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Penfolds: Australia's most famous red wines 
In the world of fine wine, Penfolds are a little unusual. While the most exclusive fine wines usually come from a single region, and in many cases a single vineyard, the wines at the top of the Penfolds tree are mostly multiregion blends, made from grapes grown across South Australia. These different parcels are then vinified and assigned to one of several labels according to their quality and style. The strength of this approach is consistency from year to year, and if you are going to use the results as an indicator, it has worked pretty well. For these are probably Australia's most famous red wines: unashamedly Australian, ageworthy and full of character. The jewel in the crown is undoubtedly Grange, an iconic wine that is seriously collectable (and consequently expensive). But in this line-up of current releases, the more affordable Bin 707, Bin 389 and new wine RWT Shiraz also deserved a rating of 'excellent'. It's true that prices have crept up in recent years: my sole bottle of 1993 Bin 707 cost me 16 ( the 1998 would set me back 36.99) and my first ever bottle of Bin 389, from the 1990 vintage, cost me just 7.99 (it's now 14.99 a pop). But compared with the current prices of other fine wines, Penfolds' portfolio still represents good value for money, and all the wines have a good track record of ageing. My only caveat is that if you don't like the typical Australian style, then you probably won't like these wines: oak is an important and carefully used component here, and it's detectable in these wines. But I wouldn't say that they are overoaked, a criticism often levelled by those who have 'old world' palates and don't have sufficient 'new world' context to be able to understand what the Penfolds style is all about. Well, enough of the yakking, and on to the wines.

Koonunga Hill Shiraz Cabernet 1999
This years version of the ever-reliable Koonunga Hill is 74% Shiraz and 24% Cabernet, sourced from just about every region in South Australia. The pleasant ripe, licouricey nose leads to a palate where ripe fruit and spicy oak (no new oak here though) combine well. Very good (6.99)

Bin 28 Kalimna Shiraz 1998
Sourced from the Barossa and Clare Valleys and aged for 14 months in American oak. A deep red/purple colour this has a full, spicy nose with attractive minty notes and bags of ripe berry fruit. The full, dense palate shows great intensity and lovely spicy oak notes. A full throttle, ripe wine that should age nicely. Very good/excellent (9.99)

Coonawarra Bin 128 Shiraz 1998
Differs markedly from the Bin 28 in that it's made from Coonawarra fruit and aged in French (as opposed to American) oak, 20% of which is new. A deep red/purple colour this shows full berry fruit on the nose with some smoky, spicy notes. On the palate it is rich, tannic and dense, with some blackcurrant fruit, and tastes more youthful and primary than the Bin 28. Very good+

Bin 407 Cabernet Sauvignon 1998
Sourced from several different South Australian regions and aged in new and used French and American oak barrels, this seems lusher and richer than previous vintages that I've tried. A deep purple/black colour, the nose is dominated by sweet, creamy blackcurrant fruit, leading to a lush rich palate with notes of chocolate and spice. This is all wrapped up in firm tannins: it's a big wine that will be pretty impressive in a few years time. Very good/excellent

Bin 389 Cabernet Sauvignon Shiraz 1998
Often dubbed the 'poor man's Grange', Bin 389 is normally an excellent, ageworthy wine in its own right. Like most of the other Bin series, this is a multi region South Australian blend, and the 1998 is 57% Cabernet/43% Shiraz. Aged for 14 months in new (22%) and used American oak. It has a huge ripe, spicy nose with complex menthol notes and herb and berry fruit elements. The palate is dense, rich and full: this is a classically styled, complex wine of great weight and power, that will presumably age very nicely. Although the price has crept up in recent years to 15, comparatively this is still good value for a wine with a track record for ageing like this. Excellent

Bin 707 Cabernet Sauvignon 1998
100% Cabernet Sauvignon from Coonawarra, Padthaway, Kalimna and McLaren Vale (all South Australia). Fermentation is completed in barrel (very trendy), and the wine is matured for 15 months in new American oak. This is an opaque red/black colour and has a beguiling nose of rich fruit (blackcurrant and berry fruits), chocolate, coffee and sweet, spicy American oak. The palate is superbly rich: firmly tannic and youthful, the spicy oak is currently quite prominent, but this will be a superb wine in a few years. With this sort of level of rich fruit, I think American oak actually works better than French. This will set you back the best part of 40. Excellent

RWT Barossa Valley Shiraz 1998
The second vintage of this label, which slots into the line-up at the same level as Bin 707. 100% Barossa Shiraz aged in French oak (50% new). Deep purple/black colour with a wonderfully rich nose: spicy and complex with some menthol hints. This leads to a hugely concentrated, rich palate with ripe berry fruits, spice and quite a bit of oak (this should integrate nicely with time). Excellent

Grange 1996
Mostly Shiraz plus a dash of Cabernet Sauvignon, aged in new American oak. It's very hard to be completely objective when assessing an iconic wine like this. A legend that still sits at the pinnacle of the Australian wine scene, I'd say that Grange is probably worthy of its exalted reputation, and one of several regrets I have is that when I first got bitten by the wine bug in 1993, I didn't buy a couple of cases of the current release (1985, I believe), because I found the 35 price tag prohibitive. Now it's selling at three times this on release, and it can be a problem getting allocations in good vintages -- and it seems that this remarkable 1996 is one of those good vintages. An opaque red/black colour, the exotic nose displays a range of complex aromas, including spice, coffee, olives and menthol. Hugely concentrated and tannic on the palate, with complex berry fruit and spice flavours. There's plenty of oak here, but I wouldn't call this unbalanced. One for the long haul: you could drink this now, but it's quite challenging. Excellent

Wines tasted May 2001

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