penfolds 2015 002

Preview:The Penfolds Collection 2015 with Peter Gago

A paler shade of white

Penfolds’ Chief Winemaker Peter Gago was in town last month for a preview of The Penfolds Collection 2015.  It is released this month. Of course, all eyes were on Grange.  Both for the usual reasons (iconic status) and because the latest release comes from the, as Gago put it, “reach for the razor blades” 2011 vintage (would it be worthy of its iconic status?)  

For me, the razzle dazzle of this tasting came from the 2013 vintage.  It produced the best White Grange (Yattarna) I’ve yet tasted and bright as a button, ebullient reds of texture and layer. For Gago “2013 has crept up on us – we were preoccupied with the quality of the 2010 and 2012 and the difficulty of 2011.” So while the ’13s have been “in the shadow” of the 12s, he rates the 2013s as better than 2012s as “month by month they fatten up and in the bottle, they are incrementally getting better – the second half of the glass is better than the first.”

Penfolds Chief Peter Gago & Patrick Schmitt MW of The Drinks Business

As for Penfolds Grange 2011, Gago summed it up candidly and concisely when he said “is it one of the greatest Granges?  No.  But it is one of finest wines from the South Australian 2011  vintage.”  Fleshing out his comments Gago observed, Henschke didn’t release its single vineyard flagship Hill of Grace Shiraz in 2011, nor did Wynns make a John Riddoch Cabernet. Penfolds’ top Cabernets (Bin 169 and Bin 707) fell by the wayside too.

But for Shiraz, Penfolds’ multi-regional sourcing of fruit came into its own. Said Gago, “we’re a bit spoiled with Grange – there’s always a vineyard or aspect where, with Shiraz especially, we can get something.” Referring to “the best Shiraz,” he added, “it comes from old vine material and ripens earlier, so it can be picked earlier – extremes don’t affect that fruit.”  

Even so, citing Koonunga Hill, also Padthaway where “we got not a berry, you shook the vine and the berries fell off “, he observed “in some areas we knew straight away we were not going to get to the fruit.”  In this context, and where production was down by around 50%, you can understand why Gago says “we’re thrilled about this wine.”  

During the tasting I chatted with Gago about the ebullient youth of the 2013 reds.  In the 90s/noughties, Barossan reds tended to carry lots of puppyfat – an upfront velvety softness.  Increasingly, it seems, youthfulness is being defined by an edgier coiled spring character.  Take my recent discussion with Stephen Pannell who talked about winding up his wines before putting them in the bottle so that they’re not obvious from the off and take time to reveal themselves.  For Gago, this bright, coiled character is a reflection of the winemaking team getting hotter on harvest and bottling dates ( – the both earlier, the latter “almost as important,” he says, as the former for freshness). The ever increasing quality of French and US oak is another factor.

Freshness and structure has become a hallmark of the whites too. Remarking on their pale colour  and low alcohol for Riesling and flagship Chardonnay alike, Gago observed “it reflects whites built for a long time.”  Admitting that “batonnage [which rounds out the palate] was once practised almost without thinking” he said we’re now restricting it profoundly and “always tweaking.”

Penfolds Bin 51 Riesling 2015 (Eden Valley)

Though autumn and winter rainfall was above the long-term average, spring was dry.  A significant rainfall event in January revitalised the vineyards.  Mild days and cool nights from late January through to March delivered an impressive vintage.  A very lifted, floral, talcy nose and palate with lovely intensity and drive to its ripe grapefruit, great line and length and a salty piquancy to the finish. Classic bone dry Australian Riesling but, like Clare Valley’s 2015s, there’s a richness and approachability – a flare to the fruit – with plenty of backbone too.  I reckon these prodigious wines have a long life ahead if you can resist them!  11.5%

Penfolds Bin 311 Tumbarumba Chardonnay 2014 (Tumbarumba)

