What lies in store for Penfolds fans in their 2020 release collection. TONY LOVE goes undercover before they hit the stores on August 6.

The show must always go on.

In entertainment circles and in Penfolds land – that’s the mantra and don’t let anyone or anything stop you in the pursuit.

That’s just the start of the story for the 2020 global release of the great Australian wine corp’s latest batch of white and red wines, peaking at the inimitable Grange and this year with an added tickle of interest with an extra wine in the Grange stable – more about that later.

Usually the process would go like this – in Australia the Penfolds marketing crew would gather two dozen or so scribes, bloggers and associated critics and supporters into one room and in the presence of Penfolds boss winemaker Peter Gago open all the to-be-released bottles and with little adieu let the pens and keyboards fire at will. One caveat – repeated with gusto, is the global embargo. Break it at your peril.

This year however that exacting process was split asunder by the Covid-19 chaos – so in Adelaide at the spiritual home of Penfolds at Magill Estate, just four South Australian-based writers gathered in the presence of Peter Gago at the Magill Estate restaurant while others both in there, across the country, and in fact around the globe received “tasting kits” of a collection of bottles. Some received a selection of six. Others got the full 18.

And Mr Gago proceeded to spend the next fortnight in face to face, phone, and video tastings with the lot. Fortunately he is an avid conversationalist, though after 10 days or so his voice was cracking under the pressure.

Also, fortunately, this set of Penfolds wines in the most part is pretty damned good.

The 2020 collection starts with the same year launch of Penfolds Bin 51 Eden Valley 2020 Riesling ($40), and sets the bar exceptionally high on for the set of 18 wines all up. If this is any indication of the nature of EV riesling in 2020, then wow just wow, with delightful orchard florals, typical citrus notes,keen, spicy acidity with fine pithy/chalky mouthfeels and persistent length. For me, a solid 94/100 points. 

Three chardonnays next – and senior Penfolds white wine maker Kym Schroeter has overseen a very engaging set in three distinctive styles. The top shelf 2018 Yattarna is a stunner, a superior wine in every way with extraordinary oak integration given 60% new barrique maturation for eight months. It seems more to be about a textural expression than flavour bombing and is one of the most sophisticated Penfolds chardonnays I’ve tasted on release. Points: 98/100.

At $175 a bottle, of course it’s not your everyday tipple, and the other chardonnays in the set, the  2019 Reserve Bin A Adelaide Hills Chardonnay ($125) and the 2019 Bin 311 Chardonnay ($50) offer stylistic and wallet-based alternatives. A shout out for the latter, which in this year was sourced from Tasmania, Adelaide Hills and Tumbarumba (NSW) and is very polished with lovely fruit flavour-acidity balance – 94 points from me.

The 2018 Bin reds have a few ups and a few downs in my view. Let’s get the disappointments out of the way first. The Pinot Noir is somewhat mono-dimensional and lacks terroir interest.

The Bin 138 Shiraz/Grenache/Mataro from the Barossa shows grenache promise in its aromatics even though it is down in percentage in the blend, but the palate is a little hard and edging to bitter in its tannin profile. I usually love this wine but was not inclined towards it this outing.

The Kalimna Bin 28 Shiraz is made up from nine regions across SA and now feels like it’s just a house styled red, rather oaked and perhaps now a bit of a caricature SA shiraz. Interestingly at $50 it is cheaper by $10 than the Bin 128 Coonawarra Shiraz which has properly grown in stature in the past few years. This 2018 vintage with excellent regional focus showcases Coonawarra shiraz as an impressive cool climate style. I really liked this wine’s dark soulful style, plenty of black-fruit richness with savoury offsets like brewed black tea, herbs and pepper and a dusty, earthy underlayer. Points wise I’m in at the 95 mark.

We now step into the $100 plus red tier which is where you start to see some truly classy Penfolds action from the big names – of course at this price you would expect it to be so.

The Bin 407 Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 is from six districts and is purely a varietal study – four of those regions are Limestone Coast zonal. It is what it is.

