Today’s Penfolds re-corking clinic held in Brisbane’s Conrad Treasury Hotel had a fitting ring to it, for the recent re-naming of Fosters Wine Estates to Treasury Wine Estates had some additional significance from the choice of venue.

Every four years Penfolds invite collectors of Grange Shiraz and any other Penfolds wine 15 or more years-old to be submitted for re-corking.

The absolute star of this Brisbane clinic was the 1903 half pint bottle of Auldana Cellars St Henri Claret (mainly shiraz) presented by a local collector.

Penfolds Chief Winemaker Peter Gago says, “We did not open this wine for in fact it is cleverly sealed with an internal brass ring which means that opening the bottle results in us being unable to re-cork it. It would just have to be drunk on the spot!”

Gago personally has half bottles (thirteen ounces or 369 mls) of similar styles made in 1917 and 1935 under the Auldana label commenced in 1887 by a famous South Australian gent, Edmund Mazure.

Penfolds purchased Auldana Cellars, a property with vines and winery adjacent to the current Magill Vineyard in 1943, and all St Henri Clarets were released in branded Penfolds dark brown bottles from then.

Collectors made appointments to present with their old reds: these were inspected, metal capsules paired off, double long stranded corkscrews inserted sequentially into the cork (often crumbly, some sodden from slow leakage or simply broken up) which extracts many a poor cork in one piece.

On extraction a small pour was made for my Penfolds red winemaker, Steve Lienert, wine gas (mix of nitrogen-70% and carbon dioxide-30%) is jetted into the headspace to flush out air, a temporary cork placed in the bottle while discussion on the state of maturation between winemaker and owner proceeds to develop a mutual understanding of the drink date, current condition and likely reliability in re-corking the wine for subsequent cellaring.

The first bottle up was Penfolds Shiraz Mataro Bin 2 1970, having a large ullage in a burgundy bottle, cork leaking and generally looking in a terrible condition.

The grape origin was Barossa and Magill for shiraz and Magill for the mataro (also known as mourvedre): this wine was very aged with huge mature molasses and tar flavours, but sweet fruits and good ripe tannin softness, and a touch of oxidation creeping in. This was topped with the current vintage St Henri 06 to freshen and re-fill the bottle.

Wines were re-gassed then corked using heavily QC’d natural, reportedly high class cork and finished off with the current gleaming red tin metal capsules. Penfolds winemakers assisting included Andrew Baldwin (red winemaker), Kym Schroeter (senior white winemaker) and Adam Clay.

The next pair inspected were St Henri 1974, a very poor year for South Australian wineries (floods, wet and misty weather during the harvest) where only two main wines stood up to the test of time, this St Henri and Yalumba’s FDR1A Cabernet Shiraz.

One bottle of St Henri was in brilliant condition; nose of rich bonox, real attitude and power, importantly smelling fresh, then good syrupy texture and mature shiraz character reflected by the tastes of tar, earth, baked plum and beef essence. The second bottle had aged faster than its predecessor, no doubt this being accelerated by air through its cork, and was simply a shade of a wine.

The remaining bottle was Penfolds Bin 389 Cabernet Shiraz 1975; mature but quite fresh on nose, palate also bright, tannins strong and good leafy cabernet characters abound. But drink it over the next few years.

Steve Lienert placed a rear label on each wine; signed off on it for drinking status and suitability to progress as a fine mature example of Penfolds wine. Any wines no longer drinkable, oxidised, cork tainted or seen as unsuitable examples of the company’s wines were not endorsed, receiving a white dot sticker and no signed back label.

One moral to this story: there are not just great wines and great vintages of them but simply great bottles to drink. And some bottles fail through cork collapse, or if you are lucky through this being arrested at the clinic.

Penfolds move to North America next month to conduct similar clinics in Dallas, New York and Toronto.


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