Accurately capturing a snapshot of the Penfolds Bin 389 Cabernet Shiraz – fondly known as “Baby Grange” – involves revisiting a vital moment in the company’s history. The year 2002 marked the beginning of a new era for Penfolds in several respects: Winemaking had once again returned to its Magill Estate after a 29-year hiatus as the winery bid farewell to winemaker John Duval, appointing enologist Peter Gago as chief winemaker.
Credited with reinventing the role, Gago bolstered research and product development while building a rapport with members of the industry and consumers alike. Despite changes weathered by the company, the winemaking team has remained quite consistent.
Gago himself began making sparkling wine for Penfolds in 1989 and moved to red-wine production in 1993, but several of his colleagues in the lab and cellar have had even longer tenures at Penfolds: Red winemaker Andrew Baldwin, for example, has helped produce Bin 389 for more than 30 years.
To say that Gago’s star rose quickly post-appointment would be an understatement. Within three short years the Bin 389 Cabernet Shiraz was recognized as “Outstanding” and the Bin 95 Grange as “Exceptional” by the Langton’s Classification, an independent guide to fine Australian wines that’s been compiled since 1990.
Gago was also named Winemaker of the Year by Wine Enthusiast in 2005 and was recently awarded an Order of Australia – the country’s highest honor- for his contributions to the Australian wine industry.
Sixty Years in the Making
Bin 389, a claret-style blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz, was first released in 1960, predating by eight years the release of another iconic Cabernet blend, Sassicaia. Inspired by the experimental St. Henri Clarets – Cabernet and Mataro blends that evolved toward the use of Shiraz – Bin 389 relies on warm-climate Cabernet for its perfumed intensity and chocolaty tannins; the Shiraz, meanwhile, contributes a dynamic presence of opulent fruit.
While several techniques have proved instrumental over the years in evolving the style of Bin 389 (among them partial barrel fermentation in American oak and aging stainless steel-fermented components in seasoned ex-Grange and Bin 707 hogheads), what Gago referes to as the wine’s “original blueprint” remains intact.
Regarding himself as a custodian of that style, he’s set about refining this multidistrict blend – vineyard sources include the Barossa Valley, Coonawarra, Padthaway, Robe, McLaren Vale, Langhorne Creek and Clare Valley regions – through adaptive vineyard management practices that are better suited to modern winemaking techniques.
In a panel review of Bin 389 from seventh edition of Andrew Caillard MWs’ Penfolds: The Rewards of Patience, the vintages of the 1990s are noted as relatively tannic, with beautiful fruit, richness and power; ’91, ’94, ’96 and ’98 as highlights. The early 2000s produced wines with softer textures , a shift attributed to older vines and better tannin management. Vintage highlights were ’02, ’04, ’06, ’08, ’09 and ’10.
The aforementioned Bin 95 Grange (aka Grange), which made its commercial debut in 1952, has long served as Penfolds’ calling card: A Shiraz-dominant, multiregional blend, it usually comprises less than 8% percent Cabernet Sauvignon.
In keeping with Gago’s practice of tasting verticals of older Penfolds vintages alongside panels of expert tasters, I’ve amended my tasting notes to include the historical perspective documented in Penfolds: The Rewards of Patience. This consummate guide to all things Penfolds provides invaluable hindsight through the lens of the world’s most highly-regarded palates.
Penfolds 1990 Bin 389 Cabernet Shiraz, South Australia
A banner year for Bin 389 that was lauded for its rich fruit, chocolatly tannins and balance. Aromas of Cassis underscored by tobacco and earthy minerals. Minty, evolved black fruit akin to mulberry on the palate with vanilla bean and earthy, tarry flavors. Almost powdery tannins and an umami-laden finish. The wine held up well for the first 30 minutes and changed considerably over the course of an hour in the glass. This vintage proceeds Gago who begun working with the red wines in 1993.
Penfolds 1990 Bin 95 Grange, South Australia
Upon its release in 1995, Grange 1990 was named Wine of the Year on Wine Spectator’s Top 100 list. Declared viable through 2045, it shows evolved black fruit akin to mulberry on the palate with minty, vanilla bean and earthy, tarry flavors mid palate that give way to vanilla through the finish. The wine held up well for the first 30 minutes and changed considerably over the course of an hour in the glass. 5% Cabernet Sauvignon.
Penfolds 1996 Bin 389 Cabernet Shiraz, South Australia
Dominated by secondary aromas of earth, umami and eucalyptus. Milk chocolate coats a core of mildly grippy tannins that persist through a lengthy finish of darker fruits. Upon release the 1996 showed classic Cabernet Sauvignon markers of savory red currant and mint with gravelly tannins. Noted as an earlier drinking vintage through 2016, the drinking window has held on longer than anticipated.
Penfolds 1996 Grange, South Australia
Lauded as a “classic” vintage, with star anise and complexing, high-toned varietal aromas. The blue plum and blackberry that defined its youth are supported by still-firm tannins. In 1996, the aging of Grange and Bin wines was discontinued at Magill. 6% Cabernet Sauvignon.
Penfolds 2004 Bin 389 Cabernet Shiraz, South Australia
Comprising 53% Shiraz, this expression and has a dark, compact and refined structure. Medium intensity flavors of black pepper and savory black fruit show a linear progression from its youth. It showed particularly well upon release with brambly fruit and herb/leafy notes earning it a “special wine” designation and a lifespan to 2035. (Gago recommends patience).
Penfolds 2004 Bin 95 Grange, South Australia
Still opulent with aromas of tobacco and dry forest floor aromas as well as a flourish of black raspberry on the palate. Notes of camphor and vanilla cloak a refined tannin structure, with cedar and mocha defining the finish. Largely due to that structure, it was initially given a drinking window to 2050. 4% Cabernet Sauvignon.
Penfolds 2010 Bin 389 Cabernet Shiraz, South Australia
The nose leads with secondary notes of cinnamon and exotic wood spice akin to sandalwood, showing an evolution of more overt vanilla and marzipan aromas of the wine’s youth. The palate is precise, with enervating flavors in the mouth of black fruits moving to darker spice, mocha, bittersweet dark chocolate and, on the finish, a flourish of saffron-infused minerality. Described by Gago as “no wimp” upon release, the vintage was noted as hold until to 2050. It’s still developing, promising even more complexity as tertiary notes begin to emerge. With 51 percent Cabernet Sauvignon.
Penfolds 2016 Bin 389 Cabernet Shiraz, South Australia
“The 1990s [are] antecedents to this vintage,” observed Gago noting that the 2016 has progressed in the same manner. Scheduled for release in August, the wine shows primary notes of red and black fruit, precise varietal expression, and a lithe body that, according to Gago will “fatten up” [with time] in the bottle.
Penfolds 2015 Bin 95 Grange, South Australia
Also scheduled for release in August, this wine is comparable to the ‘10 Grange in character (Gago is emphatic that “absolutely nothing” has changed with respect to winemaking in the last six years). It shows very peppery dark fruit, with a tight, firm core and almost seamless intensity from start to finish.
Now in its 176th year, Penfolds has learned the hard way that imitation is not the highest form of flattery. Over the last decade, its sought-after wines have increasingly been the target of counterfeiters. Fortunately, efforts to curtail fakes have been successful, and while the Penfolds portfolio has expanded and contracted over the years in response to the market, the impact of Gago’s tenure has undoubtedly helped the company sustain its lengthy track record of success.