Penfolds: The Other Wines

As each year rolls around and Penfolds releases another vintage of Iconic Wines, the conversation often turns to the price of those wines and whether they are worth it?

I am often asked which years (vintages) are the best ones to purchase back vintage Grange, so I thought I would offer up some suggestions (see below).

But to the question; Are Penfolds worth it?

To answer that question, we need to explore some of the wines that have contributed to Penfolds being the wine company it is today, the impact those wines had on the company’s evolution... and the evolution of the Australian Wine Industry.

Three bottles of Penfolds wine.

Penfolds are not just a passing or current fad. To quote some marketing used decades ago, “Penfolds were old when your grandparents were young.” Penfolds have been around forever, producing some of this country’s most remarkable wines. Not least of which is the Penfolds Grange Shiraz.

Grange

Penfolds officially released their 2022 Collection on August 4th, including the 2018 vintage Penfolds Grange. Already this wine has been heralded as one of the great vintages of Grange, with a slew of 100 Point Reviews and a couple of 99 Point Reviews, backed by what is considered to be an extraordinary vintage.

With a retail price over $1,000, it needs to be great. At a recent tasting it was still youthful, everything was there in abundance, fruit, tannins, acid, oodles of flavour and texture… all in balance. Is it drinkable right now? Absolutely. Would I recommend drinking it right now? Definitely not. My recommendation would be somewhere in the next 10-20 years, after the contents of the bottle have evolved into something “more.”

Leaving us with the question, what to drink instead?

The 2018 vintage Grange was compared to and held in company with the 1976, 1998, and 2008 vintages, and there are other great vintages also.

Below is a list of alternative great Grange vintages, all still available at Auction in the secondary market but caveat emptor (“let the buyer beware”) very much applies to Wine Auction Purchases.

Beside each wine is the “last done” price at recent Auctions.

  • 1976 – Penfolds Grange Bin 95 - $1223
  • 1986 – Penfolds Grange Bin 95 - $806
  • 1990 – Penfolds Grange Bin 95 - $721 (The Iconic Wine Spectator Wine of The Year Vintage)
  • 1991 – Penfolds Grange Bin 95 - $556
  • 1996 – Penfolds Grange Bin 95 - $701
  • 1998 – Penfolds Grange Bin 95 - $792
  • 2002 – Penfolds Grange Bin 95 - $594
  • 2004 – Penfolds Grange Bin 95 - $551
  • 2006 – Penfolds Grange Bin 95 - $643
  • 2008 – Penfolds Grange Bin 95 - $806
  • 2010 – Penfolds Grange Bin 95 - $726

All of these wines are still available at Auction, and even the 1976 (assuming prefect cellaring) has a drinking window to 2040.

But Penfolds the company is more than just Penfolds Grange, Penfolds has a storied history dating back to 1844 (less than ten years after the settlement of South Australia). Their wines have graced tables around the world. Most people assume that Penfolds China Exports were a recent thing, but Penfolds Wines were being sold on The Bund in Shanghai in the late 1890’s.

The real story of Penfolds is one of blending and experimentation, and hard choices. It is the story of what did not go into Grange that make’s Penfolds Grange great today and gave birth to other Iconic Wines within the Penfolds stable.

Cabernet Sauvignon

Cabernet Sauvignon is the handy tool of Australian Winemakers, it is often blended in small amounts into Shiraz to provide “lift”, body and mid palate texture (tannins) to great effect. Many pundits will often refer to the addition of small amounts of aromatic white grapes (Viognier, Roussanne and Marsanne) to provide lift to Shiraz, a la Cote Rotie Wines. But Cabernet Sauvignon is used more often and to great effect.

If fact, across the 70 odd vintages of Penfolds Grange, most of then have contained up to 15% of Cabernet Sauvignon as part of the final blend.

Originally Penfolds Grange was supposed to be a Cabernet Sauvignon to be held in the same regard as First Growth Bordeaux. It was Max Schubert’s (Penfolds Winemaker and father of Grange) side excursion to Bordeaux that inspired his first experiments to create Grange. In fact, the first two experimental wines Max Schubert produced were Cabernet Sauvignon. The decision to make Grange from Shiraz lay in the capricious nature and inconsistent yields from vintage to vintage of Cabernet Sauvignon. At that point in time the main source of Cabernet fruit for Penfolds came from the Kalimna Vineyard near Nuriootpa in the Barossa Valley, with the decision not to use the fruit for Grange it was diverted to be used in blending. And occasionally a single vineyard release.

Kalimna Block 42

In a good vintage, Cabernet Sauvignon makes beautiful wine. In great vintages, the result is nothing less than sublime. There have been six such vintages in the Kalimna Vineyard. Fruit quality, vineyard yield and perfect conditions combined together to create a vintage of sufficient quality that the decision was made to release a single vineyard wine. The Penfolds Block 42 Kalimna Cabernet Sauvignon, was released in the following vintages: 1953 (as Grange Cabernet), 1961, 1963, 1964 (as Bin 707), 1996 and 2004. These wines are almost mythical beasts, if you are ever lucky enough to be offered the chance to taste… the only answer should be yes, please!

Bin 707

Named after an aeroplane (no kidding)! The Penfolds Bin 707 was named after the Boeing 707 which brought Australia closer to the world with the era of Jet Travel in the 1960’s.

