Grange 2005: the launch

(by peter)

There’s no doubt that these are tough times for Australia’s wine community.

It’s almost been a perfect storm.

First up, the economics have been against them of late, what with the global slowdown and some pretty disadvantageous exchange rates in key markets like the UK.

This has coincided nastily with a now endemic overproduction. Put simply, Australia has just been too efficient and too market-focused for its own good. A decade ago they couldn’t grow fast enough; now it’s clear they grew too fast too soon. (New Zealand would do well to heed this lesson.)

The Australian’s seemingly savvy business model, once lauded to the rafters, of brand ladders and premium priced brands (often attractively discounted in large retailers) has turned poisonous. This is, in part, due to the current supply and demand imbalance. Volumes have needed to be shifted hence discounts have become the norm rather than the exception.

Result: the trade and a generation of consumers now view Australian wine as a discount proposition at the lower end of the market, and little else. It’s a rising damp that has started to infiltrate Australian wines at all levels.

Finally, nature has also chipped in, with some vicious conditions of late.

Rampant bushfires (some with fatal consequences), flash floods, hail, frost, drought, heat-waves: Australia has seen it all in just a few years of viticulture.

Added to this is the looming spectre of global warming, which is proving a major headache for many growers in the country, especially those located in the production engine rooms such as Riverina. The Murray-Darling river, once the life support machine of many warm climate production areas, has fallen to perilously low levels in recent years. Few confidently predict a bright future on that front.

However, while many commentators in the UK seem to be revelling in what they view as Australia’s impending implosion, it’s well worth remembering that it remains the UK’s most popular wine country by retail sales volume and value. With around a 21% share in both categories, it is the clear market leader.

According to AC Nielsen, British drinkers buy around 240 million bottles of Oz wine every year in UK shops, at a value in excess of a billion pounds. Australia’s average bottle price in the UK sits at around £4.49: in third position, behind New Zealand and France.

The strategy Australia is now pursing is to emphasise its credentials in the pricey department, showcasing fine wines that speak of the land and the people that made them. This to insulate itself from the potential fallout should the bottom end of the market go pear-shaped for them.

But it’s not just a cynical ploy.

For far longer than Australia has been supplying plentiful volumes of cheap wine to the UK market, it has produced exceptionally fine wines in a huge range of styles.

In fact, it’s ironic that Australia is suffering at a time when, in our view, its fine wines are better than ever.

Attending the annual Penfolds icon and luxury release a few days ago in central London was a timely reminder of this contradictory reality.

Penfolds is a company that’s been going since 1844, albeit in varying guises. Its icon wine, Grange, was first made in 1951 (current RRP somewhere in the region of £33,000 – versus £190 for the 2005).

It’s always been a solid performer, even if the quality and consistency of the wines at the lower tiers hasn’t always been as exceptional as it should have been, in our view. But it continues to make excellent wines at all price points – witness our recent Wine of the Week.

Every year Penfolds makes a song and dance about the new releases of its top wines – perhaps taking a leaf out of Bordeaux’s book, following on neatly as it does from the annual en primeur frenzy in the Gironde. This particular new release followed on from last year’s launch of the highly acclaimed Grange 2004: a difficult act to follow.

The wines were introduced by the charismatic, informative Tom Portet (Peter Gago being unavoidably detained). My tasting notes follow below.

According to the press release, the wines are available from retailers including Berry Bros & Rudd, Majestic, Addison Wines, Waitrose, Selfridges, Harrods, Tesco Wines by the Case, and other independent wine merchants. Prices quoted are RRPs provided by Penfolds.

Penfolds Reserve Bin 08A Chardonnay 2008, Adelaide Hills, 13% (£34) – Tom quipped that this wine “has got a bit of a kick”, and he’s not wrong. It’s shows a lovely, effusive nose full of toasty nutty notes, with roasted citrus and lemon elements. On the palate, what it has in broad-shouldered character it slightly lacks in integration and restraint, but it’s nevertheless a lovely spicy toasty Chardonnay with engaging juicy acidity. It’s all wild ferment, 70% new oak, 100% MLF. Impressive. 7.5/10

Penfolds Yattarna Chardonnay 2007, 13% (£48) – no defined origin for this one because, while it used to be sourced entirely from the Adelaide Hills, it now comes 50% from Tasmania (Derwent), one third is from Henty in Victoria and the rest from the Adelaide Hills. (A sign of global warming in action..?) It’s a notably more subtle, intricate style than the Bin 08A; less overtly toasty, more restrained buttery notes with peach and apple, even minerality. On the palate, it has glycerol weight without an alcoholic kick (note the alcohol levels on both Chardonnays: we like!), with elegant breadth and texture. It’s spicy, and the acid does jar slightly, but I’d say that will integrate with time. Very high quality Chardonnay: impressive stuff. Needs time. 8.5-9/10 (Regarding the oak use, apparently Yattarna used to be more like Bin 08A, with mostly new oak – now they’re down to about 1/3 new oak, looking more for elegance rather than overt toastiness. It shows. This, the “white Grange”, is notably elegant and complex without being shouty. Apparently, it’s the wine of all the luxury portfolio that sells out fastest on release in Australia.)

