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Weekend Australian: Penfolds Grange: how it all started

Publish Date: 10 Oct 2015

Authored by: James Halliday



Penfolds' global brand strength might never have crystallised if Max Schubert had not been dispatched to Spain in 1950 to learn more about making sherry, detouring for an unplanned brief visit to Bordeaux – which led to the (unplanned) birth of Grange.

The current Penfolds Collection of over 20 wines, led by 2011 Grange (RRP $785), with a flotilla of the so-called Bin wines from 2013 following in its wake, Bin 707 Cabernet Sauvignon having reached the dizzy heights of $500 a bottle. (When first released in  '96 it was  $80.)

Price rises to one side, the Collection has carefully grown the scope of its red wine offers (all 2013) progressively adding Bin 169 Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon at $350, Bin 150 Marananga Shiraz $80, Bin 8 Cabernet Shiraz $45, Bin 9 Cabernet Sauvignon $30, and the revived Bin 2 Shiraz Mataro $30.

But there is another side to Penfolds' reputation as Australia's foremost maker of red wines, all indelibly stamped with a house style build on a triptych of fruit, oak and tannins. It stemmed from a decision by then CEO Ross Wilson that there should be a white wine to stand alongside Grange.

The extraordinary focus group research that followed included a convocation of wine writers assembled from all parts of Australia to consider the claims of semillon, riesling and chardonnay. Despite the greater longevity of top class semillon and riesling, the choice fell on chardonnay. In retrospect it might seem blindingly obvious, but back then the devil was in the detail.

The first vintages of Reserve Bin A Chardonnay and  Yattarna were 1994 and '95 respectively, and the Penfolds winemaking team learnt rapidly over the following years. While Yattarna (like Grange) is not entered in wine shows, Reserve Bin A Chardonnay, Bin 311 Tumbarumba Chardonnay and Bin 51 Eden Valley Riesling are, Reserve Bin A with an outstanding show career.

No chance of all the eggs in the one Bin.

2014 Penfolds Reserve Bin A Adelaide Hills Chardonnay
Hand-picked and pressed straight to French barriques (82% new) for wild fermentation and 9 months maturation. The impact of the bouquet is immediate and multifaceted, with a perfectly judged struck match/flint. The palate takes the wine onto another plane altogether, with imperious drive and tenacity to its unsweetened grapefruit and white peach flavours.

97 points, drink to 2024, 12.5%, alc, Screwcap, $100

2012 Penfolds St Henri Shiraz
Has a whisk of 3% cabernet to accompany the shiraz, the grapes from the Barossa Valley, McLaren Vale, Adelaide Hills, Robe and the Clare Valley. In the manner of all St Henris, matured for 13 months in 50yo oak vats (1460l). This is an exercise on a chequer board of savoury/smoky black fruits with firm, but polished, tannins. A great St Henri that will come into its own in a bare minimum of 10 years, and live long thereafter.

96 points, drink to 2047, 14.5%, alc, Screwcap, $100

2013 Penfolds Bin 28 Kalimna Shiraz
Sourced from the Barossa Valley, McLaren Vale, Padthaway and Langhorne Creek; matured for 12 months in used American hogsheads. Healthy and deep colour, it has a rich bouquet with licorice, spice, dark chocolate and blackberry all in unison. Good stuff indeed, with the savoury/inky/graphite impact of the very long, balanced medium to full-bodied palate. This could well evolve into one of the great Bin 28s.

94 points, drink to 2033, 14.5%, alc, Screwcap, $40

---------------

All wines tasted:

2015 Penfolds Bin 51 Eden Valley Riesling
Highly floral; has a definite touch of lavender on the bouquet along with notes of herb and the more usual citrus. Fascinating – the low pH gives the palate the minerally structure to carry the apple skin and lemon/citrus zest and pith. A vibrantly fresh wine bred to stay. And to think there was a time not so long ago when Penfolds had L-plates on its white winemaking.

96 points, drink to 2025, $30, Screwcap, 11.5% alc
 
2014 Penfolds Reserve Bin A Adelaide Hills Chardonnay
Hand-picked and pressed straight to French barriques (82% new) for wild fermentation and 9 months maturation. The impact of the bouquet is immediate and multifaceted, with a perfectly judged touch of struck match/flint. The palate takes the wine onto another plane altogether, with imperious drive and tenacity to its unsweetened grapefruit and white peach flavours.

