Friday, June 19, 2009


Yesterday, Shannon and I were invited to a seminar on Penfolds, hosted by our Penfolds distributor, RNDC of Kentucky, and conducted by Jamie Stewart, Director for the Estate Wines of Fosters Wine Estates, Penfolds American importer. Jamie is a well-travelled, well-educated sommelier who has worked and studied in his native Australia, plus Japan, Russia and here in the states. Listening to him from start to finish, I was amazed at the expansive vernacular he used in not only describing the wines of Penfolds (there were 14 in this tasting line-up), but imparting a deep sense of pride and passion about the winery, both as a wine professional, and an Australian patriot. We were set to learn that Penfolds is regarded as a National Treasure in Australia, and there winemaking philosophy has been second-to-none for over 160 years.
Our good friend Lou Schnier, from RNDC-Barkley Division, chauffeured us down to the event, and it was extremely appreciated – the lineup was very impressive, beginning with the Thomas Hyland series Riesling 2007, and ending, remarkably, with the 2004 Grange.

[Oh yeah.]

In the first flight of four wines, we tasted three white wines, something Penfolds isn’t as renowned for as their reds, but nonetheless, well-made wines, and a limited-edition Pinot Noir. The Thomas Hyland Riesling 2007 is indicative of Australian Riesling in that it isn’t that sweet, cloying German version that most people think of when one says “Riesling,” instead opting for an Alsatian style, dry, with a well-balanced acidity and a good sense for food. Perfum-y and minerally in the nose, with a slightly glycerol mouthfeel and notes of baked Brioche, melon, fig, apricot, a bit of paraffin on the back in, and remarkable presence throughout its multilayered finish. The Thomas Hyland Chardonnay 2007 is full of nutmeg, cinnamon and allspice in the nose, along with notes of Golden Delicious apples picked fresh from the tree. The palate exhibits toffee, butterscotch, more apples, pears, marscapone, some lemon zest, and caramel. There is lots of bright acidity to offer balance and just a very pleasing finish. The Yattarna Chardonnay 2006 is much more fragrant than the Thomas Hyland, with just a whole spice rack full of cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, star anise, nectarine, tangerine, pear, apple, marsacpone, buttered toast, vanilla, Meyer lemon, gingerbread cookies, glycerol, it just goes on and on and on. It’s a full-bodied, sinfully-decadent Chardonnay (and an equally decadent price tag). The Cellar Reserve Pinot Noir 2006 is a small-production, experimental release, with fruit primarily coming from Tasmania. There are red flowers, fresh herbs, and candied berries in the nose. Cherry, red currant, pomegranate, hints of cinnamon and allspice all show up right away, with elements of Kirsh, bitter chocolate, beetroot, rhubarb, strawberry, cranberry, Bing Cherries, and smoke intermingling, with balanced acidity and an almost tart sweetness on the finish.

The second flight were four of the infamous Bin wines, some of Penfolds’ most recognized wines. Up first, the Bin 2 Shiraz/Mourvedre 2006 was impressive, with hints of Blueberry extract, fresh baked Rhubarb pie, roasted venison and smoke in the nose. In the mouth were notes of blueberry syrup, hickory smoke, mineral, olive tapenade, blackberries, black currants, cloves, cinnamon, dark chocolate, coffee and tar. A very nice red for the money, I reminded myself I needed this one back in the store. The Bin 138 Shiraz/Grenache/Mourvedre 2006 is somewhat limited, and a slight homage to the wines of the Southern Rhone. Here you get aromas and flavors of blackberries, blueberries, loganberries, mulberries, boysenberries, red flowers, rose petal, mineral, peat, smoke, dark berry compote, black tea, Kona coffee bean, and a sundry of herbs and spices. It was quite impressive, but I learned right away it was a hard one to come by; only 7 cases for the state of Kentucky. The Bin 128 Shiraz 2006 is of a Coonawarra appellation, which usually guarantees a prominent eucalyptus character, but not here. Rich, supple, with rhubarb, roasted game, black cherry, blackberry, cola nut, espresso, chocolate, coffee, Cherries Jubilee, raspberry petits fours, baking spices, herbs, petrol and boysenberry just for starters – this wine just gives you layer upon layer of character. It is a beautiful wine. The Bin 28 Kalimna Shiraz 2006 is primarily a single-vineyard Shiraz, and often stark contrast to the Bin 128. Dark berry fruit abounds with red flowers, vanillin oak, fresh-baked blueberry pie, raspberry compote, garrigue, red tea leaves, candied red fruits, cassis, black plum, French Roast coffee, and chocolate covered almonds. It’s a more robust, masculine counterpart to the Bin 128, offering up more robust tannins, and presenting a much chewier, more brawny presence on the palate.

