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New Grange: prices peak higher at Penfolds

Wine

Philip White has a privileged wallow through the top end of the new Penfolds Collection – including the 2014 Grange – wondering just how high those prices can go.

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Penfolds Grange 2014
($900; 14.5% alcohol; cork)

Okay, folks, here’s the annual pyramid of Australian wine. Just sitting there on the luxury goods landscape. Omnipresent. Ex cathedra.

Apart from being a very impressive pyramid indeed, I reckon this one does two things very well. First, it’s another step away from the overtly sappy American oaks Penfolds used most prominently through the ’75-’95 era. Second, it’s riveted to the long-term Penfolds Grange style. Tricky act, that two-way canal: takes a hardy hand on the winemaking tiller.

How so? This seems a more acid-based wine than one built around oak sap. And by acid, I mean natural grape acid, in this case rich with the traditional formic Grange whiff. And yep, a waft of straightforward volatile acetic acidity, too, along the lines of great aged balsamic. Cornerstones of the style since Max Schubert’s day.

Then the methodical forensics of fruit sourcing stacks an entire Central Market of aromas onto your gastronomic pyramid, from the Burmese and Persian spice girls through the mushroom tunnel to the Chinese grocery full of raw pork and soy and black bean sauces, past the smoky Barossa smallgoods, headlong through the fruiterers and confectioners and past the loose-leaf tea vendor to the coffee shop. Double-shot flat white and a slice of panforte, please. Whew.

Barossa, McLaren Vale, Wrattonbully, Coonawarra, Clare and Magill Shiraz parcels were selected for this blend of 98 per cent Shiraz and 2 per cent Cabernet.

As always, the barrels were 100 per cent new American, but another year along the track on which Peter Gago and his winemakers constantly refine and evolve their interchange of intelligence with their Barossa master cooper, AP John.

Which is all a bit technical, but hey, you’re buying the drinker’s equivalent of a Bugatti Chiron here. You’ll want to know how big and how quick before you need to ask how much.

So how big? Very big. It’s a pyramid. And how fast? This’ll be hitting true Bugatti exhilaration in about 10 years. Not too bad for a pyramid. From there it’ll continue accelerating into oblivion, which it’ll hit in about 20.

After that, who cares?

Only the obsessive collectors of pyramids and Bugattis, methinks. The gastronomes with the cunning or wherewithal will have drunk it all by then.

Penfolds Bin 707 Cabernet Sauvignon 2016
($600; 14.5% alcohol; cork)

Coonawarra, McLaren Vale, Barossa and Adelaide Hills fruit jostled its way through the intricate Penfolds tasting regimes which gradually isolate the very best parcels, and then the best individual barrels for 707.

Traditionally bound tight with bright new American Quercus alba oak, Bin 707, like Grange in its way, has long been an individualist Penfolds style more than a conventionally-templated varietal. Having watched generations of suits sluice through it with their beef, I always regarded it as Australia’s most right-wing wine. To me, it usually seems brash. But this year, I reckon I see that incredible fruit climbing all over the oak: it’s time the left took a turn.

Which is not to suggest any change of heart: the damn thing is still most determinedly 707, and it needs years. It’s just harmonised more in tune with my personal preference, as the Gago team gradually got closer to the slow, steady heart of South Australia’s 2016 Cabernet.

So close, in fact, that the pithy tasting notes make a haemoglobin joke: this glorious gastronomic artefact is sufficiently intense and enveloping to invoke the blood of martyrs and saints, if it doesn’t actually spill any.

We wouldn’t want any spillage, would we? Not with this sultry black thoroughbred. And I almost said Black Caviar.

Penfolds RWT Bin 798 Barossa Valley Shiraz 2016
($200; 14.5% alcohol; screw cap)

While the Red Winemaking Trial (RWT) was from its 1995 conception intended to showcase top-flight Barossa Shiraz in the finest French – not American – oak, this release sees even that fine, spicy timber surrendering to a rise of pure, intense fruit.

So sweet little ‘sixteen grew the pizazz and sass required to dominate both American and French forests. I mean there’s plenty of that gingery, cardamom/cumin/citrus-rind French oak here, but like the 707, it’s in the grip of whipsnake elegant fruit that’s as intense and impenetrable as lithe.

While they’re chalk-and-cheese in variety, philosophy and style, both 798 and 707 are this year distinguished by their lovely staunch acidity and persistent tannins. It’s brilliant, energetic Barossa Shiraz that’s quite the opposite of lumberjacked jammy gloop that far too much Shiraz became over the last 20 years.

This red winemaking trial looks like it worked. I’d be tempted to call it the Red Winemaking Correction. All boxes ticked.

Penfolds Magill Estate Shiraz 2016
($150; 14.5% alcohol; cork)

It amuses me that this vineyard, the surviving heart of Dr and Mary Penfold’s Grange, is perhaps the most conventionally-styled of these front-row Penfolds reds. It’s pretty and perfumed – musk sticks – at the more frivolous end of its aromatic spectrum, with the classic Magill tones of black tea leaf and star anise decorating buckets of mulberries and blackberries down the deep soul end.

In common with the other 2016s, the wine is marked by its lissom acidity and long fine slaty tannins.

Without getting the sophistry many other Penfolds premiums are awarded in the cellar, this more demure wine actually reaches further into the Penfolds past than the more ostentatious and elaborate post-war extremes. It’s a tidy, well-kept glass of the history of winegrowing on the Adelaide Plain and its rubbley piedmont.

Too easily overlooked now, this is the one I’d be reaching for in seven or eight years. By then it’ll be very much like something dainty you’d find – at a similar price – on the alluvial rubbles at the mouth of the Rhône Gorge.

Penfolds St Henri Shiraz 2015
($135; 14.5% alcohol; screw cap)

Once again, this is a fruitcake collection of the best little berries the Gago gang could wrangle and extract from right across the state. Done and dealt. But here it all goes into big old oak tanks to chill out and mellow with none of the taut anxiety stiff new tight-grained barrels offer, whether from France or Missouri.

Musky confectioners’ sugar dusts the topnote here; below that there’s the usual deep well of orange-to-black Medlar gels. I’ve seen the label, of course, so I know what it is, and of course I’m far too aware of the size of the spend, but by this stage of the sniff, I’m a goner. This is the bargain of the bunch.

Winemaking costs a lot less if you don’t over-oak everything with posh designer barrels.

Which leaves me to mention, dammit, these goddam prices. If you’re not already brow-beaten and bashed down and humiliated by the abject immoral ordure of the age and its evil, the annual Penfolds price hikes will knock out what’s left of your teeth, if not your spirit.

Obviously, enough people are capable of, and cool with, spends of this level to keep the coffers of Treasury Wine Estates flooded with the incoming Penfolds squirt, thank you Mr Gago. Not many wineries make a goddam pyramid every year, or a smug feline sphynx like that St Henri.

How I wish more of us could afford to contribute!

The 2014 Grange and the rest of the Penfolds Collection will be available for paid tasting and purchase at Penfolds Magill from October 17.

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