Thursday, April 23, 2015

Penfolds and the Pinnacle of Australian Wine: A Pebble Beach Food and Wine tasting panel

I love to participate in tastings where Paolo Basso is lead because, not only is he a pure taster, he is also elegant, clear, and precise in describing the sensory characteristices of the wine "under the microscope." But I also love participating in tastings led by DLynn Proctor because he is unmatched in describing the technical characteristics of the wine and the conditions under which it was produced; a style in marked contrast to the Basso approach. DLynn recently headlined a panel at Pebble Beach Food and Wine (April 9 - 12, 2015) titled Penfolds and the Pinnacle of Australian Wine and I report on that tasting in this post.

The tasting was scheduled to be held at 3:30 pm on April 10th in the St Andrews East Room at The Inn at Spanish Bay. I had driven around in the town of Monterey for a bit after picking my car up at the San Jose Airport and, after a brief lunch, headed north on Lighthouse Avenue and then southwest on David Avenue before making a right into Congress Road and into the grounds of The Inn.

The overall setting at The Inn is one of elegance, both outside and in, and conversations seemed to be conducted in hushed tones. No drunken throngs here. I inquired after the St Andrews Room and made my way there and mingled with the other attendees awaiting entry and the start of the tasting. The room, once the doors were opened, was rather expansive and was occupied by rows of tablecloth-bedecked tables oriented towards a raised platform at the front. The platform was occupied by a table and four chairs and would be the home of the panelists for the duration of the event.

After some additional socializing within the room, the meeting was called to order and DLynn introduced the panel members. In addition to himself, they were:
  • Greg Harrington MS, Founder and Winemaker, Gramercy Cellars
  • Ray Isle, Executive Wine Editor, Food & Wine
  • Kim Beto, Vice President of Key Accounts, Southern Wine and Spirits of Northern California.

Once the introductions were out of the way, DLynn gave a brief overview of the history of Penfolds. My notes regarding this particular discourse was "He understands and disseminates the story of Penfolds like no other ..." A little bit of that Penfolds history (with a Grange bent) can be found here.

The tasting was divided into non-Grange and Grange flights, the former consisting of six bottles and the latter of five. The non-Grange labels, drawn from the Penfolds Collection, were RWT, Magill Estate, and St. Henri. Of the three, I had only previously tasted the RWT. The defining characteristics of the three non-Grange labels are presented below. Similar data for Grange can be found here.

Initial Vintage
Fruit Source(s)
Barossa Valley, South Australia
Stainless Steel (SS) tanks with wax-lined wooden header boards; finished in barrels
12 – 15 months in 50 – 70% new French oak hogsheads (300L)
Magill Estate Shiraz
Magill Estate, Adelaide. Single-vineyard blocks to include Blocks 1, 2, and 3
Wax-lined, open concrete fermenters with wooden header boards; after basket pressing, components complete fermentation in barrels
12 – 15 months in 65% new French and 35% new American oak hogsheads
St Henri
1953 – 1956 experimental; commercial in 1957
Cabernet Sauvignon; Shiraz
CS from Coonawarra and Barossa Valley; Shiraz from Barossa Valley, Eden Valley, Clare Valley, McLaren Vale, Langhorne Creek, Robe, and Bordertown
Stainless Steel (SS) tanks with wax-lined wooden header boards; finished in barrels; somer componenets vinified at Magill Estate
18 months in large (1400L), old oak vats

The first tastings within the non-Grange flight were of the 1998 and 2009 St. Henris. According to DLynn, St. Henri predates Grange and was actually purchased by Penfolds in the 1940s. During the 1950s and 1960s, the label rivaled Grange.

According to DLynn, these wines were double-decanted 1 hour before the tasting. The 1998 exhibited notes of spice, leather, tobacco, smoked meat, burnt toffee, chocolate, and mint. On the palate a savoriness and surprising youth. Intense, bright, some salinity, spiciness, and slightly grippy tannins. Long, spicy finish. According to DLynn, 2.4% Cabernet Sauvignon included. The nose on the 2009 was unyielding. Slight vegetality. Weighty on the palate with a great core of fruit. Intense. Eucalyptus notes. It is not as structured as the 1998 but a beautiful wine nonetheless.

The 1997 RWT had a layered complexity with a perfumed nose and accompanying notes of eucalyptus, mint, earth, spice, and dried tree bark. Delivers on the palate but not on the promise of the nose. Rich and powerful with blackberry, cedar, and truffles dominant. Long, drying finish. The 2012 RWT had a core of blackberry fruit supporting notes of dark chocolate, soy, and mahagony. Concentrated fruit on the palate along with a saline character. Balanced by appropriate tannin structure and acidity. Lengthy finish.

Magill Estate is a 5.1 ha property and is, according to DLynn, the spiritual home of Penfolds. The wine is 100% Shiraz and the 2004 exhibited notes of green bark, coconut, petrol, smoke, charcoal, and toffee along with a hint of phenolics. On the palate elegant and balanced with a drying finish. The 2012 was more "in your face" than was the 2004. Same nose as for the 2004 but with more intensity. Dark fruits and brightness on the palate.

The Grange flight consisted of wines from the 1986, 1989, 1998, 2008, and 2010 vintages. I had tasted the 1986 as a part of our Five Decades of Penfolds Grange tasting and had described it as having aromas of dill, bay leaf, thyme, phenolics and a little greenness. I had also described it as balanced and savory and having integrated tannins and a long finish. Similar characteristics exhibited at this tasting except for a hint of portiness taht I had not evidenced previously.

The 1989 wine had also been tasted earlier and in that case I described it as having ripe fruit, molasses, savoriness, beef broth with dark fruit and molasses on the palate. The notes for this tasting aligned somewhat in that I evidenced an aromatic high tone along with pyrazine, sugar cane, and molasses on the nose to go along with dark fruit, pyrazine, and molasses on the palate.

The 1998 had rich, dark, ripe fruit along with baking spices and pepper on the nose. Palate-filling. Rich and concentrated with a long creamy finish. Hint of port.

The 2008 was perfumed on the nose with baby talcum powder, sawdust, chocolate dust, and cocoa dust. Elegant on the palate with sweet ripe fruit and a hint of green. Toffee, coffee, chocolate, and a long smooth finish.

The 2010 also exhibited an elegant nose. On the palate thick, rich dark fruit. As Yogi Berra would say, "Its future ahead of it."

All in all this was a fun tasting. Dlynn and Greg made stellar contributions to the affair with DLynn being "always on" and Greg having taken the necessary steps to be prepared for the event. I wish that the audience member who sucked up most of the oxygen had been a little more knowledgeable.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

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