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Penfolds: Something Delicious for Everyone
By Linda Murphy
Nov 11, 2008
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Penfolds Grange Shiraz is, indisputably, Australia's most famous wine and one of the great wines of the world. 

Produced commercially since 1952, Grange is an Aussie national treasure, a hot item in international markets, an auction darling, and so highly regarded that buyers don't blink at its $250 price for new releases.  Older wines from good vintages sell for upwards of $600 a bottle.

At a recent San Francisco tasting of selected red wines from the Penfolds cellar, guests were served 11 aged wines, including 1991 and 1998 St. Henri Shiraz, 2002 RWT Barossa Valley Shiraz, the fabulously well-preserved 1962 Bin 60A Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon/Kalimna Shiraz, and two vintages of Grange, 1990 and 1991. 

The Granges were poured last, and they were wonderfully rich and vibrant -- 'classic Grange,' Penfolds chief winemaker Peter Gago called them.  The 1990 had fresh, inviting aromas of rose petal and currant fruit.  The palate was luxurious and layered, with plump red/black fruit, spice, a hint of chocolate, sweet, slightly dusty tannins and tangy acidity.  The components merged seamlessly, with no single note off-key.

The 1991 Grange was tighter and more tannic, yet also deeper and more intense to my taste, perhaps with a longer life ahead of it than the 1990.  The dark berry, chocolate, licorice and spice characteristics were more pronounced individually than in the harmonious 1990, yet this Grange hadn't yet fully evolved, even after 18 years.  I wrote, 'Can't wait to try this in 10 years.  Hope to get invited back.'

As the group evaluated the wines, each was discussed by Gago, Penfolds senior red winemaker Steve Lienert, and four of the seven independent panelists who in September 2007 tasted through 50-plus years of Penfolds wines -- every vintage, red, white and fortified, from Grange down to the everyday-drinking Koonunga Hill label. 

The winery conducts this deep analysis every three to four years and publishes the results in the 350-page book 'Penfolds: The Rewards of Patience.'  It's a remarkable effort made to, yes, market Penfolds wines, but also to advise those who have the bottles in their cellars (or wish to add them) on how the wines have held up, when they're in their drinking prime, how they're made, and the parts they play in Penfolds' 165-year winemaking history.

In San Francisco, after we tasted the 11 wines chosen to both represent the 2007 tasting and celebrate the launch of the sixth edition of 'The Rewards of Patience,' I expressed my infatuation with the two St. Henri Shirazes to a tablemate, Chuck Hayward, wine buyer for the Jug Shop in San Francisco and an expert on Australian wine.  'With St. Henri,' he said, 'you don't start there, you get there.'

Indeed.  The two Granges were fleshy and concentrated, extraordinary wines, yet the St. Henris, particularly the 1991, kept drawing me back with their perfumed aromas, ethereal texture, nuance and purity of fruit.  They were less obvious than the Granges and required a bit more attention, and that is why I loved them -- along with the $45 price tag for the current release, 2005.  For the cost of one bottle of Grange -- if I could find one -- I could have five St. Henris.

Grange and St. Henri are both made from Shiraz, with a splash of Cabernet Sauvignon sometimes added for structure.  Both are multi-regional blends, with grapes grown throughout South Australia, including the Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale.  The key difference in the wines comes in the use of oak: Grange finishes fermentation and is aged 18 to 20 months in new, 80-gallon American oak barrels; St. Henri is matured for 15 to 18 months in 386-gallon neutral oak casks, which impart little wood aroma or flavor, yet allow for the desired oxygen exchange that allows the tannins to resolve. 

When the two wines are young, they're quite different -- St. Henri more approachable, elegant and focused on fruit; Grange more powerful, dense, spicy and rich in chocolately oak.  After 10 to 15 years, they converge somewhat, based on their shared bright, primary fruit and full, rounded tannins.  Yet there is something about the absence of new oak that gives St. Henri a mouthfeel that's silky and supple -- the Penfolds folks call it 'lacy' -- caressing the palate in a way that fine Pinot Noir does, yet with the meaty profile of Shiraz.

Of course, Penfolds showed only stellar vintages at the San Francisco tasting.  For the panel that convened in 2007, more than 600 wines spanning six decades were pulled from Penfolds' 'museum' cellars in Adelaide and in Nuriootpa in the Barossa Valley.  Not all the wines were knockouts, due to vintage conditions, bottle variation, closure issues and combinations of the above.

As Australian wine writer James Halliday, one of the 2007 panelists, wrote in the October issue of Decanter magazine, 'Gago led the Penfolds side throughout, making critical calls behind the scenes on the all-too-many wines with cork-related problems, sometimes opening four bottles in a not-always-successful attempt to find a good bottle of a given wine.'

Cellaring wine takes patience and there is no guaranteed reward.  Many a wine lover has aged a prized bottle at home for years, under ideal conditions, only to open it for a special occasion and pour out vinegar.  It's the risk taken by those who enjoy wines with secondary characteristics such as leather, earth, sandalwood and spice; wine is a living thing, and sometimes death comes prematurely. 

St. Henri and Grange are made to age gracefully, and those who buy them tend to stash them for 10 years or more.  Yet even Penfolds' early-drinking Koonunga Hill Shiraz Cabernet, which currently sells for around $10 a bottle and is widely available, can shine when exposed to the dark. 

'These are drinking wines,' said Gago as tasters nosed the 1986 and 1996 Koonunga Hill Shiraz Cabernets, 'and in some cases can be cellared.'

Proof: The brick-red 1986 tasted surprisingly fresh in its red cherry/berry fruit, with pleasant hints of tar and leather.  It's delicious, though it should be consumed soon.  The 1996 was one big mouthful of ripe, juicy blackberry and currant fruit, with smooth tannins and notes of chocolate, licorice and menthol.  It might last another 10 years. 

Everyone loves icon wines -- the Granges, Domaine de la Romanee-Contis, Krug Champagnes -- yet mini-icon St. Henri Shiraz has more than earned its place among the great cellar-worthy wines of the world, and even the humble $10 Koonunga Hill Shiraz Cabernet can hang with the big boys.  There's something out there for everyone.