Patience Rewarded

POSTED ON 02/03/2009

Rewards of PatienceRewards of Patience

Every five years or so since 1986, Penfolds, one of Australia’s most respected brands, throws open the cellar door and charges a panel, including its own chief winemakers and a handful of independent Australian and international critics, with the task, occasionally arduous, often thrilling, to review its entire range. At this four day marathon, aptly called The Rewards of Patience (RoP), some 600-odd bottles worth around £0.5 million are opened. Every Penfolds wine under the sun is tasted, from the commercial likes of Rawson’s Retreat to the icon of Grange all the way back to Grange creator, Max Schubert’s, era of the 1950s. As well as verticals of Bin 707, St.Henri, Magill Estate, the RoP includes ‘special bin’ wines like the legendary 1962 Bin 60 A and Block 42 Cabernet Sauvignon.

Long before the words sub-prime or credit crunch entered the language, Penfolds had decided that the launch of the sixth edition of The Rewards of Patience, a meticulous record of the 2007 RoP event by Andrew Caillard MW, should and would be accompanied by the fanfare of a bells and whistles three-city tour of the United States. The fact that it was to take place in the week before the US election only added to the spice. The plan was present a mini-RoP tasting to select groups of 60 – 80 members of the wine trade and press in Miami, New York and finally San Francisco.

from left: Peter Gago, Steve Leinert, moi, Ch'ng Poh Tiong, Joe Wardfrom left: Peter Gago, Steve Leinert, moi, Ch'ng Poh Tiong, Joe Ward

The panel consisted of Penfolds’ indefatigable chief winemaker Peter Gago, a busy man hosting dinners and re-corking clinics as well, and winemaker Steve Leinert, along with Andrew Caillard and three journalists. Why Decanter’s own Ch’ng Poh Tiong from Singapore, Joe Ward, a New York-based writer with Condé Nast Traveler (American spelling) and me? Because we had all been involved in the last three Rewards of Patience panels, Poh Tiong last year, Joe Ward the previous event and myself back in 1999 when John Duval was still Mr.Grange. Anyone who’s been involved in these occasions knows that such a unique experience makes signing up for such a US city tour, pardon the Americanism, a no-brainer.

The day after a Rabelaisian dinner at Manny’s Steak House (the seasoned Joe Ward agreed that this was over the top even by American steak house standards), our panel assembled in a light, airy room looking out towards the Sargasso Sea in the Mandarin Oriental to comment on the wines. The 1967 Bin 7 was a star, a great old wine with gorgeous truffley aromas flavours, still full of beans. After a vote on the two Granges, the room voted 60:40 in favour of the 1991 over the much-vaunted 1990, the latter the Wine Spectator Wine of the Year in 1995 that had put Grange on the American fine wine map. On a touching finishing note, an orderly queue formed to have their rewards of Patience signed by Peter Gago and the panel assembled later to be taken for dinner to a Spanish ‘tapas’ place, Por Fin, in a Hummer limo. They do things in style in Miami.

I was expecting a New York audience to give the panel a sterner examination but in a packed room in the Manhattan restaurant, BLT Market, the expected New York ‘attitude’ turned out to be largely respect for the wines presented. In place of the St.Henri 1998 this time, we tasted the legendary 1962 Bin 60A, which showed superbly, rich, concentrated and ethereally textured, the wine of the tasting, even overshadowing the excellent 1990 and 1991 Granges. In a vote on the latter two, the audience again preferred the 1991. The 1991 St.Henri showed more alive and fruitier than the bottle in Miami while the Bin 7 was a shade older, more leathery and gamey. Lunch over magnums of 2002 Grange, Peter Gago’s first vintage as Grangemeister, was tempered by sobering anecdotes of restaurant closures and a general slowdown of sales and bookings in East Coast restaurants and hotels.

The indefatigable Peter GagoThe indefatigable Peter Gago

One of the those present, Rik Pike, from Christie’s New York, said that while the reception for fine Australian wine is generally warmer in London than New York, wines like Grange and a handful of Parker-driven ‘icons’ do well enough at auction even if Australia has a major New World competitor in California. Sotheby’s Robert Sleigh echoed this, agreeing that a strong auction market for Californian wines takes the wind out of Australian sales to an extent. ‘There was a period when Australia, going for bigger is better, was favourably reviewed eight years ago. But there seems to have been a reaction against that and the collectors I talk to today aren’t raving about these wines. Penfolds, particularly Grange, has a market, especially benchmark vintages like 1982, 1986, 1990 and 1991 – after all, the Grange story is well documented, and the wine is world-class with a tried and tested reputation and a track record. Who knows what [a wine such as] Three Rivers will be like in 20 years’ time?’

Talking to me later, Sotheby’s Robert Sleigh echoed this, agreeing that a strong market for California takes the wind out of Australian sales to an extent. ‘Penfolds and particularly Grange has a market, especially benchmark vintages such as 1982, 1986, 1990 and 1991’, he said, but ‘there was a period when Australia, going for bigger is better, was favourably reviewed about eight years ago but the collectors I talk to aren’t now raving about these wines. In contrast, the Grange story is well documented and understood as world class wine with a tried and tested reputation and a track record, whereas who knows what Three Rivers will be like in 20 years time’.

Just as it had done in Miami and New York, it was pouring as we crossed the Bay Bridge into San Francisco. After rising early for a pre-breakfast webcast to six American cities, the tasting took place at Cellar 360 in Ghirardelli Square, Fosters’ capacious wine bar and wine shop showcase, where the panel were reminded of America’s hard-won freedoms as we sat with a remarkable view of Alcatraz across San Francisco Bay. This was the liveliest audience, including Decanter’s Linda Murphy and the Wine Spectator’s Harvey Steiman.

The wines again showed well across the board with a slight preference in the room on this occasion for the 1990 Grange over the 1991. The Bin 60A so outstanding on the day that Harvey Steiman was moved to give it a maximum 100 points in his next-day column: ‘mature and harmonious, underlying a wispy core of black cherry fruit with tobacco, earth and mint tones. … the fruit got richer, the texture more silky and any semblance of seams disappeared. That’s what a great wine is all about. When Penfolds rolls out some of its best wines for a retrospective tasting, the results can make a powerful case of just how good Australia can get’, said Steiman. A week and three tastings later, none of us disagreed.


Box – The RoP wines tasted:
1986 and 1996 Koonunga Hill
1998 Bin 407
1976 Bin 389
1991 and 1998 St.Henri Shiraz
2002 RWT
1990 Bin 707
1990 and 1991 Grange
Great Grandfather Liqueur Tawny
1967 Bin 7 Cab / Shiraz (Miami and New York)
1960 Bin 60A (New York and San Francisco)

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