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Penfolds wine dinner

July 30, 2009

I suspect most of us probably started discovering wines, when we were young and penniless, through the Penfolds bin lots. It’s been a long time since I last tasted any of those (with the exception of Bin 28) after I got my hands dirty with expensive Old World stuff. When the opportunity came to revisit these wines, as well as Magill Estate and Grange, at the newly-renovated Saint Pierre on 29 July 2009 with Magill Estate’s Sommelier Remon Van de Kerkhof in attendance, it was time to return to roots.

We started off with the 2008 Penfolds Autumn Riesling as aperitif. Served too warm, it was dry and simple, with dominant notes of lime. This was followed quickly by the 2007 Private Release Chardonnay (paired with foie gras and porcini jelly) that was slightly off-golden, showing good body and minerality, with undertones of vanilla and cream. But, on the whole, still rather straightforward and unexciting.

Breakfast at Magill Estate 19 Feb 2004During my sabbatical year in South Australia, I remembered seeing vast parcels of Penfolds vines practically in every wine region: Adelaide Hills (even in the Lenswood sub-region), Langhorne Creek, McLaren Vale, Barossa Valley, Clare Valley, Padthaway, Coonawarra. Penfolds has always advocated multi-district blends for its reds, achieving a consistent “house style” year in year out, as exemplified by the following trio from 2006, an outstanding vintage in South Australia, on par with 1998 and 2004.  Each displayed an impenetrable deep red foreboding a full-bodied, masculine, upfront style of wine. This was the best Koonunga Hill (paired with barramundi) I’ve ever had, showing great concentration of blackcurrant flavours with a richness and density not previously encountered from this label, without any trace of alcoholic heat. The blend of shiraz and cabernet was seamless (there is another Koonunga Hill blending cabernet with merlot, so look carefully at the label!). Really excellent for its price, even hauling itself from the plonk league. In contrast, the Bin 407 (with lamb loin), a straight cabernet sauvignon with notes of dark bitter chocolate, was steely, austere and really backward. Very dark and brooding, not revealing itself. Real sophistication kicked in with the Bin 389 (with caramelised duck breast), a 50:50 shiraz-cabernet blend in the Provencal tradition of Coteaux d’Aix. It was more open on the nose, the plummy ripe shiraz supported by firm cabernet structure, ending on a medicinal, liquered note with intense but well integrated tannins. It didn’t evolve much in the glass. In general, wines from the Bin series need plenty of bottle time, and I’m sure this 389 will age very well.

The final pair of wines was what everyone had come for: the Magill Estate single vineyard shiraz (paired with braised pork tenderloin), and the flagship Grange (paired with braised beef short-rib), both from the fabulous 2004 vintage. Tasting the former recalled the morning of 19 February 2004, the very first day of the 2004 harvest, when the missus and I had breakfast (expensive, for a new AC then) at the renowned Magill Estate restaurant, watching the rows of vines being harvested against the backdrop of Adelaide city lying below the gentle slope. This is the only day of the year when the winery’s restaurant is open for breakfast. This wine is a definite step up in quality from the Bin series, the aromas are more lifted, the tannins more velvety and sophisticated. Expansive on the mid-palate, showing great balance, focus and restraint. Great purity. It doesn’t have the unctuous quality of very ripe Barossa fruit, which is not a bad thing. This is a shiraz smack from the Magill district of Adelaide, and an excellent one.

Detail of complete Penfolds Grange vertical at Magill Estate cellarFinally, the 2004 Grange. Beautiful deep red. Much more open than I’d have imagined. Great entry, lovely fruit caressing the palate with its silky and velvety tannins, excellent structure, great depth, very “correct”, very cerebral (from Kieron, I agree), dovetailing to a cool and long finish without any trace of heat. A wine of obvious power and beauty, like a Ferrari in absolute control. Utterly sophisticated. A great Grange. Although the preceding Magill Estate shiraz was excellent, this Grange shows up the former’s deficiencies. That says a lot. I was quite speechless for several moments.

This is only the second time I’ve had a Penfolds Grange, the previous one being a 1992 that was rather unexceptional and lacking in complexity. But, as they will tell you at Penfolds, there is no such thing as a bad Grange. I was trying to think how this would compare with Henschke’s single vineyard Hill of Grace. The Grange has greater concentration and a more immediate feel, whereas I’d imagine the HoG is likely to show more finesse and layering, leaning towards the Old World (a recent 1995 comes to mind). Is this 2004 Grange worth the price of almost SGD500? Frankly, I’ve always felt that Penfolds wines are priced at a premium. It’s like dining at an expensive posh restaurant, when better food is available elsewhere for less. But I suppose it’s not a matter of cost. Acquiring this wine is akin to getting that Ferrari – it says a lot about that person than itself. I would, in my case, for the sake of remembering those wonderful days in Adelaide, witnessing the 2004 harvest in person.

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