Wine Not?

Grape Over Geography, Says Penfolds

Australia’s most iconic winery now makes wines in California, and a couple of them also deliver a surprise.

Grape Over Geography, Says Penfolds
The four wines of Penfolds' inaugural California CollectionImage: Penfolds

The next time you glance at a row of Penfolds wines, don’t assume provenance. The Australian brand best known for its flagship Grange has unveiled four new bottlings made on Californian soil. 

The California Collection hits shelves only in early March, but watchful eyes will note that the critics have already weighed in. Top cuvee 2018 Quantum Bin 98 (US$700) received 98 points from James Suckling and 97 points from Andrew Caillard, perhaps sealing its fate as a collectible. 

A blend of 87 percent Napa cabernet sauvignon and 13 percent shiraz, it’s rich with dark berries, some sugared pastry and piquant punches of mustard on the nose, and texturally plush with graphite, hazelnut and age-worthy acid. 

Penfolds 2018 Quantum Bin 98 Cabernet Sauvignon
2018 Quantum Bin 98 Cabernet SauvignonImage: Penfolds

That Quantum bears the hallmarks of a top flight Penfolds is a given. But in a twist that makes the wine infinitely more intriguing: The shiraz was shipped in from South Australia in hermetically sealed vats, then cross blended with pedigree cabernet from Napa AVAs. 

The shiraz, says Chief Winemaker Peter Gago, are of quality “that was knocking on the door of Grange.” 

With most other winemakers (and collectors alike) obsessing over single vineyard plots, blending across borders, let alone continents, sounds pretty far out. But perhaps not for a maker like Penfolds, which even in its earliest days sourced grapes from across South Australia’s multiple wine regions. 

Penfolds, we are conditioned to understand, makes wines to its “house style” and so fixates much less about where a grape comes from than its desired qualities. 

Penfolds Chief Winemaker Peter Gago
Penfolds Chief Winemaker, Peter GagoImage: Penfolds

As Gago says of his Californian wines over video call: “We have the California sun above and soil below, but everything in between is Penfolds… We love terroir, we venerate it. But you can love synergy and blends.”

Both Quantum and Penfolds’ second Californian flagship, the 2018 Bin 149, are labelled “Wine of the World” in a nod to their intercontinental origins. The latter, a single varietal cabernet sauvignon, is so named because precisely 14.9 percent of the blend comes from South Australia. 

The two other bottlings — 2018 Bin 704 and Bin 600 — are Californian through and through, and are more accessible both in price and youthful enjoyment. 

Penfolds California Napa Valley wine
Though the Penfolds team sourced fruit from across Napa Valley AVAs — including Rutherford, Oakville, Diamond Mountain District and Howell Mountain — they are said to have spent much of their time in RutherfordImage: Penfolds

The releases may be new, but Penfolds’ big Californian adventure began well over two decades ago when vine cuttings from its prized Kalimna and Magill Estate vineyards in South Australia were planted at the newly purchased Camatta Hills Estate in Paso Robles. 

Experimental vintages occurred in 2006 and 2007, but as Gago admits, “the Board didn’t like them”, and so were never released.

Finally, in 2018, the company relocated longtime winemakers Stephanie Dutton and Andrew Baldwin to re-establish its footprint and embark on the 2018 California harvest. Gago, who is instrumental in executing the company’s globalisation programme, flies in when he can.

With its multi-regional winemaking style having made an intercontinental leap, what might we expect next from Penfolds you wonder? Maybe Australian wine matchmade with California grapes? 

Or perhaps a Bordeaux wine? The company’s press statement confirms it is “investigating winemaking opportunities in Bordeaux (and Champagne)” but only teases that “all will be revealed in good time”. 

Maybe a Bordeaux-Australian blend, then?  

Penfolds California Collection will be available from March 4, 2021. For more information, visit penfolds.com.

Related Stories