Originally sourced from the Kalimna Vineyard the Bin 707 had a stop start history, the quality of the fruit and inconsistent yields being the reason behind the product line discontinuing in 1969 (having only been launched in 1964).

If Max Schubert had had access to a) the technology available in the 70’s and b) more consistent fruit sources (investments made in the Coonawarra in the 60’s) then the Penfolds Grange released today would most likely be a Cabernet Sauvignon. The resulting improvements in technology aided with the increased yield and quality of Cabernet fruit, such that the Bin 707 was restarted in 1976 and made using fruit sourced from the Barossa and Coonawarra, both from Penfolds Vineyards and independent growers. The rich, powerful wine available today is the result. Only made in vintages where fruit is of sufficient quality to match the reputation of the label.

Claret

Grange is not Penfolds oldest label, that title goes to the Penfolds St Henri, first made as the Auldana St Henri Claret in the early 1890's by Frenchman Edmond Mazure. Made as a Claret (Bordeaux style) wine, an early vintage was submitted to the Bordeaux Exposition of 1895 and won a Silver Medal, such was the quality. Auldana was adjacent to the Mackgill Estate (original name of Magill Estate) and was subsequently purchased by Penfolds in 1943 after financial difficulties forced the sale.

Winemaker Jack Davoren made the first “modern” vintage of Penfolds “Auldana” St Henri Claret in 1953 as a nod or homage to the wines produced by Emond Mazure, the first vintage being a Cabernet Mataro blend. The intention was to create a wine comparable with the great Bordeaux wines of the day.

From the 50’s to the early 70’s there were various blends used to create the St Henri Claret with a shift toward a predominantly Shiraz Cabernet Blend by the early 70’s. Auldana remained on the label until at least 1972, and the use of the word Claret remained until the mid-80’s.

The quality of the fruit and winemaking has always identified St Henri as Penfolds No.2 wine and until the 1980’s they (St Henri and Grange) competed for market share as wine drinkers preferred both wines. The original blends of St Henri Claret contribute some insight into the role Penfolds played in the development and establishment of the great Australian blend, the Cabernet Shiraz/Shiraz Cabernet.

Penfolds winemakers were not necessarily the inventors of this great marriage of grapes but were certainly influential in the blends ongoing development. Had Max Schubert not decided to go forward with Shiraz in Grange production, that early Kalimna Vineyard Cabernet fruit would not have been diverted to St Henri and Penfolds' early trials in blending Cabernet and Shiraz may not have occurred.

“The Single Greatest Australian Red Wine of the 20th Century” (James Halliday 2009)

The Penfolds Bin 60A Cabernet Sauvignon Shiraz 1962, is the only non-French wine to appear in Decanter Magazine’s ‘Top Ten Try Before You Die’ wines. A single vintage wine, marrying Shiraz fruit from the Kalimna Block with Cabernet fruit from the Sharam’s Block and Block 20 in the Coonawarra. A testament to great winemaking, and apparently still drinking well if you can obtain one. A second similar vintage was observed in 2004 and a decision was made to reproduce the blend. This too is an incredible wine, worth chasing if you have the patience and the funds.

The Lessons For the Future

Penfolds produced a myriad of experimental wines over the years, many not reaching the commercial market. Others that did were unique single vintage releases that are now unicorns of the secondary wine market. In fact, there are many and books have been written about them. All these trials and special blends were the forerunners of the wines available today, nearly all of the modern range of iconic wines can trace their origins to the experimental blends, single releases or decisions not to use certain grapes for certain wines.

Penfolds Bin 389 Cabernet Shiraz, often known as the “Baby Grange” due to both the use of Cabernet fruit in the final Grange blend and also the use of old Grange barrels to mature the wine. But its origins derive more from the early work in creating St Henri Claret, and its subtle shift from a Bordeaux style Claret to a Shiraz dominant Shiraz Cabernet Blend.

Penfolds Bin 407 Cabernet Sauvignon. Once produced as a pure expression of Coonawarra fruit, is now a multi-regional blend like its older sibling the Bin 707 (due largely to demand and fruit supply). Like the Bin 389 the Bin 407 uses old Bin 707 Hogsheads to mature. In some rare vintages when Bin 707 is not produced, often the fruit will be contributed towards the final Bin 407 blend.

Penfolds Bin 798 RWT Shiraz (Red Wine Trial). Named RWT as a nod to the series of Red Wine Trials that culminated in the release of the first vintage in 1997. A single region Shiraz completed in French Oak, the RWT is a contrast to both Penfolds Grange and St Henri… attracting its own following in the last 25 years. The RWT is a hallmark of Penfolds history of blending and experimentation, otherwise this wine would not exist. One of the great wines produced by Penfolds that made it from the Blending bench through multiple trials and finally released.

Penfolds continues to experiment and produce new wines.

With the introduction of French and American wines, each of these wines are Bordeaux wines in style… either Cabernet Sauvignon or Bordeaux Blends. It would appear that Penfolds is going full circle to where Max Schubert began, or have looked at their crystal ball and identified Cabernet Sauvignon as a reinvigorated grape of the future. Penfolds in not just great because of Grange, but Grange is great because of the way Penfolds makes wine.