Sunday, 20 January 2013

The most Merlot-esque Penfolds Merlot (and a Mataro)

The most Merlot-esque Penfolds Merlot (and a Mataro)

Penfolds Cellar Reserve Merlot 2010 (Adelaide Hills, SA)
14.5%, Screwcap, $50
Source: Sample

Penfolds Cellar Reserve Merlot + Mataro
I was rather moved by this Merlot. I don't say that lightly, for no matter how much you wish otherwise, the variety doesn't get much love here in Australia (and hence the wines are regularly lacking). But this wine turned my head. It tasted both like a Penfolds red and also like a Merlot, a combination which is both admirable and quite a surprise as Penfolds aren't exactly known for producing especially 'varietal' red wines unless they're made of Shiraz, Cabernet, Grenache or blends thereof. Yet this did actually taste like it was made from Merlot grapes.

I asked Steph Dutton, Penfolds winemaker and perhaps the only pretty face amongst the Penfolds winemaking team (have you seen them? Check out a video I did with Steph a yr or so ago) about exactly how they managed to make this Penfolds Cellar Reserve Merlot taste like Merlot.

'What's the secret? It's probably more in the vintage and vineyard with both aligning in 2010!'

Don't all winemakers say that? Digging further and this is a wine that arrived as a function of process. The vineyard location is 'ripe' for starters:

'This particular grower from the Hills is located in Kersbrook. I don't know how familiar you are with Hills geography but if you drive from the Barossa through to the Hills, it's the first subregion you'll enter in Adelaide Hills territory. In fact, one of the first vineyards that you'll get to. A warmer part of a cooler region.' Steph said.

'In 2010 this particular Merlot parcel really held its own in an A grade Cabernet line up at classification. Something that you'd rarely see, hence why we contemplated capturing the parcel on its own. Blending probably would have diluted what we had in the first place in this instance, and diluted the rarity too. Keeping separate allowed us to track it's individual performance during maturation which seemed to strengthen over the 16 month maturation period.' explained Steph.

What we must wonder is why, given that a wine like this is possible, don't we see more Penfolds Merlots? Again, the limitation is the process. A process that ultimately helps to raise the bar (or homogenise the wines, depending on which way you view it) by only allowing the best, most 'Penfoldian' wines to make it to market.

That process is the Penfolds classification tasting, an event where Penfolds gathers round all its current winemakers (including Steph, Peter Gago, Steve Lienert, Andrew Baldwin and Adam Clay amongst others) along with a few past winemakers (like Don Ditter and John Bird) to decide what goes where.

The benefits of gathering together so much winemaking experience in one place is that consistency of style (and indeed quality) is guaranteed. Don Ditter, for one, is renowned for still being able to blind taste where certain growers parcels have come from (and what that parcel should look like at its best).

Conversely, the obvious challenge is that pushing a new (in a Penfolds context) wine forward is going to be harder. Much like how wine shows tend to give trophies to relatively 'safe' wines, such large tasting panels will consistently lean towards the tried-and-true - ie Merlot as a blending agent.

The mould was obviously broken with this wine though:

'I'd argue that we weren't looking for a single vineyard Merlot, it was more a case of this particular parcel alerting itself to us and demanding enough attention to get to bottle on its own.' stated Steph.

Just how special it was is emphasised by it's possible one-off nature (there was one back in 1993. That's it) as Steph suggests:

'It might be similar to the case of the 2002 Cellar Reserve Grenache. We've aimed to do another in every year since. We've come close, but never quite seen that quality again. Fingers crossed for 2013'

Penfolds Mataro
Given such scrutiny, such an unproven nature it is perhaps of little surprise that this Merlot is so good. It is a bright, rich purple berry coloured Merlot, much like the grapes would have been. It smells of mulberries, of sweet vanilla French oak, yet without smelling obviously sweet. What makes this arresting is the evenness - the palate washes through with waves of plush, faintly minty mulberry fruit in an open, deep, slightly oaky style, supported by typically firm Penfolds brand tannins. The length is there, the finish, whilst a fraction warm, is vibrant and driven by freshness.

Driven by a wonderful combination of grainy Penfolds tannins and beautiful plush fruit this is delicious Merlot, if still a Penfolds red first and foremost, that deserves the praise.

Drink: 2013-2025+
Score: 18.5/20 94/100
Would I buy it? Hmm. If I was in a Penfolds mood definitely. I'd like some in the cellar actually and bring it out in about 6 years time for some glory. Is it interesting enough? Does that matter? As a drinking wine it's an obvious winner, which is surely what counts.

Penfolds Cellar Reserve Kalimna Block 25 Mataro 2010 (Barossa, SA)
14.5%, Screwcap, $50
Source: Sample

I don't mean for this to be an afterthought, for it's better than that, however the story here is just how impressive the Merlot was.

The first time that a straight Mataro has made it into the Cellar Reserve range and one of the very few times that Penfolds has released a straight Mataro. It may even be the first ever single vineyard Penfolds Mataro (I could be wrong. I've found references to a Bin 158 back in the 50s but not sure if that was a single vineyard wine).

This wine was sourced off the Kalimna Block 25 planted in 1964. It spent 16 months in new and seasoned oak and was produced like much of the Penfolds reds in static fermenters with heading down boards used for plunging (a very manual process!). 

Darkly coloured and brooding, this Mataro, like the Merlot, is a 100% Penfolds red. The only challenge is that, for the moment at least, that means it is dominated by winemaking influences, the oak sitting on top of the slightly reduced fruit. The palate too looks a little baked, that dried black Mataro fruit looking ripe but also drying, firm and firmly varietal yet just a fraction caramelised on the edges.

Whilst this is going to be a more impressive wine with cellar time as that fruit peaks out, it still looks a little sweet and sour to mine. Varietal Mataro nonetheless.

Drink: 2014-2024+
Score: 17/20 90/100+
Would I buy it? Only as a curio.

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