Just a few weeks ago, Penfolds, one of the oldest, most historic wineries in Australia, launched an exciting new collection of four wines – two of which are blends of California AND Australia wines! Crazy, right? This is a huge eye-opener in the wine world – blending wines from not just two continents, but two hemispheres, two climates, and two worlds of soil types.
How did this whirligig idea come about? Penfolds’ head winemaker Peter Gago has a soft spot for Napa Cab. So in the 1990s, he sneakily spearheaded the purchase of some primo Cali vineyards. In 1998, he oversaw the planting of Australian rootstock in those vineyards. Mmm hmmmm. And then he decided to really go nuts and make two of the four wines blends of Napa Valley Cabernet and Australian Shiraz. WHAAAT? Yes! This is what the Australians in general and Penfolds specifically do: they blend wines that most people think do not / should not go together (I’m lookin’ at you, Shiraz Viognier). Australians also aren’t shy about sourcing grapes from from difference regions.
The wines are – quite simply – amazing. They are deep and provocative, well-balanced, complex and altogether freaking delicious!
Each one had me swooning with delight. Come on, let’s take a spin through the collection.
BIN 600 2018 Cabernet Shiraz ($50 retail). This sexy number features all California fruit: Napa Valley, Paso Robles and Sonoma. It’s 78 percent Cab and 22 percent Shiraz and 100 percent delicious! You’ve got bright fruit – think ripe red plums, black raspberries, blackberries – with a bunch of spice from the Shiraz. And did you know: Penfolds was the first winery to blend Cabernet with Shiraz!
BIN 704 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon ($70 retail). This wine is big and bold, like you would expect a California Cab to be, showing red and black fruit – and then you get that dry, earthy note – which is the famous “Rutherford dust” making itself known – that accentuates the fruit. This wine is all California and all good!
BIN 149 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon ($149 retail). Here we have a work of art: a very complex, very well-balanced wine with layers of black cherry, blackberry, black plum, black tea – all the black things – with a side of spice box. It’s 85.1 percent Cab from several parts of Napa Valley (Rutherford, Calistoga, Oakville and Napa Valley) and 14.9 parent South Australia! It’s got a richness to it that evokes a velvet hug.
Then there is the Quantum BIN 98 (I did not get to taste this one because it’s small production and highly allocated) that’s 87 percent California (primo NV AVAs like Oakville, Diamond Mountain) and 13 percent South Australia. This bad boy clocks in at $700 retail per bottle (chalk that up to small production and high demand + great quality) and I’m already working on cultivating a friend who can share some!
Each of the Penfolds California Collection wines have earned 90 point reviews from the top publications (Wine Advocate, Wine Enthusiast, James Suckling). But scores aren’t everything.
I was excited about tasting these new-fangled wines from a legendary old-school producer because I love seeing how old-guard wineries like Penfolds are innovating. And while Penfolds, like many large wineries, has a team of winemakers, each specializing in a specific varietal or style, Penfolds has a head winemaker – Peter Gago – who is wildly creative and loves breaking conventions. Plus, after being in Australia in fall of 2019 for the Wine Media Conference, I have a huge soft spot for Australian wines!
Beginnings — Penfolds was started in 1844 by Dr. Penfold, and his wife, Mary, who emigrated to Australia from the U.K. back when tons of Brits were coming into Australia, which was a new land back then (largely a penal colony, but that’s another Australian history lesson). The doctor’s wife, Mary, actually ran the winery and was the first Penfolds winemaker back in the day.
Penfolds Grange — Max Schubert was an assistant winemaker at Penfolds in the 1940s, and after he went to Bordeaux to learn the ropes, he originated the famous Penfolds Grange line. This is their signature wine, that carries a notoriously high price tag upon release every year – often in the $700-$800 U.S. range. The first vintage of Grange was 1951 and it is always a Cabernet Sauvignon – Shiraz blend. Last year, one bottle of 1951 Penfolds Grange sold for $81,000!
Those BIN Numbers — If you know a little about Penfolds, you know many of their wines are named after bins. What’s up with that? Well, the bin numbers actually correspond to each wine’s “cave address” at the winery in South Australia – the part of the cave, or cellar, that each wine aged in.
With the California Collection, those BIN numbers also have a story! BIN 600 is the address of the vineyard at Creston Hills/Camatta Hills Winery in Paso Robles, while BIN 704 is the reverse of the Australian BIN 407. BIN 149 represents the percentage of Southeast Australian wine in the blend, and the wine’s retail price ($149). BIN 98 Quantum is a nod to the Aussie heritage vines from Penfolds’ Magill Estate and Kalimna vineyard that were grafted onto rootstock in California in 1998.
Cool, right? And a little insider tip: if the BIN starts with 7 – it is most likely Cabernet, and if 8 – most likely Shiraz.
Shiraz v. Syrah — I’ve explained this in other posts, but I’ll do it again. These are the same grape – just different pronunciations. And the Australians pronounce it “Sheer-azz.” Not “Sheer-ahz” as we in America so often think. (Think about Gordon Ramsay saying “pass-tuh” instead of pah-sta. There – you’ve got it!)
You Want Some of These? Well, if you like really excellent red wines, then, yes, you do want some of these! In Chicago, you can get some of them at Binny’s, but I always love to support indie wine shops, so ask your local if they can procure some for you. Often it’s a matter of a shop owner contacting a local distributor. The wines are available globally (even in Australia!) If you’re in Chicago, I love House of Glunz, Bottles Up!, In Fine Spirits and Independent Spirits, to name a few). And the BIN 704 and BIN 149 are available on http://www.wine.com.
So there you have it. I have to give a huge shout-out to Julie Ann Larsen for hand-delivering the tasting bottles to me and spending time walking through the collection with me on Zoom. She is as awesome as these wines are. It’s the stories, history, geography and inspiration of wines like this that keep me obsessed. Cheers, mates!