97 points, drink to 2024, $100, Screwcap, 12.5% alc
 
2013 Penfolds Yattarna Chardonnay
From the Coal and Derwent Valleys (Tas) and the Adelaide Hills; Hand-picked and pressed to French barriques (62% new, 38% 1yo) for 8 months. The wine is so precise and tightly wound it is hard to imagine it went through 100% mlf, but at the same time, the decision to limit the amount of new oak falls neatly into place. It is developing at such a leisurely pace it is hard to visualise an end point. Gun flint, wet stone, green apple and grapefruit are among the contributors to the seamless flavour stream.

96 points, drink to 2023, $150, Screwcap, 12.5% alc
 

2014 Penfolds Bin 23 Adelaide Hills Pinot Noir
Hand-picked, 15% whole bunches, free-run juice only, wild-fermented, 9 months in French barriques (68% new) on gross lees without SO2; not fined. The only explanations for the difficulty the wine has to express varietal character have to be the vineyard sources, and the late picking to generate the alcohol.

88 points, drink to 2020, $, Screwcap, 14% alc
 
2013 Penfolds RWT Barossa Valley Shiraz
100% Barossa Valley; 17 months in French hogsheads (57% new). Excellent depth and hue to the colour; French oak is a point of difference, not simply for the sake of difference, but as part of the superstructure of a very complex wine. The tannins could trick you into believing it is cabernet, not shiraz, as does the crossover of blackberry and blackcurrant. Its chemical analysis does not point to above-average acidity, but here, too, there is an exclamation mark. This is a serious wine of the kind one might expect from the northern end of the Rhône Valley.

96 points, drink to 2043, $175, Screwcap, 14.5% alc
 
2012 Penfolds St Henri Shiraz
Has a whisk of 3% cabernet to accompany the shiraz, the grapes from the Barossa Valley, McLaren Vale, Adelaide Hills, Robe and the Clare Valley. In the manner of all St Henris, matured for 13 months in 50yo oak vats (1460l). This is an exercise on a chequer board of savoury/smoky black fruits with firm, but polished, tannins. A great St Henri that will come into its own in a bare minimum of 10 years, and live long thereafter.

96 points, drink to 2047, $100, Screwcap, 14.5% alc
 
2011 Penfolds Grange
From the Barossa Valley, McLaren Vale and Magill Estate; 17 months in 100% new American hogsheads. It is balanced, supple and pretty, against all odds at peace with its oak. But Penfolds' suggested drinking span of 2018-2045? Not in my book.

93 points, drink to 2026, $785, Cork, 14.5% alc
 
2013 Penfolds Bin 2 Shiraz Mataro
An 86/14% blend from Padthaway, McLaren Vale, Wrattonbully, Barossa Valley, Langhorne Creek and Robe; matured for 12 months in used French and American oak. The bouquet has all the charcuterie aromas in the book, the full-bodied palate dutifully following the course set by the bouquet, and adding plum cake and a dash of licorice; the tannins do their own work as well as that usually provided by Penfolds oak. A little rustic? Yes, but happy in its own skin, and could spring a major surprise with age.

92 points, drink to 2028, $, Screwcap, 14.5% alc
 
2013 Penfolds Bin 169 Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon
What can one say? This is a Ferrari in drag, the power enveloped in a steely body, the rumble of the engine barely heard. Blackcurrant, dried herb and black olive fruit has swallowed up the 16 months the wine spent in 100% new French hogsheads, making any comment on the tannins irrelevant, however powerful they are.

96 points, drink to 2043, $350, Cork, 14.5% alc
 
2013 Penfolds Bin 389 Cabernet Shiraz
A 51/49% blend from the Barossa Valley, McLaren Vale, Padthaway, Wrattonbully and Coonawarra that spent 12 months in American hogsheads (88% new and 1yo, 12% 2yo). The 'don't mess with me' message is immediate, the bouquet a shower of dark, savoury, earthy aromas, the palate trenchantly full-bodied – yet balanced and utterly persuasive. It needs 5 years to settle down and be friendly, but will handsomely repay patience.

95 points, drink to 2043, $80, Screwcap, 14.5% alc
 
2013 Penfolds Magill Estate Magill Estate Shiraz
Simplicity itself: 100% shiraz, 100% Magill Estate and matured for 14 months in 95% new oak (71% French, 24% American). Sometimes shy and retiring, this is a Magill Estate with a plenitude of attitude, singling a long chorus of utterly impressive black fruits, rising to an operatic fanfare on its finish. I cannot remember a better Magill Estate, even though Penfolds is not especially proud of the wine 'a solid Magill Estate'.

95 points, drink to 2033, $130, Cork, 14.4% alc 

This is an expanded version of the article: "Penfolds Grange: how it all started" written by James Halliday for the Weekend Australian magazine.

Next article: Taking bold steps

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