Penfolds St Henri Shiraz 2006, 14.5% (£35) – Tom boldly declared from the outset that the St Henri is “the best value wine of the luxury portfolio”, explaining it is approachable younger than Grange but lasts well for 50 years. This is a blend of 89% Shiraz and 11% Cabernet, from Barossa, McLaren Vale, Robe, Clare and Langhorne. Aged for 15 months in very old, large oak vats (so, unlike RWT with 100% French oak, and Grange with 100% American oak, this shows almost no oak influence). Until the 1989 vintage, it was labelled simply as “claret”. For me, it’s a rustic and engaging yet slightly hard to love style of classic South Australian Shiraz/Cab blend. On the nose, it’s creamy raisined cassis, with hints of black pepper and caramel. While it has good structure, it’s no wallflower. It shows bruising weight with a twinkle-toed touch. Lovely texture, even if the acid seems a bit forced. Impressive; engagingly rustic and characterful; but hard to love. 7/10

Penfolds Magill Estate Shiraz 2007, 14.5% (£43) – this intriguing wine is one of the very few worldwide made within city limits (one other being in Montmartre, Paris, but which Tom claimed didn’t really count because it was “rubbish”). The vineyard was established in 1844 by Christopher Rawson Penfold; it covers 5.2 hectares, yielding 25-40 tons per year, and resides in downtown Adelaide. This was where Grange came from in 1951 and 1952. It’s a lovely wine, too. Floral with rich plum and clove on the nose, together with some nice earthiness. Lovely rusticity here, really mineral earthy savoury tannin, and good integration with the acidity. Lovely old-school style of Shiraz, really savoury and elegant with skilful tannin management. Classic yet elegant South Australian Shiraz. 8/10

Penfolds RWT Shiraz 2007, 14.5% (£58) – the idea behind this wine was that it represented a point of difference from Grange. Where the latter is a multi-regional blend aged in American oak, this is a single-region Shiraz matured in French oak (hogsheads of 300 litres versus the 225-litre barrique; in this case, 71% new, for 13 months). It was launched in 2000 with the 1997 vintage. Ripe brooding plum and dark fruit; seems riper than the Magill. Again, good texture and dense but fine-grained tannin. Lovely tannin on the finish. Lovely textural elegance to these wines, so you have the heady Australian character but with such an elegant delivery. This one’s a bit big and lacking in savoury charm for me, despite being admirable. 7.5/10

Penfolds Bin 707 Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, 14.4% (£68) – the “Cabernet version of Grange” (the latter clearly being a ubiquitous point of reference for Penfolds). According to Tom, this wine is sourced from the “oldest continuously producing Cabernet vines in the world”. The main constituent part of the blend is from Barossa, with elements from Padthaway and Coonawarra. All dry grown Cab, aged for 15 months in 100% new American oak hogsheads. It’s hard to make Cabernet work well in hot, dry climates (unlike, say, Shiraz) and 2007 was a particularly hot year (Adelaide was over 40 degrees centigrade for a week during the harvest).  This heat and slight strain on the plants shows in the wine, with a tiny hint of greenness on the tannins. But apart from that it’s very impressive, with a fantastic structure and linear backbone that the Shirazes don’t have. Elegant ripe berry fruit on the nose with classic minty notes and dark chocolate. Lovely texture and structure. Delicious core and focused acidity which grounds the wine. It’s so young: an absolute baby. Really savoury with tight-grained oak. Will drink well over 20 years or more. There’s a real sense of history and breeding here. An Ozzie classic. 8.5-9/10

Penfolds Grange 2005, 14.5% (£190) – according to Tom, and in contrast to the 2004, “this is classic Grange: it’s all about Barossa sweet red fruits with American oak”. The wine has 4.1% Cabernet and the rest is Shiraz. Some 88% of the blend is from Barossa, and some fruit is from McLaren and Coonawarra. It spends 18 months in 100% US oak hogsheads. On the nose, it’s quite ripe and plummy with almost porty hints. Seems very big. But very elegant too. Wow. I was expecting raw power and brawn on the palate, but actually it delivers really elegant intensity. Taut, quite sinewy (in a good way). Svelte, even. Still very much a baby. Pleasant mocha savoury notes. Very fine grained tannin. Don’t notice the US oak, on the initial nose, at least: this is not a stereotypical South Oz bruising Shiraz. It evolved in the glass, starting to show its well integrated hints of vanilla. The alcohol is noticeable but mainly as a warming sweet spice rather than raw heat. A very elegant wine that speaks lucidly of its origins, in an aristocratic accent. 9/10