incorporates more McLaren Vale and Padthaway fruit (Coonawarra, Wrattonbully, Robe too, Coonawarra being the lead partner).  The Limestone Coast regions certainly shine through in this wine’s minty nose and juicy blackcurrant core, which is amply fleshed out by McLaren Vale’s riper blueberry and plum jam notes and savoury black olive and dried sage undertones.  With its ripe but present swathe of tannins, this is friendly and characterful, but has the oomph to last.  14.5%

Penfolds Bin 389 Cabernet Shiraz 2010 (South Australia)

Cabernet Sauvignon (51%) just pips Shiraz to the post in this palate-staining vintage.  My standout wine of the tasting, Bin 389 has no shortage of swagger or sensuality, with milk chocolate/vanilla and minty lift to the nose and terrific hip-sway momentum to its concentrated palate of dense but animated dark berry and plum fruit.  A profound wine, which builds in the mouth, helped not hindered by an ultra-fine charge of tannins.  And so well balanced that, though it will age for decades, it’s really quite broachable now.  14.5%

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