- Tasting 2014 Penfolds Bin Series
Attending the latest Penfolds Bin Series release tasting revealed a little bit more than just the taste of the wines in the glass.
The promotional calendar is chock-a-block for Penfolds in their 170th year. Birthday celebrations and the release of a 50-year-old Tawny accompany the usual luxury and icon tasting later in the year. Sandwiched tastily in-between, the bin series release drew a crowd of hundreds to the Myer Mural Hall last month. Greeted by red roses, canapés and a tasting grid of the 12 newest bin series wine, guests were guided through the tasting by chief winemaker Peter Gago.
If you’ve never had the pleasure of attending a Penfolds tasting hosted by Gago; do yourself a favour and attend one. The energy, wisdom and worldliness of the recently turned 170-year-old company is concentrated and distilled in his performance. As a man who commonly references his days as a longhaired student of the University of Melbourne—his rolling prose is more commonly aligned with that of an arts lecturer than a scientist. As he canvasses the crowd with suggestive notions of cellar potential and winemaking ideals, he presents his research in a way that opens the floor to your own opinion. He walks like a fencer, presents his case like a queens counselor and projects his speech like a playwright-turned-director. That is not to suggest that Peter Gago is entirely responsible for the current success of the business, not at all. Rather, it is to say that Peter Gago exemplifies the ethos of an iconic winery making great innovations.
“In wine there are no absolutes.
Nothing is correct.
Everything is true until it’s disproven.
It is all subjective.”
The tasting provided a mixed bag of goods that combined new releases with established premium offerings. As “the heart and the soul of the Penfolds offer”—the concept of ‘bin wines’ references the historic cellars of the past where the wine was aged prior to its release. These days, most of the wine is aged in thermostat controlled warehouses. We would be the first to admit that remembering the varietal blend, oak regime and combination of vineyards behind each bin number, is not easy. However, as Gago points out, the information is otherwise located on the label in any case. The emphasis on the noun ‘bin’ is recognition of the importance of bottle age prior to the wines release. In a world where the imperatives of cash flow dictate the release of wine impossibly soon after vintage, the pre-release cask and bottle aging at Penfolds remains a strong and indulgent advantage. It is possible to draw some comparison to the prolonged aging of the great Bodegas of Spain, especially considering the strong American oak stamp that echoes through the traditional wines of the portfolio.
The two white wines that lead the tasting were heavily outnumbered by the ten deeply coloured reds that followed later. The first, a 2013 bin 51 riesling from the Eden Valley was taught, fine and thoroughly cellarable. The second, a 2013 bin 311 Tumbarumba chardonnay, was less immediately loveable but will benefit from another 6–12 months in bottle. The style was indicative of the modern trend to work strongly with lees and mature in old oak with a view towards a more medium-bodied expression of the grape. As per Gago; “This depicts the steep learning curve that we are experiencing for chardonnay in this country… How different is [this] wine from a Penfolds chardonnay from the 1990’s.” Working with cool-climate fruit from the high altitude vineyards at Tumbarumba, Penfolds have gone in search of marginal grape growing climate. Gago speaks of the future with wide-eyed excitement and humility “It was 1971 when the first bottle of Australian wine displayed chardonnay on the label… [relatively speaking in the world of wine] that is yesterday … Our Corton Charlemagne vineyard or Montrachet vineyard may be planted, or may not be, but we don’t know about it yet.”
As a whole, the bracket of red wines captures some of the idiosyncrasies of the Australian personality that is exported to the world in bottles capture. Gago is quick to point out that Australian personality does not mean high alcohol. “Offshore I spend most of my time defending Australian wines … [At Penfolds we are] aiming for 13 or 13.5% abv in our wines.” A couple of the current release bin wines creeped above the 13.5% target but alcohol wasn’t a salient factor upon tasting. In a few cases such as the bin 2 shiraz mourvedre 2012, the fruit flavour of the wine was too ripe for our taste but such examples were more the exception than the rule. One of the new releases this year, the bin 9 cabernet sauvignon 2012 showed herbal aromas strongly representative of cabernet sauvignon, neither jubey or jammy, the wine was refreshing and poised. A particular highlight was the 2011 bin 150 shiraz from the Marananga sub-region of the Barossa Valley. The aromas of the wine were blue fruited with notes of blueberries and violets and hints of white pepper. The palate was dark fruited and generously textured, being balanced by long and fine tannins. Excited by the wine, Gago believes the bin 150 is gaining ground on the bin 389—“watch out bin 389, the bin 150 is breathing on your left shoulder.”
Throughout the tasting Gago made reference to past vintages as evidence of the age worthiness of the wines. Gago also recommended that consumers leave the price sticker on their purchases as a mark of humility and incentive for investment. At a price around $65 retail for the current release bin 389 and bin 407 there is a sort of ‘accessibility’ to premium wine for consumers that doesn’t cause an early on-set of ‘drinking guilt’. At this particular time, both wines look densely coiled and tensely built. They are wines that would comfortably age for 10–15 years if you prefer fruit flavours and beyond that window if your palate is more inclined to savoury flavours. As the tasting concluded, Gago gave a teaser of the strength of the 2010 St Henri that will feature in the upcoming release of the Penfolds icon and luxury wines later this year—“it will be a blur”. We look forward to it. A