Thursday, November 17, 2011

Penfolds Releases Bin 620 Coonawarra Cabernet Shiraz 2008

Why would I fly to Shanghai for the day, arriving Tuesday night, and leaving Wednesday night? Well, my precipitous departure form Shanghai was dictated by a family commitment of longstanding that meant I had to be home by today. Were it not for that, I would have had a more sensible two-night stay in Shanghai, and attended the formal banquet that followed Wednesday’s press conference – which was the event I did attend.

Still speaking in riddles? Yes, I suppose I had better get to the point. It was the global release of 2008 Penfolds Special Bin 620, made 45 years after the only prior release, 1966 Bin 620. Both wines are 100% Coonawarra, the ‘08 51% cabernet sauvignon and 49% shiraz. Many years ago I purchased a case of the ‘66 from Len Evans’ Bulletin Place Wine Shop at around $20 a bottle, rather less than the $1000 a bottle for the ‘08.

What is more, it’s availability in Australia (and everywhere else, for that matter) is extremely limited. Unless you find it in a duty free international terminal shop (still at $1000 a bottle) Penfolds’ cellar door in the Barossa Valley is the only avenue. It follows from this that it will never, ever be discounted. Oh, and for the ultimate trophy hunters, there are a few magnums, and even fewer (less than 10) imperials.

The launch, at Shanghai’s ultimate luxury hotel, the Waldorf Astoria on The Bund, must have cost many tens of thousands of dollars. Journalists from many countries came on the same mission: to taste the wine, poured from magnums – a nice touch, but giving away gold – and hear Peter Gago’s masterly story of the wine and its making.

At this point, I find myself in a difficult position. When I say this is one of the greatest red wines Penfolds has made in the last 50 years, I can hear the cries “Well, he would have to say that, wouldn’t he?” from polite readers, and a great deal worse from cynical tweeters, bloggers and so forth. My only response is that I have tasted the wine, and my critics haven’t.

I wrote an unusually lengthy tasting note while Gago went through the history of Penfolds, the region of Coonawarra, etc, for the benefit of the many Chinese in the room, and the lavish video clips with deafening music, that preceded the demand to taste. The wine had been poured in everyone’s glass early in the proceedings, and I had no hesitation in breaching the taste embargo.

Key words among many were “seamless” (fruit and oak integration), “balance” (from superb tannins), and “accessible” (far more so than many Granges when three years old, prior to their release). And it turns out that it is these characteristics that have lead to its release now, not when five years old. In an aside, Gago told me its character, balance and so forth now was little different to those it had a year ago.

And so to the tasting note. The brilliantly clear, deep purple-crimson colour is an enticing start, and the seamless fruit and oak integration on the bouquet is perfect. Complex cedar and cigar box aromas are entwined with a basket of perfectly ripened black fruits. The palate is exceptionally intense, yet supremely elegant, with immaculate balance, texture, structure, line and length. Its outstanding tannins give the wine a certain authority: this is not a fruit-bomb style, yet is far more accessible than most Granges at this age. (Gago said to me the ‘04 and ‘06 Granges were ready several years before they were released.) it is without questions the best three-year-old Penfolds red (officially released) I have tasted.

The nuts and bolts are 51% cabernet sauvignon, 49% shiraz, part-fermented (with a few embellishments) and matured in 57% French and 43% American oak hogsheads (100% new) for 12 months. It has 14.5% alcohol, 7g/l of acidity, and a pH of 3.42. The magnums poured in Shanghai had corks, I will have to find out whether the Australian allocation out of a total make of less than 1000 dozen will be screwcapped or not.

Why has it taken 45 years to produce another Bin 620, and how long before the next release? Good questions, but the long answers are for another day.

PS: I very nearly missed the forest for the trees. This event was a powerful statement about Treasury Wine Estate’s commitment to Asia.

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