Back when we first discovered Penfolds in the 80s, the wines represented some of the most compelling values in the marketplace. A lot has changed since that time. In fact it would take quite a bit of space to go over all the changes. Perhaps the key points are that Penfolds is not the same entity we sold all those years ago. A purchase by Southcorp some years ago, and subsequent ‘market factors’, changed the brand forever.
Since that time there has been financial intrigue, an explosion of demand in Asia that shot prices of Penfolds Bin 389 and 407 to 2-3 times their norm, and a period where most of the moderately priced Penfolds wines bordered on undrinkable (they were ferociously over-acidified). We won’t even get into some of the bizarre marketing moves that have recently come about. It would be very easy to let this behemoth go the way of the dinosaurs except for one small thing…they still have the ability to make some pretty interesting wines.
The 2016 Penfolds Shiraz/Cabernet Koonunga Hill South Australia is still one of the more compelling and straightforward value reds in the marketplace. It is a blend of 65% Shiraz and 35% Cabernet Sauvignon sourced from a variety of locales (Padthaway, McLaren Vale, Wrattonbully, Barossa Valley and Coonawarra if you want to know) that sees 10 months in American oak. Stylistically it is round, plump, surprising ample for the price but not overdone. No self-respecting critic is going to give this more than an upper-80s type review simply because it is a ‘little wine’. But it is a delicious, engaging little wine and that should always be the point.
The Syrah is the star here imparting a good bit of blackberry fruit and spice, with the Cabernet providing some redder fruit, a touch of olive and a hint of vanilla. Is it a ‘fastball down the middle’? Absolutely, and what’s wrong with that? You would be hard pressed to find a more crowd-pleasing red for this kind of price. Up-front, expressive fruit, straightforward flavors, just enough acidity and laid back tannins, it’s an outstanding, budget-friendly choice for parties, grillin’, and everyday applications. We don’t really need to sell commercial stuff like this, but when it’s this good, why not?
We know we have been a little harsh on the whole German trocken (dry Riesling) phenomenon. Some might have said, “ these guys say they love Riesling, what’s their problem”. Well, there are a couple of things. One is execution. Far too many are lean and skeletal as trocken wines. The fruity examples with a little residual sugar to counterbalance blazing acidity is a true joy to us. There’s nothing quite like a good traditional kabinett or spatlese anywhere in the wine world.
The other point is ‘why’? Why muck with a good thing? Plus, it has been done. The Australians and Austrians have been making compelling dry Riesling for a long time. There doesn’t seem to be a good reason to have another, less successful choice other than it’s German. But we are not here to bag on the Geremans (they are probably cranky enough after the 2018 World Cup). Rather we are here to praise some of the outstanding dry Rieslings that we do endorse.
We’ve been acquainted with the wines of Frankland estate for probably to decades. The story is always a bit puzzling. What possessed this family to head on out to one of the more remote parts of southwestern Australia to plant grapes is baffling. To take a chance on a varietal like Riesling that doesn’t perform just anywhere was a leap of faith. But they have become one of the icon Riesling producers in Oz and have developed a unique and flattering style. Delicate apple and pear, some pleasing citrus and floral notes, with a nice underpinning of a delicate earthy minerality, this is tender and fresh and lifted without being at all edgy.
The 2017 vintage in Australia is quite successful (a cracker!) and 2017 Frankland Estate Riesling is a beautifully composed expression of pristine fruit. Made from various parcels from the estate including some of the original vines from 1988 and a 2006 planting on an ‘ironstone’ ridge, it is a subtle, layered, mouth-watering, ‘pretty’ example of the genre from a very special, if really isolated place.
We aren’t sure how much of a ‘Riesling guy’ Advocate’s Joe Czerwinski, but he seemed to like this one as well, “Scents of lime blossom and orange sherbet practically erupt from the glass. The exuberant 2017 Riesling is medium-bodied with slightly rounded edges and hints at red berries to go along with all of the expected citrus and green apple notes. It’s approachable now but should continue to drink well for a decade or more… 91 Points!” This is how you trocken.
