From Coonawarra to Shanghai - Wine & Spirits Magazine

From Coonawarra to Shanghai

The accolades have been pouring in for Penfolds Bin 620, a blend of Coonawarra cabernet sauvignon and shiraz referencing one of Max Schubert’s Special Bin wines last produced in 1966.

Peter Gago Peter Gago
Peter Gago, Penfolds’ chief winemaker, launched the new vintage last week in Shanghai, territory the Bordelais have effectively ruled with their own collectible cabernets. As trade accelerates between Australia and China, the choice to launch Bin 620 on foreign soil was more than a diplomatic initiative. While pricing the wine at nearly two times the cost of Grange, Penfolds was, in effect, giving Chinese collectors first dibs on a wine they and few others can currently afford.

Most of the rest of the buyers for 620 will be collectors in Australia, as it is to be sold exclusively from the cellar door. And it is the Australian penchant for Coonawarra cabernet that allows Penfolds to make 620 their most expensive wine.

My own South Australian cabernet epiphany came, in fact, with a Barossa wine: the 1953 Bin 9 Grange Cabernet, a rare bottle I had the good fortune to taste at Penfolds’ Rewards of Patience event in 2007. It had been produced by Max Schubert from vines that were then closing in on a century of age, the same vines that produced the 2004 Block 42. Early on, Schubert had his hopes set on making a long-lived red wine based on cabernet sauvignon, later determining that the supply of top-flight shiraz was more reliable vintage after vintage. Perhaps those hopes are embodied in the Australian passion for Coonawarra cabernet. When it comes to the latest release of 620, even tough nuts like Philip White are gushing over the juice.

Gago brought a bottle to our New York office this past fall. As he opened it, he explained that 2008 was on track for a great harvest when a 16-day heat wave hit on March 3; the two lots set aside for Bin 620 came in prior to the heat. “There’s only one earlier 620, and a long time in between. It’s very rare in Coonawarra to get shiraz and cabernet at that level,” he said. “In 2008, we could achieve both.” My notes from that tasting: “Pure Coonawarra without being herbal—more savory and earthy. A chocolate cake of tannins. Smooth, luscious, impeccably balanced, finely tailored in the best Penfolds’ style.”

Penfolds produced close to 1,000 cases, some bottles under cork, some under screwcap; according to Gago, “a large chunk of the wine will go into the museum.” Most of the rest will end up in collectors’ cellars, whether Chinese, Australian or American. These Special Bin wines have a track record of maturing for decades and the latest 620 will likely live as long as the original ’66.

This is a W&S web exclusive feature.

Joshua Greene is the editor and publisher of Wine & Spirits magazine.

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