The Rewards of Patience
When I received the invitation to attend a Penfolds Re-corking Clinic in San Francisco hosted by Chief Winemaker Peter Gago, my first thought was, “cool, I get to taste a bunch of old vintages of Grange (Australia’s most famous and collectable wine whose current release commands $425+ per bottle).” But shortly after arriving, I realized that the clinic was going to be about so much more (although I did get to taste a bunch of old vintages of Grange).
The concept of the re-corking clinic is simple yet brilliant, and the ultimate in post-sales client service and public relations. Started in Australia in 1991, the clinics, lead by Penfolds’ senior winemaking team, have since hit the road to offer the service in various parts of the world. The purpose of the clinic is simple. Natural cork deteriorates over time (the average life being 20 to 25 years), and many of Penfolds wines, Grange in particular, have shown their longevity to be beyond that. What better service to offer your longstanding clients than to have a senior winemaker assess, and if necessary, open, taste, top-up, re-cork, re-capsule, and certify your wine on the spot? The only requirement is that the wine must be at least 15 years old (and a Penfolds product of course).
I had the good fortune to shadow Edwin Young, an ICU pediatric physician and quintessential southern gentleman, from North Carolina. Young is a generous bon vivant and avid collector of Penfolds Grange who clearly enjoys sharing as much as he enjoys consuming great wine and food. He brought six bottles of Grange to the clinic — 1989, ‘88, ‘86, ‘82, ‘81, and 1977, the oldest vintage in his cellar.
With a representative of Christie’s Auction House present, Gago went through the process of opening, nosing, and assessing each of the wines as we sipped on 2003 Grange, eagerly awaiting his determinations. He declared that each of the wines, other than the ‘86, was a beautiful example of its respective vintage. With Gago’s and Young’s encouragement, we nosed and tasted each of the wines. The 1986 showed signs of oxidation, but each of the others was stunning and Gago certified them without hesitation. The wines were topped up with ‘03 Grange and re-corked, ready to return to the good doctor’s cellar, while the ‘86, at the suggestion of Gago, was destined for dinner in the not too distant future (Ed and his wife served it with their Thanksgiving meal, sharing the wine with 4 other friends and family).
Young’s enthusiasm was clearly evident. He was noticeably excited and relieved to have five of the six bottles certified and somewhat disappointed that the ‘86 didn’t make the cut. Young and his wife generally open and enjoy one bottle of Grange each month. His philosophy that “wine goes good with friends,” should be shared by more collectors. The Youngs’ friends look forward to their winter “soup nights” as they open and share bottles from their impressive cellar with simple, heart-warming meals.
While many of the bottles at the clinic contained Grange, there was also significant representation from Penfolds’ other wines including Bins 707, 389, 407, 28, and even the relatively inexpensive Koonunga Hill. The passionate Gago is very practical when discussing the purpose of clinics: to get bad bottles of out the system and to educate the owners of the bottles by tasting and discussing each bottle with them. Over 95,000 bottles have received this special treatment since the clinic’s inception.
There is no doubt as to the quality and age-ability of Penfolds Grange, but the most eye-opening aspect of the clinic was the tasting lead by Gago afterwards. Many people are aware of my skepticism when it comes to Aussie Shiraz’s ability to age (other than Grange). When it comes to Penfolds, this tasting went a long way to dispelling that belief. Wines almost two decades old still possessed vibrant fruit and enough structure to warrant additional years in the cellar. Read on for the surprising results and if you happen to have one of these bottles in your cellar, I’m sure Ed Young wouldn’t mind if you showed up at soup night.
Penfolds Bin 28 Kalimna Shiraz 1990, South Australia
Deep in colour and aromas with lots of dark berries and liquorice, flavours of black cherries, chocolate, liquorice, red currants and cedar, still possesses great structure and fruit with velvety tannins. Penfolds internally published “The Rewards of Patience” pegs this at its peak for another 10 years … that may be stretching it a little, but there’s still a lot of life left in this wine.
Penfolds Bin 28 Kalimna Shiraz 1998, South Australia ($42)
Rich and concentrated with an abundance of dark berry, dark chocolate and liquorice with firm, muscular tannins. A decade old, but still just a baby and showing extremely well and balanced. Another decade is not a stretch.
Penfolds Bin 28 Kalimna Shiraz 2006, South Australia ($42)
Much softer in style than the ‘90 and ‘98. Rich, ripe, and fresh with black cherry, blackberry, liquorice, plums and hints of spice, mineral and liquorice, lush tannins and a chocolate finish. Drinking well now, but enough underlying structure to last another 12 to 15 years.
Penfolds Shiraz ‘St. Henri’ 1990, South Australia ($62)
A very pretty, perfumy nose, with layers of mature plum and currants, rich and elegant, silky in texture, and still a sense of freshness. Delicious on the finish. Gago says that this will keep for another 20 years.
Penfolds Shiraz ‘St. Henri’ 1998, South Australia ($62)
Beautiful, elegant, and misleadingly big, with lots of dark fruit on the nose, layers of youthful plum, cherry and currant flavours, firm, but silky tannins and a long, elegant finish. Extremely tasty and clearly has 8-10 years before showing any signs of fading.
Penfolds Shiraz ‘St. Henri’ 2006, South Australia ($62)
Packed with ripe cherry and blueberry fruit, yet layered and elegant, juicy and powerful, with a silky texture, sweetly refined tannins, and dark chocolate on the long, expressive finish. Hasn’t even had a chance to begin its evolution. To be released in May 2010.
Penfolds Shiraz ‘RWT’ 1998, Barossa Valley ($145)
Very aromatic, bright, and vibrant, with concentrated blackberry, plum, blueberry, cherry and spice, with hints of coffee and chocolate, multi-layered, elegant and very well-integrated. A rich, long finish with the structure to continue to develop over the next 5 to 8 years.
Penfolds Shiraz ‘RWT’ 2006, Barossa Valley ($145)
Huge amounts of lifted fruit, rich blackberry, chocolate and spice with huge, yet plush tannins, multi-layers and a lush, but still closed finish. Shows tremendous promise, but clearly needs time even though it is extremely delicious now. Best in the mid 2020s.