The Bin 150 Marananga 2018 Shiraz ($100) is a very likeable wine and slightly off-piste yet very interesting compared to many of the other Penfolds expressions of Shiraz. There’s a note of cola, brandied apricots even, and ginger nut biscuit in a wine that’s fleshy as you first taste then builds in tannin thickness yet is still quite navigable. It’s got a genuine individuality about it and for that, 94 points.

In the context of the upper echelon of the Penfolds collection, the next two wines are the ones that really stand out in terms of drinking pleasure and value. The 2018 Bin 389 Cabernet Shiraz is deadly serious business and while it has genuine gravitas it is utterly pleasurable to drink. High points here – 96.

And also with the 2017 St Henri Shiraz; my first two tasting note words on the day,  “Okay, Wow.” It is an increasingly relevant shiraz style and it has so much going on in its deep, dark fascinations. A  wine worth dwelling on. The question to pose here is at $135 (and $100 for the Bin 389) are these worth buying a half a dozen rather for less than you would spend on a bottle of Grange. I would say definitely. At 98 points in my book for the 2017 St Henri, it’s a yes from me.

Both are among my highlights on the day. And in this price range also the Magill Estate 2018 Shiraz ($150/ 96 points) continues to offer a totally distinctive expression of shiraz, this from the elevated foothills above the Adelaide plains and city, a singular vineyard with limited volume. It’s a prettier, more floral and lifted shiraz style and really, really more-ish.

We now move up the dollar scale to the RWT Bin 798 Barossa Valley Shiraz at $200. Once again it is a completely unique expression of the hero variety shiraz and is another beautifully polished wine with the highest order of richness and balance. Yes it shows its oak, then dig deeper and the depth and flavour of the fruit to match it and even override 16 months of majority new oak maturation is quite something to behold. I really liked this in terms of its total Barossa character – 97 points.

This year’s Special Bin release is Bin 169 Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon 2018, which only comes into the team in well regarded vintages. This is a really sophisticated, almost understated, seductive and compelling wine and highly recommended – though we are now digging out $360 a bottle. For that, take 98 points.

The next jump takes us into Bin 707 Cabernet Sauvignon territory at $650 a bottle, and you are needing to be a full-on traditionalist to get on board. It’s massive, full bodied to the extreme with prominent tannins and of course its weird obsession with 100% new American oak (in hogsheads) defines its flavour profile. I feel it’s a wine that needs 10 years more in the cellar before there might appear more integration of the oak. But that’s 707 for you. As an example of the pedigree and style, I’ll mark up 96 points, maybe more in  decade.

The 2016 Grange at $950 a bottle is always a talking point. The wine feels much less heavy than the previous 2015 release and perhaps most predecessors, and suggests it’s good to open now while there is plenty of deep diving to be done palate wise with its house styled VA note (in subtle amounts) and American oak influence playing its typical role in the overall character of the wine. Energy, depth and balance are key to its success, the palate appears bottomless with dried fig, anise, dark soy and classic chariness, yet there’s fleshy relief, neatly measured tannin feels that allow its dark fruit notes to rise again in the finish. Lots of talk about how to point such a wine: there’ll be some 100s around, I reckon, but as a drink on release wine that prominent oak? I’m up for 99 on a good day.  

Then there is this year’s Penfolds podium wine – the G4 special multi vintage Grange featuring a secret percentage blend of four vintages – 2002, ’04, ’08 and “refreshed” with the 2016 if refreshed could ever be the right word in the Grange dictionary. No doubt the new release ‘16 will be the major partner. Amazingly given the age of the components, the fruit driven aspects of the shiraz here are really exciting. “It’s counter-intuitive,” says PG. “The fruit feels liberated.” It is very surprising. You can question its curiosity value. Its show-ponyship. Its rarity. But I find this wine really approachable and delicious above all of the intellectual properties it may possess. I hope those bidding for it on the global market – there are only 2500 bottles at $3500 available around the globe – well, I bloody well hope they open it and drink it and not simply brag about it and show off their wealth and status via this wine. Because it’s bloody delicious. I haven’t considered pointing this as it’s kind-of off the charts anyway.