Big and beautiful


WINE:Penfolds might be one of the largest wine producers in the world, but that doesn't mean its product isn't top drawer

BEING BIG IS not always a bad thing. With wine, the interest tends to focus on those small domaines run by a perfectionist winemaker who produces tiny quantities of thrilling wine. There is a good reason for this, of course: a lot of the best ‘hand-made’ wines tend to come from exactly such producers. However, there is no reason why big companies cannot make equally good individual wines. In fact, given the huge resources available to them, it should be easier.

One company that does this is Penfolds, one of Australia’s largest and best-known producers. Penfolds is owned by Southcorp, which in turn is owned by Foster’s Group. Penfolds sells wines in just about every price category. You will find Rawson’s Retreat on the shelves of most supermarkets, yet it is also responsible, at the very pinnacle, for Australia’s greatest icon wine, Grange.

Penfolds was founded in 1844, eight years after the colony of South Australia. Dr Christopher Rawson Penfold of Brighton and his wife Mary purchased the famous Magill vineyard, now almost swallowed up by the city of Adelaide, and home to an excellent restaurant. In the early years, Australians made and drank fortified wine, so it was only after the second World War that Penfolds began to develop table wines, a process that accelerated in the 1960s, when the legendary Max Schubert, the man who “invented” Grange, created a range of wines that still exists today.

The current chief winemaker at Penfolds, Peter Gago, a former maths teacher, is an engaging, intelligent man, who wears his responsibility lightly. “I want Penfolds to be the largest boutique winery in the world,” he says. “Technology does not let you make better wines, it allows you make more.”

One unusual feature shared by all the top Penfolds wines is that they are multi-regional blends. Virtually all of the world’s great wines come from a single vineyard, or maybe a few plots within a townland. Penfolds has traditionally blended wines from many disparate regions, varying the blend each year, depending on the vintage. This is the polar opposite to the French notion of terroir, where each wine bears a unique imprint of a vineyard and region. The aim is to create great wines by blending the very best wines available each year, while retaining the character of each wine.

The wines are too many to mention all of them, but they include some of the great wines of Australia: at the very top is Grange, 96 per cent Shiraz with 4 per cent Cabernet, sourced from vines in the Magill vineyard, McLaren Vale and Barossa; there is St Henri, another Shiraz with a touch of Cabernet, that is aged in large, old oak foudres, and to my mind often every bit as good as Grange; there is Magill Estate Shiraz, RWT Shiraz, Bin 707 Cabernet, and Yattarna, the new Icon Chardonnay. Below these, Penfolds has a host of special bins and limited releases, some only available at the cellar door. Old hands sometimes argue that these are not all as good as they once were; to me, most are good, and some are exceptional wines that can stand comparison with any of the other great wines of the world.

Sadly, most are very expensive. At the entry-level, we mere mortals can enjoy the inexpensive Rawson’s Retreat, Koonunga Hill, and Thomas Hyland ranges. Of the Bin range, I find the Bin 389 Cabernet Shiraz, once dubbed the “poor man’s Grange”, still offers a chance to taste classic Aussie winemaking at an affordable price. In recent months, I have had several opportunities to taste a few older vintages of the various Penfolds wines. All were drinkable (not something I have found with Bordeaux or Burgundy) and a good proportion were superb. So don’t let anyone tell you that Australian wines don’t age well.

The prices below are approximate, as at the time of writing, it was not yet clear how various retailers would handle the new duties. Bearing in mind that VAT decreased by 0.5 per cent on January 1st, and that wine importers and retailers treat excise duty as a cost on which they make a profit, we can expect to see prices fall by substantially more than 60 cent, particularly at the cheaper end of the market, where duty forms such a large part of the cost.