Top flight – part two



In his concluding chapter, Stuart Rae, a member of our Fine Wine team, share his notes from a rare tasting of Penfolds’ exceptional 1990 vintage

Without further ado we started the 10-wine flight.

Proof that even the more ‘basic’ wines have the ability to age is seen in the first instance. The 1990 Penfolds Koonunga Hill Shiraz Cabernet yields gentle secondary and tertiary notes of undergrowth, tanned leather, incense and spice. It is a testament to true, raw-material quality.

The 1990 Penfolds Bin 407 Cabernet Sauvignon presents a touch of forest floor, blueberry and cassis on the nose with a hint of eucalypt. Drinking beautifully now, it has mellowed out with a palate that still holds good fruit and vibrancy allied alongside blackcurrant leaf, earthy and savoury notes. The Cabernet character of McLaren Vale really shines through.

The famous 1990 Penfolds Bin 389 Cabernet Shiraz has been produced in 54 uninterrupted vintages. There is a complex exoticism of incense, tobacco and tanned leather on the nose. The palate, although decades old, is still voluminous and the tannins have melded well. There is a lovely chalkiness in texture, a hint of Coonawarra Cabernet with a stream of mocha and tobacco from the Barossa Shiraz.

The rare 1990 Penfolds Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon was produced solely for the UK and released in only three vintages (the 1989, 1990 and 1991). While less complex and suave than the likes of the Bin 389, the Coonawarra-ness really shows in the aged yet assertive tannins. A gentle herbaceousness enhances the lovely palate with a touch of graphite and pencil shavings.

St Henri is a ‘rebel’ that sees no new oak and exemplifies what unadulterated Shiraz fruit can do in the right hands. Unchanged since its first vintage, it’s widely dubbed the ‘red wine drinker’s red wine’. The 1990 Penfolds St Henri Shiraz is a revelation, with a complex nose of floral, violet and blackberry fruit. It reveals nuance after nuance on the palate and is still assertive after so much time in bottle. It has a good number of years ahead of it.

In such a prestigious line up, there inevitably has to be an ‘also-ran’. The 1990 Penfolds Magill Estate Shiraz followed St Henri and was not looking too good; with caramel notes on the nose and a palate lacking, this was a wine that had seen better days.

The 1990 Penfolds Bin 707 Cabernet Sauvignon is intended to display the best of Coonawarra, Kalimna and McLaren Vale Cabernet Sauvignon, and is aged in American oak. It is bold and assertive here, the notes of tobacco, sage and mocha to the fore of this fruit-driven wine which has developed a rich and svelte complexity over time. There are at least another 10 years to go if you can resist.

The next two wines were tasted side by side, a 1990 Penfolds Bin 920 Cabernet Shiraz and the 1990 Penfolds Bin 90a Cabernet Shiraz. The duality between these two really typifies their distinct individuality. The Bin 920 was svelte, cool and poised, the chalky tannin aspect of the Coonawarra Cabernet shining through in contrast to the meatier, more chocolate predominance of the Barossa Shiraz in the 90a. Both are brilliant examples of Cabernet Shiraz and yet so stylistically different as to please all palates.

Last but not least was the 1990 Penfolds Grange Shiraz, a behemoth of a wine and yet still incredibly youthful. I hate to say it but box this one up for your grandchildren. If you have purchased any of the 2010 Grange, you’ll need to be patient.

What this tasting has shown is the true ability of these wines to age in an effortless and honest way in which their true regionality and characteristics show through. While good news for those who have some cellared, it is bad news in the sense you’ll have to wait another 20-plus years to truly enjoy them. At least we know what awaits us in the bottle.

Read part one of Stuart’s account of this extraordinary tasting.