Thursday, December 1, 2022

A Most Extraordinary Wine Tasting

Writers who claim to know about wine without having tasted the wine they are writing about is a mystery to me. It's like saying you know how to ride a bicycle with never having ridden one.

So, it would seem that a writer must then taste the wine. For a writer, tasting is an ongoing necessity and personal education. In the 50 years that I have been writing about wine, I have tasted thousands of wines from various wine regions around the world. 

None was more memorable and educational for me than "The Rewards of Patience," a comprehensive tasting of Penfolds (Australian) red wines, recorded in a tasting book "to provide a wine-by-wine assessment of drinking and cellaring potential."

The tasting took place over three days in August 1993 at the Penfolds main winery in Nuriootpa, Barossa Valley, South Australia.  On the tasting panel were James Halliday and Huon Hooke, both distinguished Australian wine writers and authors; Robert Joseph, noted British wine writer; John Duval, Penfolds (former) Chief Winemaker and myself.  Also present was Andrew Caillard MW, tasting recorder and composer of notes for the "Rewards of Patience" (RoP) book. 

The RoP tastings are held a minimum of every four years, since 1983. In the forward to the 1993 book, John Duval wrote "Looking at 20 to 30 years of winemaking in a structured and disciplined way is a fascinating and educational exercise." 

I agree and wonder, then and now, why no other winery has held similar retrospective tastings of their wines. To mount such a tasting, a sufficient number of bottles need to be laid down from each vintage, but evaluating the evolution of your wines over time is an invaluable way to know if you are going in the right direction.

The five top Penfolds red wines are Penfolds Grange Bin 95, Cabernet Sauvignon Bin 707, Magill Estate Shiraz, St. Henri Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon Bin 407.   The other seven groups of red wines we tasted were various Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon, plus Clare Estate Bordeaux-style blend and a Shiraz Mourvedre.

We tasted 140 red wines, aging then in Penfolds cellar, over three days, while standing at a tasting bench,using a similar organization as an Australian wine show (competition. There isn't space enough here to give a comprehensive account of all the wines tasted, so we'll look at what I thought were the highlights of Penfold's two top red wines -- Grange and Bin 707.

Penfolds Grange Bin 95

Penfolds is justifiably proud of Grange, a Shiraz with small percentages of Cabernet Sauvignon, first made by the late Max Schubert from the 1951 vintage.(The wine then was called Grange Hermitage, but the French objected to the use of  "Hermitage," so Penfolds went with Grange). 


Grange is a multi-district blend, predominately from the Barossa Valley. Fermented at both Nuriootpa and Magill, it is aged in new American oak for 18-20 months.

We tasted a remarkable 22 vintages of Grange, from the 1955 to 1990 vintages. With the exception of 1986 and 1990, most of the other wines we thought would peak by 2015. Vintage 1986, a concentrated meaty wine with dark cherry flavors, was pegged to peak in 2020 and the 1990 Grange, an intense plummy wine, was thought by the panel to max out at 2025. 

The 1993 RoP tasting was, of course, a one off, with the evaluations and predictions yet to be proven. In the fifth edition of the Rewards of Patience, published in 2004, the 1986 Grange had been projected out to the year 230+, while the 1990 Grange was moved from 2015 to 2040.  

James Halliday described the 1990 as "Flawlessly supple."  And joined his fellow panelists in proclaiming the 1990 Grange "as extraordinary with incredible power and finesse."

The bottom line for a wine of the high caliber of Grange is that there is no "bad" year, just a range of goodness.  And Grange clearly shows the remarkable ability of a great wine to mature in the bottle for many years and to challenge the best wine tasters to predict with any accuracy when the wine, such as Grange, will begin to fade. 

Penfolds Bin 707 Cabernet Sauvignon

Penfolds other super premium red is Cabernet Sauvignon Bin 707, a multi-district blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, aged in American oak for 18 months. Bin 707, which first entered the Penfolds inventory in 1964, is among the finest Cabernets that Australia has to offer. 


The combination of American oak and intense berry flavors for the unique character of Bin 707. The 1990 had high-toned plum and blackberry, concentrated layers of ripe berry and licorice.  My comments about the 707s we tasted included "big berry flavors and dominant sweet fruit character."

At the 1993 Rewards of Patience, we tasted through 16 vintages of Bin 707 and decided that most of the wines would be best cellared further.  Outstanding vintages included a remarkably lively 1976, 1983, 1990, 1991 and the 1986 which the panel projected not to peak until 2020.  

Ten years later and with two diffferent panelists (Hooke and Halliday had returned as tasters), the assesment of the wines we thought were keepers in 1983 had changed but not by much.  The '76, '83, '90 and 1991 Bin 707s were still highly rated, although their peak had retreated by about five years, to2015.

The panelists described the 1990 Bin 707 as "rich and ripe wine with plenty of blackcurrant/plum/mulberry/dark chocolate aromas...A great vintage." lists the 1990 Grange at $400 and the currently available vintage, 2018, is $500.  Current Bin 707s are priced at $375 for the 2019 and $400 for the 1990.

Penfolds Grange and Bin 707 are a testament to long aging and to the careful attention paid selecting the vineyard site and matching the variety to the site. The Rewards of Patience book records these factors and is a valuable account of the wine's life and maturity.  

Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of sharing a memorable 1999 Bin 707, with my wife and good friends visiting from out of state. The bottle had traveled a lot but didn't seem to be any worse for wear.  Forecasted in the 2004 RoP book to be at its maximum in 2020, our Bin 707 still needed more time to show its full potential.

This account of Penfolds red wines is presented here as information for the wine buyer and collector.  I was priviledged to have served as an international judge at this exraordinary tasting.  My intent is to show how well some red wines age and not to say to the reader, "too bad you weren't invited to the tasting."


Next blog: The Reliability of Old Vines  

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