Penfolds 2020 Collection

Extraordinary Consistency is the Secret Ingredient
by David Lawrason

Every autumn Penfolds of Australia releases its new collection of luxury wines around the world. A portion of Penfolds 2020 collection, including Grange 2016, one of the world’s most collected wines, is being released in Ontario through a VINTAGES Exclusive virtual release on October 22. WineAlign tasted the wines in early October and you can click on the wines below to see our reviews.

I have also lost count of how many times I have tasted the Penfolds Collection releases. At least six, but probably more, and each time I have been mesmerized not only by the quality of wines themselves, but by the stamina, intellect and passion of winemaker Peter Gago, who has been Chief Winemaker since 2002 and a pioneer for Penfolds since 1989.  This year the meeting was virtual, but in the good old days he would travel to Canada every year or two.

The wines are always exemplary, and I admire Mr. Gago to the Nth. I constantly wonder how he does it, both in terms of making the wines and engaging the market. They have been crafting the same wines for so long, tweaking and improving, and adding some new labels, as they go, but in essence they are delivering the same strong results year after year because consistency is the key.

Many great wines in the world are based on singular terroirs, varieties and vintages. Any change in vintage condition, variety or winemaker could have notable effect. But Penfolds wines are spectacular blends, usually not beholding to specific regions. The result is all about assembling barrel lots to achieve the expected profile of the brand in question.

Peter Gago, Chief Winemaker

Even changing winemakers does not upset the apple cart. There have been four winemakers in Penfolds’ 70 year “modern” history – founder Max Schubert, Don Ditter, John Duval and Peter Gago – each having grown up in the culture and accepted the style and mantra. Almost a papal passing of the chalice.

At Penfolds, history is revered because they actually have a deeper history than most New World wineries. Penfolds was founded as a wine company in 1844.  But it would be almost 100 years before it entered the modern age of making fine table wines. The first experimental Grange was made from the 1951 vintage.

As a professional taster this is the part that fascinates me, and I asked Peter Gago about the process of tasting through all the lots and deciding which barrel goes where. He more eloquently calls it “barrique relegation”. Can you imagine the complexity of that, especially deciding the barrels that go into the icon Grange that is now pushing $1000 a bottle in Canada?

“The decisions are all made organoleptically,” he said, which means by smell, taste and texture. Surely there is a template of which vineyard plots historically deliver the most promising barrels, but this rigorous, blind tasting process opens doors to unexpected successes and boots out or de-classifies unexpected failures. That is very open minded.

Penfolds 2020 Collection

“I have a team of eight winemakers involved in the blending tastings, everyone’s input is valued and we listen to each other. But in the end, I am the one who has to sign off,” he said.  This, to me, is what keeps the bar so high. As does only making a set amount of Grange. “We would always like to make more, but that would mean quality slips,” he said. (Meet the eight winemakers here.)

If the process sounds impossibly detailed, it is. Which becomes evident when reading the winemaking notes and technical sheets accompanying the Penfolds’ releases. The depth and quality of the information on each brand’s history, comparisons, and the descriptors is a fascinating read.  The culmination is the release of a book called “Penfolds – The Rewards of Patience”, first published in 2007 and updated every four to five years.

Before moving to the wines themselves, another interesting conversation with Peter Gago was started by Sara d’Amato, who joined the virtual tasting from WineAlign World HQ in Etobicoke. She asked about the effects of climate change, for which Australia wine seems a bellwether given its recent horrific wildfires and so many vineyards already in warm latitude exposition.

David Lawrason and the Penfolds 2020 Collection

He nimbly replied that Penfolds’ ability and flexibility to stagger releases and search out grapes from so many regions of varying latitude, altitude and aspect “does not fix climate change but it helps our response and maintains our integrity of what we can do”. And that may be an idea that more wineries around the globe might want to consider in earnest, which I know is radical given our current fixation on singular terroir.

Penfolds latest “Collection” spans five vintages from the 2020 Riesling to the 2016 Grange. Most of the Bin Reds are 2018, a year Mr. Gago described as “a pretty good year”. There were mid-summer heat spikes with Barossa and McLaren Vale experiencing at least 17 days above 35C, but a later spring flowering and delayed later season veraison helped moderate that effect. And there was no wildfire pressure this vintage.

On October 7, the Toronto WineAlign team sat down to taste the Penfolds’ wines and the schedule of release is attached to each wine below. We have decided not to select “picks” for this article, as all the wines are exemplary. Click on the links below to see reviews from each critic. No scores below 90 points, and many over 95!  Extraordinary consistency!

Penfolds Bin 311 Chardonnay 2018 
($49.95) Dec 3 VINTAGES

Penfolds Bin 28 Kalimna Shiraz 2017 
($50) October 1 VINTAGES

Penfolds Bin 389 Cabernet Shiraz 2018
 ($100) Oct 22 VINTAGES Online Exclusive
This year marks the 60th anniversary of Bin 389 Cabernet Shiraz, first made in 1960 by Max Schubert. It remains one of Australia’s most popular collectible red wines.

Penfolds Bin 407 Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 
($100) Oct 22 VINTAGES Online Exclusive

Penfolds St. Henri Shiraz 2017 
($150) Oct 22 VINTAGES Online Exclusive

Penfolds RWT Bin 798 Barossa Valley Shiraz 2018 
($250) Oct 22 VINTAGES Online Exclusive

Penfolds Grange Shiraz 2016 
($995) Oct 22 VINTAGES Online Exclusive