Penfold's Progress

One aspect of the Australian wine industry I most admire is its fearless spirit of innovation. It did, after all, in the 1970s and '80s, transform a moribund, 100-year-old industry making widely mocked plonk—Monty Python fans will recall "the prize-winning Nuit San Wogga Wogga, which has a bouquet like an armpit"—into the epitome of a modern, high-production industry.

Now these megawine corporation such as Foster's Group (FGL:AU) (which is currently in the process of spinning off its wine holdings from its brewing unit) and Yellow Tail producer Casella Wines, are taking their game to a new level—the wines are just getting a whole lot better. A more sophisticated approach in both the vineyard and the winery is yielding more refined wines. Sure, the macho Shirazs and Cabs are still around, but alongside them are appearing a range of altogether more interesting wines.

One such lovely is this week's Wine of the Week, the Penfolds Bin 2 2008 ($15), a blend of Shiraz and Mourvèdre.

Mellow, round, and juicy, at least after it has been open a couple of hours, it shows beautifully integrated hints of minerality, a zingy blackberry bite on the finish, and a surprising depth of complexity, given its modest price. This is not the sort of wine I would have expected from Fosters, Penfold's owner and a cornerstone of what has become known, somewhat admiringly, somewhat derisively, as Australia Wine Inc.

Curious as to how this atypical Oz red came about, I talked to Peter Gago, chief winemaker at Penfolds.

First of all it's aged entirely in old oak barrels, neutral oak in the sense that it doesn't impart that aggressive vanilla creaminess that afflicts much New World wine. "Most of our wines are sold in other countries, and some people who prefer the more European style wines really like Bin 2."

The main difference between how Bin 2 was made a few years ago and how it's made today is what happens in the winery. "Now, rather than use continuous presses, we use either basket presses or a membrane press—it's more gentle. Tannin management is very, very different. We don't want to overextract. There's a lot more attention to detail, time on skins, all those tannin management techniques. The biggest thing, though, is getting the fruit to the winery and into the barrel post-ferment a lot more delicately, a lot more carefully. Not necessarily via technology, but just a consciousness of not so much what to do but not what not to do."

Beneath all this winespeak, one thing is clear: Australian winemakers today are far more conscious of how they handle the grapes, the pressed juice, and the new wine than they were a few years ago. "It's just about refinement, I guess," Gago says.

Now this is what I call worthwhile innovation.

When to Drink: Now and for the next few years

Breathing/Decanting: Two hours breathing really helps

Food Pairing: Richer meat dishes, lamb, roast beef, steak, venison

Grapes: Shiraz 88%, Mourvèdre 12%

Appellation: South Australia

Region: South Australia

Country: Australia

Price: $15

Availability: Good


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