Is This Australian Red Wine Really Worth $850 a Bottle?
At 9:15 p.m. last Thursday, I was being happily seduced by a first taste of the 2012 vintage of Penfolds Bin 95 Grange, Australia’s iconic red that’s now being released to the world along with other whites and reds in their luxury collection.
Is this deep, rich, seductive, tongue-stroking red really the star of them all?
Well, this year, the answer is a definite "Yes," but several immensely appealing also-rans are worth trying. (See tasting notes below.)
The Penfolds annual-release tastings are now highly orchestrated media events staged around the planet, with this year's two special bottlings literally under wraps, watched over by beefy, unsmiling guards. After an initial tasting in Sydney, the energetic, globe-trotting winemaker Peter Gago touched down in New York, on the Upper East Side at the Academy Mansion, to host a dinner on Oct. 20 with old vintages and to bang the drum not just for the luxury wines, but also for two bling-heavy Grange limited editions. One costs $2,000 and another $140,447 ($185,000 AUD), a 750-milliliter bottle or a 6-liter Imperial of 2012 Grange, respectively; both feature hand-blown, diamond-cut crystal decanters from Saint-Louis to match.
But, hey, you can buy just the regular bottle for a lot less. The winery’s price is $850, and one shop in the U.S. is already discounting it to a mere $700. Wait a couple of months and it may go down farther.
Should you buy? Here’s what you need to know.
Founded back in 1844, Penfolds is the oldest wine brand in Australia and is now the crown jewel in the vast portfolio of giant wine corporation Treasury Wine Estates. It’s based in South Australia, where kangaroos are regarded as grape-nibbling pests. Its flagship wine, Grange, is the most collectible wine on the continent, with a long auction track record. Unlike most of the world’s iconic reds, it’s a multi-vineyard, multi-district blend, yet it has a distinctive personality—and a great story.
The first vintage, 1951, was an experiment, then-winemaker Max Schubert’s attempt to create a great Australian wine to challenge Bordeaux’s first growths. It was mostly shiraz with a very small splash of cabernet sauvignon. They tried to sell the 1952 . It wasn't an immediate success; one doctor suggested it would make a good anesthetic.
Yet time proved out his experiment. Sixty-plus years later, Grange is in huge demand, especially in China.
Several vintages, such as 1990 and 1986, are on my "Most Thrilling Wines I’ve Ever Tasted" list. Gago says the very best is the rare 1953. Its initial price was $1.76; now it’s worth more than $25,000 a bottle. “That quality is what I’m chasing every year,” he told me.
Beyond the Hoopla
The company has a penchant for luxury packaging that gains plenty of oohs and aahs. In 2012, it released “The Ampoule,” a dozen handmade glass vessel sculptures holding a rare 2004 Kalimna Block 42 cabernet sauvignon. Cost: $168,000 each.
“All were sold, but none has been opened yet,” Gago assured me over dinner before the Big Reveal. We sampled the 1990 and 2008 vintages of Grange, two of the top 17 vintages since 1966. The 1990 is surely one of the top five for drinking right now.
The 2012 doesn’t need any hoopla. It’s at the top of the pack.
I’m not as enthused about the crystal decanters. To me the company’s most exciting luxury wine offering is the Magill Cellar 3 program, launched last May at VinExpo in Hong Kong. Wine lovers can purchase a single bespoke 260-liter barrel of a unique 2016 cabernet-shiraz blend before it’s bottled for A$198,000 ($151,370), a bit less stratospheric than it sounds when you break it down to the roughly $450-per-bottle price. Plus, that includes a lavish behind-the-scenes Penfolds experience.
The company will fly you (and your partner) first class to Adelaide, whisk you up to the Magill Estate, let you taste the wine with the winemakers, follow it as it matures in barrel, and choose the bottle sizes you want. When they’re ready to ship, a winery ambassador will come along and host an event for you.
Of course, the wine won’t be the 2012 Grange, but I don’t think you’ll be disappointed in your unique blend.
Here are other top offerings that won't disappoint.
Penfolds Collection Top Reds
2014 Bin 389 Cabernet Shiraz ($69)
People call this “baby Grange.” It’s aged in the barrels Grange used the previous year, but it has much more cabernet. Impressive for the price, it’s super-smooth, with layers of rich fruit and scents of smoke and olives. Rating: 8/10
2013 St. Henri Barossa Valley Shiraz ($99)
Juicy, intense, savory, and earthy, this red has slightly more cabernet than Grange. The flavors of dark, sweet, wild berry fruit really stand out, and the texture is silky. Rating: 7.5/10
2014 RWT Barossa Valley Shiraz ($150)
This lush-textured 100 percent shiraz comes from a single region and is exceptionally thick, rich, and plummy, with an iron tang, aromas of violets, spices, and leather. Rating: 8/10
2014 Magill Estate Shiraz ($500)
Unlike the other reds, this seductive, tangy wine is from a single vineyard in South Australia. It’s heady, rich, and savory, with a scent of dried flowers and leather. Rating: 9/10
2014 Bin 707 Cabernet Sauvignon ($500)
The dark, spicy cabernet counterpart to Grange is packed with deep fruit and powerful tannins, all overlaid with glossy, polished richness. Some grapes come from vines planted in the 1880s. Its aromas and flavors remind me of very superior chocolate mints. Rating: 9/10
2012 Grange ($850)
The intense, exotic aromas just leap out of the glass—olives, licorice, coffee—and the taste is savory and fresh, with an incredibly velvety texture. It’s dark and dense, complex and unique, and it will last for decades. Rating: 9.5/10