In August this year Penfolds Wines unearthed a half bottle (369 mls, originally 13 ounces) of 1903 St Henri Claret in Brisbane during their annual re-corking series.

This was the oldest known vintage of this venerable style once termed “Australian Claret” in a generic sense, although it is a long time now since Australian makers and Penfolds in particular dropped generic naming for varietal label description.

A private Queensland St Henri collector and passionate drinker of these substantial red wines conducted a St Henri retrospective for 24 eager palates recently; spanning 1985 to 2004 (1986 missing, presumed drunk).

This writer was master of ceremonies and responsible for bottle preparation and service. Three bottles of each vintage were provided.

The inaugural St Henri “Claret” was made at the Auldana Cellars around the 1890s, with the vineyard adjacent to the famous Magill vineyard which spawned the first Granges in the 1950s.

The Penfolds family purchased Auldana Cellars and hence the St Henri brand in 1943 with the first St Henri emerging commercially in 1957.

Though half bottles of experimental St Henri trickled out to those close to the company since 1953 (two years after Grange samples were peddled likewise).

Penfolds Rewards of Patience cellar report now in its sixth edition – 2008, (first in 1985) chronicles tastings of all released St Henri vintages. This is the most recent retrospective tasting of contemporary vintages.

Flight 2004-2000 served with house pate, cornichons and mustard; 2004 (90, 14.5%), juicy fruit, drying, grippy tannin; 2003 (86, 14.5%), light colour, light fruit, trace of aging; 2002 (91,14.5%), jammy and spiced, leafy, minted, dry talc tannin; 2001 (93, 14.5%), very jammy, syrupy, rich in spiced fruits, very good; 2000 (85, 13.5%), colour fading, quite feral and dank, herbal, tough tannins.

Penfolds St Henri Shiraz vertical 1985-2004

As winemaker Peter Gago says, “Not so long back this wine was known and labelled as St Henri Claret,” so it is a style not curtailed by the grape blend.But Peter does qualify that by saying the wine is always Shiraz dominant (a lot of Barossa) as with the 1994 -labelled as Shiraz Cabernet with the latter at 15%.

Barossa and like warm region Shiraz hold their primary fruit nose for 4-7 years, depending on the harvest conditions. The fruit attributes to enjoy are berry, blackberry, mocha, licorice, jam, juicy fruits while any cooked aromas from hot seasons will appear as stewed prune or tar).

Flight 1999-1995 served with sage/proscuitto wrapped quail on mushroom risotto; 1999 (90, 14%), sweet, cedar, lovely juiciness; 1998 (94, 14%), layer on layer of flavour, licorice; 1997 (89, 14%), aging nose, leather, green, hot;1996 (94, 14%), mature, tar, juicy, licorice, soft; 1995 (89, 13.5%), earthy, burnt, very tarry now.

Australian red wine making pre the mid-50s when small barrels were slowly introduced, occurred with storage in 2000-5000 litre oak barrels (rounds or ovals depending on their French or Italian origin). New oak uptake was not a feature, but tannin softening over 18-24 months was normal.

Peter Gago reports that the style has never changed nor the wine making, nor the oak maturation. So the Auldana Cellars process of 1890 for red wine aging is the St Henri Shiraz aging process for the 2010 vintage; in 1460 to 2000 litre, old vats (50 years+).

Flight 1994-1990 served with waygu slices topped with caramelised onion and tomato relish; 1994 (91, 13.5%), leathery, full fruit, juicy tannins, licorice; 1993 (89, 13.5%), aging, just crimson, syrupy, very soft and easy; 1992 (90, 13.5%), jammy, sweet, lively palate; 1991 (94, 13.5%), rich and ultra-ripe, jam, great freshness, soft and pliant; 1990 (93, 13.5%), cedary, licorice, leafy, earthy, touch feral now. 1994 was labelled Shiraz Cabernet as was 1992.

Wines at this stage have essentially lost primary fruit and have developed or are developing aromas and flavours that become the backbone of the wine.

The second component of course is how the tannins are tracking. By virtue of its name this wine starts life high in tannin.

And it would be expected during different phases of the wine making over the decades that very tannic pressings components would be added, depending on the winemaker responsible.

Although Australian red wine making has gone through some “softness” phases, and red wine re-modelling, St Henri seems to be left alone of late, and hefty tannins included and allowed to age gently in large oak, then wine is sent to bottling.

My pointings suggest: greater than 90; wine alive and on a long maturing span, 15-30 years; less than 90, wine softened or softening fast (good attribute) but the developed fruit structure will not hold on for the 30 years, expect a shelf life of 10-15 years from such vintage.

Flight 1989-1987,1985, 1971 served with lamb shank, white bean minestrone and ricotta dumpling on a cool and cloudy afternoon; 1989 (90, 13.5%), crimson, sweet cedar, quite jammy, then licorice and soft; 1988 (89, 13.5%), quite mature, very dry, now soft, not silk; 1987 (88, 13%), muddy colour, herbal, very dried, patchy, hollowing; 1985 (92, 12.5%), very juicy-sweet nose, drying but classy; 1971 (90), colour browns and crimson, tar and roses nose, alive, very bright licorice and tar aged fruit, classily soft tannins holding very well.

Penfolds St Henri "Claret" pre-1989

Recorking: 1989 (2 bottles) re-corked at a 2010 clinic earlier in the year; 1988 (1 bottle) 2010 clinic, (1 bottle) 2006 clinic [2006 topped bottle not as fresh but the flavour differences were marginal; participants told which bottle they tasted]; 1987 (1 bottle) 2006 clinic [the aging process had overtaken the freshening, both wines of similar character]; 1985 (1 bottle) 2006 clinic, (1 bottle) 2002 clinic [both wines approximately similar and tasters told which was their bottle].Cork taint, oxidation or wine deterioration was the main focus of the wine preparation. Bottles of 1999 and 1993 were cork tainted and replaced with fresh, untainted bottles. The TCA incidence rate was 4.5% but since 2005 this disappears with the use of screw cap. From 1996 the bottles are laser-etched and from 1997 the corks branded as St Henri with vintage.

The youngest vintages were decanted first and served first within three hours of opening, while older wines had similar breathing times with cork replaced, while extended breathing was deemed not warranted.

All wines from 1989 and older were labelled Claret.

A wonderful private tasting

Of the older wines it was easy to see the ones holding their expected aging trajectory from fruit strength while lesser years decline that strength, concurrently drying out as the tannins show and there is less to taste (1987, 1988, 1993 etc).The wines of the tasting to die for by Peter Gago’s advice were 1971, 1990, 1996, 1998, 2002, 2004, while at this tasting we include 1991.

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