I bought the bottle off the shelf at Peter Dominic for a bargain £20, wrapped it up and presented it to them – with a proviso. If they split up before the wine was ready, I wanted my present back. I even tied a label on the neck of the bottle – “Do not drink before your 10th anniversary”. Apparently, they tucked the bottle away and while we remained friends, life moved on. After a couple of house moves, I lost touch with the happy couple.
Ten years later I received a card in the post, forwarded via previous homes – with the tag I had carefully tied on to that precious bottle. There was a note – “We made it to ten years – and the wine was lovely!”
Since then, I have enjoyed Penfolds Grange several times, generally by the glass. The excitement of pulling the cork on a full bottle and pouring it with dinner has eluded me – and at between £400 and £600 a bottle for recent vintages, it will probably continue to do so.
What is astonishing is how the price of such a wine has risen exponentially. If I had known and had the spare cash, I would have bought several bottles from good old Peter Dominic’s, but that is the story behind all investment.
Just a couple of weeks ago, Peter Gago, chief winemaker at Penfolds, unveiled the 2021 Penfolds Collection. These are the new vintages of wines that will soon be making their way into merchants. He presided over a Zoom call, introducing wines that ranged in price from affordable to eye-watering.
Each wine was described by its source of grapes, winemaking and ageing profile. There was a lot of talk about barrel selection, where some barrels were not quite good enough for one wine, so they cascaded through the levels, bolstering quality along the way.
What struck me is that all the wines were good. Each had a personality, and a distinct family style. There was flavour, balance, not too much oak, but enough to aid ageing. And there was fruit. Dark, supple fruit, layered with lighter notes; blackberries, plums and cherries in the reds; melon and lemon in the whites. Each wine was distinct, flavoursome, and not all of them cost a month’s mortgage.
Penfolds is 177 years old. It was founded in 1844 by Dr Christopher Penfold, who emigrated from Sussex and bought 500 acres of land in Magill, just north of Adelaide. In his luggage were cuttings of vines from France. He set up his medical practice and planted a vineyard along with a mixed farm, called The Grange. He viewed wine as medicine and prescribed red wine as a tonic for anaemia and as the fame of his wine grew, he gradually started to ship wine across Australia.
In 1931 a boy called Max Schubert joined the company as a laboratory assistant and 15 years later he had worked his way to being senior winemaker. About this time, he set off for Europe to learn how they made wine in France and that was when he got the idea of making an age-worthy red wine. The first experiments were not that good, and in an age when Australia was known for its port-style wines, Max was told to stop making it. But he didn’t stop. He just hid the results at the back of a cellar.
Eventually the management changed their minds, the “hidden” vintages appeared and won medals in international competitions.
From then on, Penfolds has expanded, bought more vineyards, and winemakers have come and gone. The current chief winemaker, Peter Gago, has been with the company for 30 years and still has a hand-on role in winemaking and deciding blends. Penfolds is now part of a multinational, but even so, it retains its identity.
If you go to Adelaide, the Magill estate is a must-visit. They don’t make wine there any more, but the old buildings give a sense of winemaking from a century ago. There are vineyards, tastings, tours and a lovely restaurant.
While you are waiting for borders to open and start travelling again, here are just some of the Penfolds wines to try.
Koonunga Hill Shiraz Cabernet 2019, Morrisons, £9: A terrific introduction to the Penfolds range. Koonunga Hill is a place in the Barossa and was the original source of grapes for this wine. But demand outstripped supply and so Koonunga Hill is now a brand. However, the character of the wine remains. Ripe and rounded with juicy blackberry fruit and soft tannins.
Max’s Cabernet Sauvignon 2018, Sainsbury’s, £19.75: Named after Max Shubert who was chief winemaker for 27 years, this is a rich, sleek wine, with plenty of fruit and enough power to cope with roast beef while still retaining elegance and freshness on the finish.
Bin 8 Shiraz Cabernet 2017, Morrisons, £26: Most of Penfolds wines come with a Bin number which may have referred to an actual bin where the wine was kept. The great advantage of these numbers is that no-one can quite remember which one they like, nor which costs more than another. This is a blend of Shiraz and Cabernet, matured in old oak and it has smooth, dark, bramble fruit with a mere hint of oak.
St Henri Shiraz 2018, Hic! (Ledston, 01977 550047) £75: Why St Henri? No-one can quite remember but the wine is poised and delicious. Aged in 50-year-old vats, there are warm savoury flavours, black olives, herbs, and forest fruits. Elegance in a glass.
Magill Estate Shiraz 2019, Harvey Nichols, £130: Grapes for this wine come from the historic vineyard originally planted by Dr Penfold. Replanted in the 1960s, these vines are dry farmed on their own roots. The wine is deep with complex flavours, of raspberry and dark cherry fruit, layered with anise, chocolate and thyme.
Bin 95 Grange 2017: This vintage is just making its way into the UK. Older vintages vary in price between £360 and £600. Made from 100 per cent Shiraz, it has amazing complex flavours, still tight with many years to go.