Penfolds is still the megastar of Australian wine, the supermodel who owns the catwalk.
It's decades since Hugh Johnson labelled Grange the ''first growth of the southern hemisphere'', and since then Penfolds' international fame and stable of great wines has grown beyond all expectation. Most intriguingly, Grange is no longer the greatest Penfolds wine, and hasn't been for some years. It's the sporadic ''Special Bin'' red wines that lead the way today.
It's not that Grange has slipped. It's actually done the opposite and the wines are better than ever, notwithstanding the odd lesser wine occasioned by vintage conditions (and the new release 2009 is one of those). The lesser year Granges are far better these days than they used to be: I cannot imagine Penfolds ever again releasing vintages as ordinary as the 1974 or 1993. There is simply too much at stake now.
But the Special Bin reds are a cut above, and Penfolds evidently feels this is the case too, when you compare the prices. Grange's price this year is unchanged at $785, while several Special Bin reds have been released this century at prices above Grange.
Penfolds released the 2004 Block 42 Cabernet Sauvignon and 2004 Bin 60A Cabernet Shiraz, both great wines, and both $580 in 2007-8. They were dearer than the current Grange vintage.
Two years ago the 2008 Bin 620 Cabernet Shiraz was released at a breathtaking $1000.
Now, on May 1, Penfolds will release a wine that will comprehensively trump Grange and everything else. It is the 2010 Bin 170 Kalimna Limited Edition Shiraz. And the price? Try $1800 a bottle. The neck-label makes a point of declaring that 5544 bottles were released by Penfolds (and no doubt they've kept a few for their own cellar). It's worth pointing out that this volume, just under 500 dozen bottles retailing at $1800, places the wine squarely in the territory occupied by elite small chateau and first-growth bordeaux, and leading domaine grand cru burgundy. This is undoubtedly where Penfolds today sees its place in the global wine realm, and I would not argue with them.
Yes, volume does enter the argument: Grange volume is between 4000 and 10,000 dozen (chief winemaker Peter Gago is coy about precise numbers). The Special Bins are much lower, although volumes are usually hush-hush. But it stands to reason that if Penfolds can safely sell 10,000 cases of $785 wine, it can charge a lot more for a limited production wine such as the 2010 Bin 170.
Bin 170 is one of two special wines Penfolds is releasing to commemorate the company's 170th anniversary. The birthday slogan is ''From 1844 to Evermore''. The other wine is the 50 Year Old Rare Tawny ($3550), which is a family relative of Penfolds' Grandfather Port and contains some wine from Max Schubert's birth year, 1915. It comes in a hand-blown bottle and special timber case. It's a great old tawny of tremendous concentration and complexity, and will appeal to wealthy collectors of good taste.
Great port is fine, but what today's wine-lover is really gunning for is great red wine. And what a great red Bin 170 is. The grapes, which usually go into Grange, came from Block 3C of the company's distinguished Kalimna vineyard in the northern Barossa Valley. The main difference from Grange is that this wine finished its fermentation in French oak barrels, roughly half new and half not. Grange sees only American oak. The wine is tremendously deep and concentrated, with the silken texture and fleshiness that comes with very old vines, but it's not a blockbuster: on the contrary, it's a very elegant wine. Fifty years will not trouble it.
Bin 170 Kalimna Shiraz has been issued only once before, from the 1973 vintage. The 2010 is certainly a superior wine. A bottle of the '73 tasted in 2012 was a little past its prime, but good bottles may still be superb. That wine was made from the same vines, Block 3C. No doubt Penfolds saw a great opportunity to give the number 170 added resonance in this year's anniversary.
So empty your piggy bank. Or nag your favourite squillionaire.
Penfolds 2014 release
Bin 170 Kalimna Limited Edition Shiraz 2010 $1800*
50 Year Old Rare Tawny $3550
Bin 128 Coonawarra Shiraz 2012 $40
Bin 138 Barossa Shiraz Grenache Mourvedre 2012 $40
BEST WHITE WINE
Yattarna Chardonnay 2011 $150*
2011 VINTAGE VERDICT
Penfolds is releasing Bin 28, Bin 389, Bin 407, Bin 150, Magill Estate* and RWT* from 2011 (but no Bin 707), and all are a little below-par relative to other recent vintages of these wines. The wet 2011 vintage has the added disadvantage of being book-ended by excellent vintages in 2010 and 2012. My pick of the 2011s is Bin 389 Cabernet Shiraz ($80).
The 2009 ($785) Grange* is a very good wine, a worthy Grange, but certainly not a top-level Grange. It lacks the fruit intensity of a great Grange and has some ''cooked fruit'' hot-year characteristics.
* available from May 1.