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Penfolds killer quartet: top Chardonnay and Shiraz

Wine

Philip White ponders and probes four of the most outstanding new-release Penfolds premiums, including the 2012 vintage Bin 95 Grange.

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Penfolds Reserve Bin 15A Adelaide Hills Chardonnay 2015
($100; 13% alcohol; screw cap)

Short of somewhere extra-terrestrial Elon Musk probably thinks he can afford to go, you won’t get many Chardonnays of this calibre, even at this price.

The best way to approach it is to first taste it at what I call Kangarilla winter windowsill temperature (window closed): somewhere around cellar cool. Not chilled.

Do that with one glass while you put the rest of the bottle in the fridge. If the fridge don’t work, open the window to the top of the label.

Sniff glass #1. You get your standard textbook Burgundian oaked Chardonnay facets: prickly burlap superphosphate sacks; smoked bacon; grilled cashew; enoki and oyster mushrooms; Bosc pear; honeydew, canary melon and canteloupe. Which adds up to more than just facets. That’s facetious.

Drink. It’s very dry. It’s chalky – like the sacks. There’s that buttery pear, with the tannins of its skin. Then the melon juices and the cantaloupe peel. As only Chardonnay can do amongst the whites, it manages somehow to make all this appear balanced and calm.

When the bottle’s cold, like Tasmanian winter windowsill temperature, take it out of the fridge and compare. Here we go. That burlap stuff has partly mellowed; partly developed the acrid cordite whiff of the 12-guage. Its edge is sharper; its soulful heart softer. In the middle, all the fruits have poached and mellowed and melded. The peel tannins are better assimilated; the gently forceful acidity sings a little louder without even looking like it might lurch outa the harmony.

Chill it further and it’ll sure lurch. You’ll spoil it. Too cold and it’s like you’re sitting there with your windscreen smashed and shattered all over your lap. With your ego. So just don’t.

Grill scallops on their half-shells with shredded mandarin peel and a slurp of really good soy. Garnish with shredded spring onion. On your marks!

Penfolds Yattarna Bin 144 Chardonnay 2014
($150; 13% alcohol; screw cap)

All the above wound up to 11. It’s smoky. It smells darker. These mushrooms are no longer white. They’re more like fresh-picked shiitake. It has bright glistenings of lemon rind. This time, the pear is the brilliant Passe-Crassane, which is half quince, so it’s viscous but grainy. It has the texture of a good red. It has a long long linger of a tail. It’s authoritative and assertive. Have it at mild windowsill temperature and you begin to see why it started life 20 generations ago as “The White Grange”.

Drink the rest at Tassie winter temperature and you see a change of gears like we rehearsed above. As far as complexity, viscosity and sheer weight goes, it’s closer to Grange, but maybe sitting at the level of the more subtle equivalent: St Henri.

The white St Henri is cool enough for me. That’s far enough. I can’t ever see anybody getting a Grange out of Chardonnay.

I’d bone and stuff a lamb with boned and stuffed guinea fowl and heaps of garlic and fresh tarragon, tie it up like a big sausage, cook it real slow in a wood oven, then crunch up its skin by finishing it on a spit. You can slice that from the end into dribbling dinner plate sized serves. Plenty of lemon juice.

Yattarna. Whew. Best one yet.

Penfolds St Henri Shiraz 2013
($100; 14.5% alcohol; screw cap)

St Henri is always a drink of pure emotion.

Made the very old way in big old oak tanks, it should be softer and more approachable than the more recently designed reds with all their posh new barrels. After a few years where the style seemed to veer in their austere right-wing direction, with more angular fruit, even given the mighty nature of the vintage, the 2012 seemed a determined swing back toward the original, more soulful, slow-dancing school.

Without compromising one atom of its bright modern cleanliness and purity, this is another respectful step towards the past, and fellows like the Burgundian Edmond Mazure who started it in Kanmantoo in the late 1800s, and John Davoren, who revived it at Magill, partly in reactionary response to Max Schubert’s radical new punk Grange in the early 1950s.

After all that fanatical fruit selection and the big wood vats, where everything does its ultra slo-mo and decelerating waltz; after appreciating the killer force of the best reds from 2012, it took me some time to realise that this, too, is a wine of considerable might. It may well blow the ’12 away for sheer silky midnight business before I wear the pine overcoat. It’s probably even more likely to do it after.

In the meantime, I’m very happy to have it now.

The fruit here is still cheeky and fresh in its way: it takes a couple of days after first breath or a proper schloosh in a decanter to get past that brash infancy and begin to don the more demure demeanour it’ll project after its next decade. Where it’ll reach its early adulthood safe beneath its lovely protective screwcap.

Penfolds Grange Bin 95 2012
($850; 14.5% alcohol; cork)

While I’ve dared in recent years to suggest Peter Gago and his troops have tended to gradually angle Grange away from the huge sap and volatile acidity era it traversed under consecutive winemakers Don Ditter and John Duval, give the Gago crew a truly mighty vintage like 2012 and they’ll simply use every dribble of that precious fruit to make a classic Grange more after the style of that famous DD/JD regime.

Given its militant stance, the ’12 does begin to show little strands of elegance earlier than those ’75 to late 2000s wines usually could. Like three days open, without decanting, but taking a glass each day. Wow. That, to my wet memory, puts it closer to the Max Schubert wines.

A big spoonful of Stilton helps.

It’s certainly not much like the ’11, a very tricky wet year in which the Grangers made a particularly supple and feminine wine which needs no Stilton.

While this brute has its eyes fixed firmly on a horizon well beyond mine, peer long enough through the tiny joins in its full plate armour and you begin to realise that it’s mainly muscle and sinew in the flesh department beneath. So far. Even Henry VIII remained svelte and fit as a fiddle until his mid-40s.

And the armour? This surly beast hides its fruit in a shiny carapace of AP John Quercus alba white Missouri oak. Its volatility seems more of the sap of that tree than the acetic vinegary acid that tended to dominate for years after the 1973 retirement of Penfolds genius wine chemist Ray Beckwith and Max Schubert in 1975.

Which is never to say it lacks that distinctive teaspoon of sweet ancient balsamic. After that touch of ancient Rome this king of wines takes me on a swoop through the exotic orient. Its bouquet is often curry-like, edging towards turmeric. Below that I hit a Zhuan Cha brick of aged Pu-erh tea.

Just as quickly, it fires me back to occidental aromas: bitter Valrhona cooking chocolate and all the honey, dates, figs, candied fruits, nuts, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, nutmeg and black pepper you find pre-blended in a full-bore Siena panforte. Yum. Half of which sounds like it was brought home by Marco Polo anyway. To add to that Chinese compressed brick tea, there’s also the threatening darkness of the leaves of the tomato, blackberry and deadly nightshade. Deadly.

Notice my lack of mention of fresh dark berry fruits. They’re hardly here yet. But recently, upon the occasion of my birthday, I drank Max’s ’71. Plenty of fresh berries there. That was 45 years old. Henry VIII, see? Glory be!

Food? Max’s favourite: Stilton. With something he may never have tried: a proper panforte.

These outstanding wines, and the rest of the suite, will be available at Penfolds Magill Estate and other good outlets from October 20.

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