A warmer winter and spring resulted in early bud burst.  A hot dry January allowed for a small crop to be harvested before cool, wet weather set in.  This Chardonnay was aged for 8 months on the lees in seasoned French oak barriques with regular batonnage.  Initially, it seemed quite oaky, with a vanilla bean cloak to its firm lemon zesty, steely grapefruity palate.  But it had shrugged off the oak by the time I returned to my glass having tasted all the whites.  The lees-is-more work provides a fluffy, pillowy, savoury sheathe with sourdough notes which, for me, doesn’t quite sit with the firm, tensile profile of this Chardonnay and rather blunts its finish.  An issue I also found on my recent tasting of the 2009 and 2013, reported here. 12.5%

Penfolds Reserve Bin 14A Chardonnay 2014 (Adelaide Hills)

Above average winter rainfalls replenished soil reserves; below average spring rainfall and cool weather allowed for an extended flowering period.  The harvest period was largely dry and mild, allowing for balanced flavour development.  It was naturally fermented and aged on solids with full malo for 9 months in French oak barriques (82% new, 18% 1 year old), the latter worn very lightly.  A classic, tightly wound nose  smacks of grapefruit and cordite.  Slow and deliberative of delivery, its mouthwatering vanilla-bean licked golden delicious fruit fleshes out and juicily extends the palate sideways, while a taut backbone of grapefruity acidity brings focus and length. Like the apple, 14A is delicious.  Closer to the 10A than the dramatically flinty, racier 2009A & 2012A, but more vibrant and fluid.  Lovely. 12.5%

Penfolds Yattarna 2013

Yattarna is 30 years old this year.  I reckon this is the finest release of Penfolds’ flagship Chardonnay I’ve tasted.  The fruit hails predominantly from Tasmania (Coal Valley & Derwent Valley) and has a splash of Adelaide Hills Chardonnay.  It was aged for 8 months in French oak (62% new).   If the nose were a colour, it would be the purple/grey of wet slate.  A character which follows through on the cool attack and finish of this long, complex wine.  In and amongst (the minerality), it’s a lithe, layered and textural Yattarna with mealy, sweet but bruised, so very balanced apple fruit with wild apple blossom, savoury, slinky lees and subtle (dry, not sweet) nougat nuttiness. Which description makes it sound broad, but it’s not broad at all. Rather, it’s a very controlled, pared back Chardonnay, with not a jot of excess fruit/oak/lees. Terrific now and with a promising future ahead.  12.5%

Penfolds Bin 138 Shiraz Grenache Mataro 2013 (Barossa Valley)

A dry winter and spring with early budburst; windy conditions resulted in lower than average yields.  The harvest was warm, dry , early, short and condensed.  This blend of Shiraz (75%), Grenache (15%) and Mataro (10%) was aged for 12 months in seasoned French and US oak hogheads.  It was the first of the 2013 reds we tasted and surprised me with its shock of vibrant, fresh black fruits – lots of mouthfeel here, both in its ripe but palpable mesh of tannins and sour twist and tang of plummy acidity. Dried, slightly medicinal herb and sarsparilla notes peep through – incipient Mataro saddle soap? As for the oak, it barely gets a look in, such is the vibrancy and fruit intensity of the palate.  Very much in the Penfolds highly polished mould, so not as wild or savoury as some new wave  examples out there which are more my bag.  But this is very good.  14.5%

Penfolds Bin 28 Kalimna Shiraz 2013

Although named after the famous Barossa Valley Kalimna Vineyard from which this wine was originally sourced, for some time now Kalimna has been a multi-regional wine.  The fruit in 2013 was sourced from Barossa Valley, McLaren Vale, Padthaway and Langhorne Creek.  It was aged for 12 months in seasoned US oak hogsheads.    The nose reveals bright blackcurrant fruit.  As for the palate, it’s a long, very slippery slope of highly polished coal-black berry and currant fruit with liquorice spice and a hint of iodine/clove (seemingly a characteristic of Penfolds’ 2013 Shiraz wines).  Well-supported by iron filing tannins, Bin 28 2013 is firm and dry of expression, long and persistent with, as it opens up – going back – hints of mocha oak. A powerful wine with lots yet to give.  Impressive.  14.5%

