Early in 2021, Peter Gago, chief winemaker at Penfolds, introduced me to four new California-based wines over a Zoom call. He had sent two bottles of each wine for our meeting and, later, we included a set in our blind tastings. As in the past, the Penfolds’ lineup swept our South Australia tastings; and these new California wines showed impressively as well.
On the call, the wine that showed best was Bin 149, labeled as a “Wine of the World,” made with a selection of Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon blended with 14.9 percent South Australian cabernet sauvignon. The wine’s beauty quickly wiped out any skepticism I might have had about Penfolds’ blending concept. Six months later, in our blind tastings, it was Bin 704, a pure Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon that led the pack.
Penfolds is uniquely positioned to pull off what might seem like a gimmick from most any other producer. In any case, there is a long history of international blends, most notably the Algerian wine that made its way into French bottles, likely improving them when the weather was challenging in the north.
Gago was working under chief winemaker John Duval in 1997 when Penfolds bought the Creston 600 Ranch in Paso Robles. The property covers 609 acres, of which they planted 200 in 1998 and 210 in 1999, including a block with cuttings off their old-vine parcels in Kalimna (Barossa) and Magill (Adelaide Hills).
Rechristened Camatta Hills, that vineyard—and the progeny of those cuttings—provided all the syrah for the first release of Bin 600, from the 2018 vintage, in a blend with Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon.
The Penfolds winemaking team has access to prime vineyards in Napa Valley through their company cousins, the wineries also owned by Treasury Wine Estates, including Beaulieu, Beringer, Stags’ Leap Winery and Sterling.
“We asked them, ‘Can we have those 10 rows, that block?’ And we’ve had their full cooperation,” Gago told me. Andrew Baldwin, who joined the firm in 1988, is now Penfolds’ red winemaker and took charge of this California project in 2017. Baldwin uses Penfolds’ winemaking strategies, from stainless-steel vats with header-down boards to finishing some of the lots in barrel (the same barrels they use for Grange and Bin 707). “California sun above and soil below but everything in between is Penfolds,” Gago said.
That everything includes fermenting the vineyard lots separately, then lining them up for a classification tasting, blind. In Australia, the classification works from the top down, starting with Grange. In California, the top wine is Quantum (a selection of Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon, with 13 percent “A1 grade” shiraz from South Australia). “What falls out of that might cascade to 704,” Gago said, speaking of their 100 percent Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon. “Then 600. Exactly how we do it in Australia. If we can access any A grade fruit, we’ll take it,” he continued. “Then we’ll throw it into the classification tasting. We have access to all the vineyards Treasury owns, but we would not preclude buying a great lot of shiraz or cabernet.”
Tasting back up through the classification, Bin 600, the blend of Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon with Camatta Hills shiraz, shows plenty of fruit ripeness, but it’s not a sweet wine. It tastes savory. The oak shows up front (American oak barrels, 40 percent new), then the wine lasts on fruit.
Gago describes Bin 704, the Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon, as the “hemispherical mirror image” of Bin 407 in South Australia. “The fruit comes from right across the Napa Valley—Bancroft, Bear Flat, Gamble Ranch, Hewitt—but we’re not championing any one at this time.” Aged in French oak (40 percent new), this is an elegant cabernet with the seamless texture of a Penfolds wine, ripe but without any dimpled fruit.
Then come the Wines of the World, including Bin 149, a Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon. The blend is 28 percent from eastern Rutherford with contributions from Calistoga, Oakville and the rest of the Valley…and 14.9 percent from South Australia. Though this wine sees 100 percent new oak barrels (80/20 French/American), the fruit has completely eaten that wood, the richness of the oak apparent in the tannins, but not in the aroma. It’s a different ideal of a Napa Valley cabernet, with a different kind of structural richness. The empty glass is wildly floral, with a fruit-flower scent.
Gago describes the Wine of the World concept coming out of the team’s blending trials. “This was a lovely wine without the 14.9 percent from South Australia—beautiful, but all arms and legs. I had taken over some A1 and A2 grade shiraz and cabernet to help with the calibration of how we graded the wine. I said, ‘This needs a bit of glue,’ so, I put in ten to fifteen percent of the A1 South Australian cabernet and all of a sudden, this thing came together. Three of the people in the room were American, and they said, ‘You can’t do that, but it’s nice.’ And I said, ‘Agreed, it’s nice, and let’s see if we can do it.’”
Quantum, the top wine in the collection, is predominantly Oakville and Diamond Mountain cabernet sauvignon, blended with 13 percent A1 South Australia shiraz. It rested 16 months in new barrels, 80 percent American oak, 20 percent French. The wine is more restrained and closed than Bin 149; as Gago explained, he blended it for long-term aging. “People will not understand Quantum for quite some time,” he said. Time will tell, and time is usually generous toward Penfolds wines.
This feature is part of our February 2022 Regional Tasting Report on South Australia.
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