Drifting into the sexier realm of Penfolds’ portfolio, our next flight featured first, what has often been called “the Poor Man’s Grange”: the Bin 389 Cabernet/Shiraz 2006. Revisiting this wine was a real treat, and I was reminded of just how good this wine really is. Aromas and flavors of soy, blackberry, blueberry, mulberry, boysenberry, loganberry, fresh herbs, cola nut, brine, olives, oolong and Darjeeling teas, cassis, cedar, chocolate, espresso, olive tapenade, the stuff just kept coming. Jamie remarked, “this is just a destructively good wine.” Truer words never spoken. The Bin 407 Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 is really their top Cabernet from vintage to vintage (the 707 doesn’t come out every year). Aromas and flavors of menthol, mint leaves, cocoa, cola, currant, blackberry, baked cherries, chicory, cedar, mineral, suede, rosemary, dill, marjoram, camphor, bay leaf, coffee – notes of a kitchen come to life just oozed from the glass. The Bin 707 Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 delivered even more and bigger notes, a crescendo of dark berry fruit, plum, coffee, black teas, peat, thyme, mint, basil, almond biscotti, cassis, and just the gamut of savory and sweet. I was really impressed with the depth of flavor and the personality that seemed as though it could evolve and age with the best of Bordeaux.

Our last flight finished up with three of the real jewels of the Penfolds family of wines. The first is the unsung St. Henri Shiraz 2005. A gorgeous, Claret-style Shiraz that really shows a completely different side of Penfolds. Nutmeg and cinnamon in the nose with root beer, licorice, blackberry, black and red currant, pomegranate, chocolate and coffee aromas and flavors, intermingle with menthol, cedar, plum, clove, and even a hint of that rhubarb that is evident with most Aussie wines. Always overlooked, this touching homage to a disheartened winemaker’s lost child and the lost wine made in his memory. The RWT 2006 is a relatively new wine for Penfolds, and a continually evolving project. Standing for “Red Winemaking Trial,” this wine has become a huge cult hit. Blackberry, blueberry, cassis, licorice, coffee, espresso, cocoa, beef brisket, forest floor, roasted gamy, thyme, black olives, tar, mint, raspberry – it’s all there, in a multidimensional display of ethereal winemaking artistry.

The finale of course, was the Grange 2004, which as even our guide, Jaime, indicated, was a bit like “statutory rape.” Quite young, but still able to communicate its pedigree, this phenomenally awe-inspiring wine came at you with curry, cumin, black tea, milk chocolate, coffee, blackberry compote, black currant, cedar, maple nut, soy, malt, eau-de-vie, menthol and vanillin oak. Tasting this wine, despite it being opened for nearly 2 hours, was still muted and shy, even with all those layers of aromas and flavors sneaking in. You knew that there was far more in store for this wine, but we had come to the end of the presentation.

We were given a book called “The Rewards of Patience,” a summation of tasting notes compiled by Australian wine writer James Halliday, along with wine writers Ch’ng Poh Tiong of Singapore, Joanna Simon from the U.K., Huon Hooke of Australia and Joseph Ward of the U.S. Compiled by Master of Wine Andrew Caillard, with notes from winemaker Peter Gago, it is a wonderful history of Australia’s most renowned and treasured winery, and a look inside the various wines they produce – warts and all. Penfolds is never one to shy away from criticism, and as we learned in that seminar, their overall goal is not conformity or the latest trend, but consistency and excellence.

I have discovered a new respect and appreciation for Penfolds and the wines they produce. My only negative point of the tasting was Jaime’s declaration of the Grange’s dramatic increase in price, due to counterfeiting and auction pricing concerns. I didn’t wish to know that Grange is now, essentially out of reach for most of us – it is simply a luxury item like Krug, Romanee-Conti and Petrus. I felt that Jaime ended what would have been a completely astonishing seminar with an almost-elitist punctuation. At least the Bin series is affordable enough for us common folk to enjoy.

Still, I have to thank Jaime for the really informative seminar, and all our friends at RNDC for hosting the event.

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