Penfolds Bin 407 Cabernet Sauvignon 2013

Sourced from McLaren Vale, Padthaway, Coonawarra, Wrattonbully and Barossa Valley, this 100% Cabernet was aged for 12 months in French oak (26% new) and US oak hogsheads (12% new, 36% 1 year old and 27% seasoned). Deep crimson with blueberry, cassis and black olive hints to the nose, in the mouth it’s a little more refined, sculpted even, with tightly coiled juicy, tight bilberry and blackcurrant fruit, fresh acidity and chiselled tannins. Going back, it reveals red as well as black fruits and dried herb notes.  Coolly polished and very persistent.  14.5%

Penfolds Bin 150 Marananga Shiraz 2013 (Barossa Valley)

According to Gago, maturation in 500l puncheons “is starting to make its desired stylistic Bin 150 point-of-difference.” This wine spent 12 months in US oak (14% new, 36% 1 year old) & French oak (20% new, 30% 1 year old). It’s certainly the most impressive Marananga I’ve yet tasted with a shower of tannins in and amongst which you catch glimpses of black/blue currant, berry and plum fruits, smoked venison, iodine/clove and sweeter star anise.  The mid-palate/fruit has yet to gain traction.  All trammelled power.  A brooding Barossan.  14.4%

Penfolds Bin 128 Shiraz 2013 (Coonawarra)

An impressive vintage with sufficient soil moisture going into the growing season.  This and a warm, consistent spring resulted in an early, very even fruit set; significant bunch thinning was required.  Although warm weather with a number of hot days made for an early start to vintage, a cool, mild autumn served later ripeners Shiraz and Cabernet well.  The cooler climate produces a firmer Shiraz, fresh and tight with a linear push of black and red fruit.  Which is not to say it’s one note.  Liquorice, clove, wet earth, iodine and a dusting of malt and mocchachino add nuance going through.  14.5%

Penfolds Bin 707 Cabernet Sauvignon 2012

In 2012, fruit for this 100% Cabernet was sourced from Adelaide Hills, Barossa Valley, Wrattonbully and Coonawarra.  It was aged for 16 months in 100% new American oak hogsheads. It’s rich and ripe with what I think of as a very Penfolds sarsparilla US oak thang. As for Peter Gago’s notes, he talks about Bin 707 2013 being “very Penfolds, very Bin 707” by reason of its “barrel ferment formic and ferrics, and a sweet V.A. [volatile acidity] lift.”  When we chatted after the tasting I asked Gago about the formic, ferric and V.A..  He replied, “there was a Champagne character with Grange in the early 1970s and an elevated V.A. which gave the wine lift – the [infamous] ‘dry ant’ [formic] character.”  Gago attributes these characters to the oxidative way in which the wines have traditionally been made, especially “lots of rackings” – “controlled,” he emphasises, “because you don’t get the aldehydes, just a bit of V.A.”  Adding “I love it,” he says, “you can’t dial it up” since even a little bit too much is a bad thing.  With a bit more grit and, one might say, less finesse/polish than its very contemporary peers, the 2012 Bin 707 is a bit of an un-reconstructed belter, with raisin, tapenade and black fruits.  Though broad in terms of flavour profile, I still found it a little callow – yet fully to flesh out its bones.  14.5%

Penfolds Bin 169 Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 (Coonawarra)

This 100% Cabernet was aged for 16 months in new French oak hogsheads.  A gently minty nose points you in the direction of Coonawarra, though its prettily perfumed blackberry, boysenberry and mulberry fruit is a touch Margs (Margaret River).  Going back I find hints of rosemary and lavender.  The tannins are fine, papery (a touch drying) and plentiful, building on a well-focused, floral/inky finish – a veritable plume of Coonawarra tannins in the tail.    14.5%

Penfolds RWT Shiraz 2013 (Barossa Valley)

Deliberately made in an opulent, fleshy style (versus Grange’s “more muscular and assertive” style), plus sourced solely from the Barossa Valley this 100% Shiraz was aged for 17 months in French oak hogsheads (57% new, 43% 1 year old).  It was my least favourite of the bunch. Less bright as a button, more of the old fashioned malt’n raisin with incipient engine oil. Really not speaking to me today.  14.5%

