Penfolds wines, from medicine to luxury

I was recently in Moscow for the unveiling of a $175,000 bottle of wine. Actually, it wasn’t a bottle; it was an ampoule, a handcrafted glass container holding 750 mL of wine (a standard bottle), enclosed in an elegant hand-blown vessel. The wine was 2004 Penfolds Bin 60A, a cabernet sauvignon made from grapes growing on 150-year-old vines, probably the oldest cabernet vines in the world. (I was at the Moscow event as a guest of Penfolds.)

For $175,000, you get not only this ampoule of wine (there are 12 of them, one housed in Penfolds’ museum), but also concierge service: when you want to drink your pricey wine, Penfolds’ winemaker, Peter Gago, or a senior member of the winemaking team, will come to you anywhere in the world to open the ampoule.

“Anywhere,” Gago said. “If someone wants to open it on top of Mt. Kilimanjaro, we’ll go there.”

The ampoule project is another reminder of Penfolds’ unique position in the world of wine. The winery was founded in South Australia by Dr. Christopher Penfold 168 years ago, and the price of the ampoule is $168,000 Australian, to reflect the fact. Penfold prescribed wine to his patients suffering from anemia after the long sea voyage from Britain.

Penfolds is widely known as the producer of Australia’s most famous wine, Penfolds Grange. Made almost entirely of shiraz (it usually has a dash of cabernet sauvignon), Grange sells for $350 to 500 on release (there are a few bottles of the 2006 vintage at the Vintages store on Ogilvie Road, and the 2007 will be in Vintages ‘Classics’ catalog in the fall), while some older vintages cost many thousands.

Besides Grange and other high-end products, Penfolds makes many more affordable wines, like the four featured here today.

Penfolds adds after-sale service to its wines. Its winemaking team travels the world each year, holding recorking clinics that are free to owners of any Penfolds wine at least 15 years old. Bring your bottle, and the winemakers check the level of the wine, open the bottle if necessary to test the quality, then (if the wine is good) top it up with the current vintage of the same wine. They recork the bottle, apply a new capsule, and provide authentication of the recorking.

Penfolds is the only producer in the world to provide this service, although one or two Bordeaux châteaux might do so if you bring older bottles of their wine to them.

It all makes Penfolds quite unique in the world of wine, and it’s good to know that you can taste the Penfolds style for a lot less than $175,000 – even if you do have to open the bottle yourself.

Penfolds ‘Koonunga Hill’ Chardonnay 2010

This is my kind of chardonnay. The flavour is all there, with concentration, complexity and consistency from start to finish, but it has loads of juicy acidity. Drink it with richer poultry and pork dishes, or with seafood like lobster and scallops. 13-per-cent alcohol; $14.95 (321943)

Penfolds ‘Koonunga Hill’ Shiraz-Cabernet 2010

This is an excellent blend for this price. You have the depth of fruit from the shiraz and complexity from the cabernet, harnessed to fresh acidity. With easy-going tannins, it’s a natural for many grilled or roasted red meat dishes. 13.5-per-cent alcohol; $16.95 (285544)

Penfolds ‘Thomas Hyland’ Shiraz 2010

This stands out from the vast volume of Australian shirazes available around this price. Look for concentrated and layered flavours, a smooth texture and tannins that supple and ripe. Try it with grilled lamb or beef. 14.5-per-cent alcohol; $19.95 (611210, Vintages Essential)

Penfolds ‘Bin 389’ Cabernet Shiraz 2008

A stylish, mainly cabernet blend, this shows quite intense flavours that are both broad and deep. The texture is plush and full, the acidity keeps the richness in line, and the tannins are sweet and ripe. It’s for red meats, like grilled lamb chops. 14.5-per-cent alcohol; $39.95 (309625, Vintages)

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