As soon as this one came out of the purveyor’s bag, we started to chuckle. It was part of a new line from Penfolds, a winery that, through their armada of “bin” designated wines, would seem to already have every conceivable wine scenario covered with plenty left over. Yet here was something dressed in an ‘artsy’ composite coating, the inaugural release it states, of a line dedicated to the memory of Max Schubert, Penfold’s historic winemaker who would have been 100 years old in 2015.
Even the most creative of corporate spin doctors would be challenged to generate a viable yarn about how a (literally) red bottle that sells for under $20 commemorates the guy that created Grange and put Penfolds on the map. But we have seen some pretty far-fetched approaches over the years for ‘stimulating’ interest in a new line of wines. We were ready to bag on this one as yet another soulless corporate effort in a gimmicky package trying to push its way into the market…that is until we tasted it.
The Penfolds Max’s Shiraz Cabernet South Australia 2015 is legit juice, boysenberry and black cherry with flecks of spice, iron and vanilla, engaging supple texture, well tucked away acidity and ripe tannins. It brought back memories of some of our early experience with their now coveted (and priced at nearly $60) Bin 389. The blend on the ‘Max’ is 77% Shiraz and 23% Cabernet Sauvignon (there’s more Cab in the Bin 389) and mostly neutral oak in the process. The fruit feels a little ‘redder’, but this is a delicious drink that offers quite the pleasing tipple both texturally and flavor-wise for its modest fare, serving much the same purpose as those early Bin 389s.
Sure there are a lot of questions, not the least of which is how will this wine play moving forward over future vintages (‘corporates’ are notorious for over-delivering on brand rollouts, and slacking off later). As to this wine specifically, there are no concerns thus far. This wine is one of the tasty surprises of the year thus far. It was good enough to overcome our doubts and then some, even bringing us to endorsing it. Max Shiraz/Cabernet 2015 is a perfectly engaging and honest red. James Suckling seems to agree with a 92 point review and comments, “Perfumed and delicious with blackberry, blueberry and orange peel character. Medium to full body, firm and silky tannins and a flavorful finish. I like the acid energy to this that gives the wine clarity and tension…” As to the next vintage, we’ll worry about that when the time comes.
KALLESKE GSM CLARY’S 2015
The ‘Land Down Under’ is still a ‘place of wonder’ when it comes to intriguing value reds. You just have to know where to look. Besides all of the widely distributed corporate beverages (Penfolds, Hardys, etc.), there are a number of small, passionate, under the radar producers with old vines and long histories that are doing some exceptional work for pretty easy-to-swallow prices. We sold some of the first Kalleske wines to come into the country back in the mid-00s and have been a fan of Troy Kalleske’s rich-but-sleek style ever since.
The Kalleske Clary’s GSM was a little later to the party but is the best we have tasted from them (though they weren’t in the market for a while). ‘Clarry’, for whom the cuvee is named, was Troy’s grandfather who tended these old vineyards (established in 1838…no that’s not a misprint). Clarry’s is a blend of Grenache, Shiraz and Mataro with old vine Grenache from the 1940s and 1960s. The wine is fermented in open-top fermenters and basket pressed. To preserve the superb fresh fruit flavors, it only sees one year in very old oak hogsheads (300 liter barrels) .
Who uses grapes from 40-60 year old vines for an under-$20 go-to red? Well, it’s a short list but that’s the deal here. A 91 from the sometimes stingy Lisa Perotti-Brown with commentary, “…redolent of baked raspberries, kirsch and red currant jelly (we’d add boysenberry, too, but we grew up SoCal… Knotts Berry Farm) with Indian spices, dried oregano and peppercorn hints. Full-bodied, ripe and opulent in the mouth, it coats the palate with plush, velvety tannins and spicy flavors, finishing long.” Does that sound like something that could be had for under a Jackson? We think not…$19.98