Penfolds Magill Estate Shiraz 2013

The Magill, on the other hand, is wonderfully elegant.  The single vineyard site lies just 8km from Adelaide city centre and just a few metres from the open fermenters and cellar in which its fruit will end up.  An enviably short commute! For Gago, the fruit’s short hop results in a Shiraz “of different weave – it’s very differently constructed.”   In 2013, it was aged for 14 months in French oak (71% new, 5% 1 year old) and US hogsheads (24% new).  There’s an edge and juiciness to the fruit – an attractive (ripe) angularity.  Tannin cheekbones, if you will, which funnel and give great line and length to its sweet, spicy ( liquorice) very juicy and persistent blackberry fruit.  Medium-bodied but lots in reserve.  Lovely.  14.4%

Penfolds St Henri Shiraz 2012

Although the other reds wear their new/newer, smaller format oak lightly in terms of flavour, it undoubtedly buffs the fruit, giving that Penfolds poise and polish to the wines.  The St Henri is a rather more laid back, fluid Shiraz (with a splash of 3% Cabernet) – “all seed and skin tannins, not oak” observes Gago (it has always been aged in large oak vats, now +50 years old, in 2012 for 13 months). In the 2012 vintage the tannins seem particularly fine – a sheen which, with a rolling acidity, accounts for the fluidity.   A very juicy, animated palate is firmly focused around red fruits – red currant, juniper berry and plum with savoury anise and leather notes.  It’s really on song when I go back to the glass. Great finesse and, though it has the structure to age very well, it’s very drinkable now.  14.5%

Penfolds Bin 389 Cabernet Shiraz 2013

Poor man’s Grange is, in 2013, a blend of 51% Cabernet and 49% Shiraz; it was aged for 12 months in US hogsheads (28% new, 60% 1 year old, 12% 2 year old).  It’s a dark, foreboding 389, quite callow – still putting on weight and finding its balance. But there’s oodles of structure, with a firm buttress of vanillin oak and chewy, mouth-coating tannins behind its sweet plum and sarsparilla palate.  Gago’s famously outré tasting notes mention tomato paste – a tick for me!  A gravelly, throaty finish puts me in mind of Marianne Faithfull’s cigarettes and cognac voice of experience (out-Gago-ing Gago here). A keeper.   14.5%

Penfolds Grange 2011

This is only the sixth Grange to comprise 100% Shiraz.  And, said Gago, given the year, it’s a wine where people have almost written the notes before tasting the wine.  By way of salutory lesson, he reminded us that South Australia’s 1998 vintage scored 90/100 but, picked before the heatwave (16 days at +35 degrees), ’98 Grange scored rather higher – 98 points no less for Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate.   I think that the 2011 Grange is some way off attaining such a towering score and, let’s remember, it’s a tough gig not just because of its vintage, but also when it comes hot on the heels of the outstanding 2010 Grange.  That said, I prefer it to the 2009 Grange with which it shares a relative forwardness but, for understandable reasons, the 2011 is a brighter, more animated wine  – a style more attuned to my palate.  While the draconian sourcing (this year focused on warmer regions, so the Barossa, McLaren Vale & Magill) has not produced the sheer heft and weight I associate with Penfolds Grange, as you would expect from this heavyweight there’s not a hint of greeness/under-ripeness to its concentrated yet pulpy, plush and engaging exotic satsuma plum and tamarind fruit. A dance of five spice, orange pekoe tea, darker liquorice and savoury charcuterie weaves in and out of the fruit. While it has a hedonistic richness to the mid-palate as it opens up –  lovely mouthfeel – gravelly mineral tannins underpin the long finish and remind you that this is Grange.  Grange 2011 was aged for 17 months in 100% new American oak hogsheads – it ain’t Grange if it can’t carry all new oak, said Gago (who also told us that the 2011 will see a price increase*). 14.5%

* Correction: Penfolds Senior Brand Manager in the UK subsequently informed me “In this market we are actually down on price for the v11 of Grange. So we’re a little bit cheaper than when we released the 2007 Grange – the rrp is £425.”

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