Raising the bar and how: The Penfolds Ampoule meets Hedonism Wines

While recent export figures for Australian wine (year ending June 2012) show a decline in volume, on an optimistic note, value increased. What’s more, in the UK (where Australia is still the number one category in the off-trade), sales above £7 were up by 32%.

I half wondered, tongue wedged firmly in cheek, if this increase in value was in any way explained by the growing handful of super-luxury wines emerging from Australia. In the last year, the launch prices of Penfolds Grange (2007/AU$625+), Henscke Hill of Grace (2007/AU$620) and Torbreck’s 2006 “The Laird” (AU$725) have paled in comparison with the loftier still price tags attached to Penfolds Bin 620 Coonawarra Cabernet Shiraz 2008 (released in Shanghai at AU$1000 a pop) and Parawa Estate Ingalalla Grand Reserve 2007 (AU$1,110).

With a Recommended Retail Price of AU$168,000, Penfolds’ latest high-end release, The Penfolds Ampoule – a limited edition of Penfolds Block 42 Kalimna Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 – takes things to a new, higher level. A game plan which chimes perfectly with the philosophy at Mayfair’s Hedonism Wines, which opens today.

The store, whose principal investor is Russian businessman, Evgeny Chichvarkin, hosted the UK launch of The Penfolds Ampoule – a limited edition of Block 42 Kalimna Cabernet Sauvignon 2004. Hedonism’s ampoule – no. 5 of 12 produced – is reputedly the first to go on sale (though the ampoule was originally unveiled in Moscow). Priced at £120,000, The Penfolds Ampoule sits very comfortably amidst stock whose value CEO Tatiana Fokina estimates at around several million pounds – an oxymoronically sobering thought….Suffice to say, I held my bag close as I negotiated the (sensibly) wide isles of vinous gold, including a cabinet aglow with many, many vintages of Yquem (though it excluded the most expensive bottles, including the 1811, which were stashed away behind bars).

Though it’s no bad thing for Australia to stake its claim to the luxury market given lingering (mis)perceptions that Australia is principally about volume, commodity wines, I have mixed feelings about Penfolds The Ampoule. Yes, it’s a beautiful thing, hand-blown, ingeniously suspended by bespoke glass plumb-bob and well protected by its sturdy, surprisingly large, wooden Jarrah cabinet; each component is hand-crafted by South Australia’s finest.

Buy it and, into the ‘bargain,’ Penfolds’ engaging Chief Winemaker, Peter Gago, will be despatched to tap it and unwrap it with a bespoke tungsten-tipped, sterling silver scribe-snap – surely an act of marketing genius. But, I wonder, is it really necessary to instil a sense of uniqueness into this wine thus? Or to ultra-rarify it by decanting one of 400-500 cases of Block 42 2004 into 12 hand-blown 750ml ampoules?

Planted in the mid-1880s, Block 42 reputedly represents the world’s oldest plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon in continuous production.  It was the source of the legendary, one-off experimental Penfolds 1953 Grange Cabernet, which was made by the godfather of Australian fine wine, Max Schubert. Made in only a handful of stellar vintages (this one awarded 100 points by James Suckling), isn’t Penfolds Block 42 Cabernet already special enough?

I asked Hedonism’s Head Buyer Alistair Viner (ex-Harrods) if he thought the ampoule represents the right direction for Australian wine. Like me, he’s very excited by the country’s growing focus on premium wines of regional and terroir detail. However, the short answer to my question is that there’s strong continuing demand for luxury wines (as the shop’s premise so clearly demonstrates), so I guess you could argue why not? And with Penfolds, no-one can seriously question the marque’s fine wine pedigree, the exceptional provenance of its top wines or their track record which, thankfully, can be experienced at more down-to-earth prices too. Indeed, Cabernet from Block 42 is a major blending component of Penfolds Bin 707.

Similarly, returning to Hedonism Wines, Viner points out that prices start at around £15/bottle, so it isn’t just seeking to appeal to those with near bottomless pockets. That said, prepare for your jaw to drop beyond the floor when you see the sheer range of fine and rare wine on offer – I’ll post more pictures on my Facebook page later.



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