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Penfolds California: Are They Dreaming?


Penfolds, yet again, is poised on the edge of an historic moment in wine. The most noted name in Southern Hemisphere wine has looked to the Northern Hemisphere for The California Collection, a debut four cuvée release of assorted Cabernet blends born from the rich soils and sun of The Golden State. Here, Andrew Caillard MW examines just how this extraordinary new release came to be, Penfolds significance in a modern and changing world, and just what fans can expect of the wines. To be among the first to hear when we receive an allocation of these new wines, please register with a broker here.

The story of Penfolds weaves through the ages of Australian wine in an omnipresent pattern. A tradition of experimentation, risk and audacity helped shape the character and popularity of colonial wine during the 19th Century. Penfolds was also heavily involved in the reconstruction of the Australian economy after the First World War, investing heavily in new vineyards, wineries and people. 

During the 1930s the business became ‘an empire of wine’ with a presence in every State. After the Second World War, it adapted to the new face of Australia by experimenting and releasing groundbreaking wines including Grange, St Henri, Bin 707 and Bin 389. It also ventured into New Zealand during the 1970s but the timing was wrong.


‘...Australia’s most collected wine...’


By the early 1980s, Penfolds was enjoying a strong and meaningful presence in the Australian market and had become Australia’s most collected wine. This strength soon translated to a successful international market and reputation. By 1998 Penfolds began looking at building a bridge with the United States by investing in vineyards and possibly making Californian wine for that market. Vine cuttings from the Kalimna Vineyard and Magill were planted at the Camatta Hills Estate Vineyard, formerly a Californian Ranch called Creston 600. This colonial vinestock was genetically derived from the earliest days of South Australian colonial settlement and represents some of the best pre-phylloxera material in the world. 

The pace of international change and the growing reputation of the Penfolds brand in China in the 2000s probably delayed plans to build a Penfolds California foothold. But it allowed vineyards to mature and winemakers to experiment under other Treasury Wine Estates brand names. Nonetheless, Penfolds is seen by collectors as an Australian brand and an important foundation of Australia’s wine industry. 

As a consequence, there may be some long term Penfolds buyers who see the launch of Californian or cross-Pacific blends as being something of a sell-out. But it is not the first time Penfolds has ventured overseas. During the 1970s, its venture into New Zealand was well before its time (although it ultimately failed). Penfolds winemakers have been working and experimenting with sourcing, winemaking and blending in California for around 20 years. Chief winemaker Peter Gago’s passion for champagne has translated to a joint venture with Thiénot (who, by the way, are the owners of Château Rahoul, the property purchased by Len Evans and investors during the early 1980s). Treasury also bought Château Cambon-La-Pelouse a few years ago. The story of Grange, inextricably connected to Bordeaux, may inspire a new ultra-fine Penfolds Cuvée from that region!

There has been a connection between the Californian and Australian wine industry for a long time. During the 1950s, new vinestock material began to be imported from UC Davis and California with strict quarantine protocols. Penfolds imported a clone of Chardonnay called P58, which is prolific in the Hunter Valley and other regions, especially the Mornington Peninsula. This is an important legacy. There are simply hundreds of new clones that have been brought in over the years by the CSIRO or other Agricultural Departments and then heat treated or acclimatised to Australian conditions. 

The American influence on the Australian wine industry also filters through the ages. Irrigation technologies, the fruit colony concept, vinestock material, mechanical harvesters and scientific exchange with the United States of America have all played an important role in shaping Australia’s wine identity from the 1800s to the present day. So why not the other way around?

Although primarily symbolic, the transmission of Australian colonial vinestock material in 1998/1999, the employment of Penfolds winemaking traditions and maturation in AP. John Coopers oak barrels all bring a sense of individuality and purpose to Penfolds’ newest Californian Collection release. 


‘...filled with the optimism, belief and open mindedness we need in a post-covid world...’


Typical of Penfolds, there are plenty of bon mots and phrases that accompany this new release including ‘a limitless winemaking approach’, ‘pedigreed shiraz’, ‘flagship-worthy’ cabernet sauvignon or ‘purpose-fitted fermenters’. Chief winemaker Peter Gago’s tasting notes for these new releases are truly unique, personalised and eccentric. They completely animate the optimism, excitement and fear that surrounds this exceptionally forward-thinking release. Having been a wine auctioneer for 35 years, I have seen new  and exciting wines come and go. Brands that seem to have history, provenance and a marvellous future can also fade away. Despite corporate musical chairs, Penfolds has survived and prospered. Until the imposition of crippling tariffs in China, it had achieved the status of being a unicorn brand and no doubt its reputation will linger in that market. 

Ten years ago or more, I caught whiff of Penfolds intentions to establish a Californian range. And I had my doubts. But the wine market has dramatically changed and new horizons like this seem dynamic and interesting. I have no idea where this journey will take them, but I think this Penfolds Californian release is bloody good and filled with the type of optimism, belief and open mindedness we need in a post-covid world.

Tasting Notes

Penfolds Bin 600 Cabernet Shiraz

45% Napa 35% Sonoma 20% Camatta Hills- Paso Robles, 16 months in (40%) new and (60%) second-season American oak.

Penfolds Bin 600 Cabernet Shiraz, California

Medium deep colour. Pure black cherry graphite aromas, with coconut roasted chestnut, faint mint notes. Generous chocolaty style with lovely pure dark cherry, cassis, dark chocolate flavours, fine gravelly tannins, inky density and underlying roasted chestnut coconut notes. Finishes al-dente firm with a lovely graphite plume and fresh aniseed kick. A 78% Cabernet Sauvignon and 22% Shiraz oak matured blend. Curiously different, yet distinctly Penfolds in character with lovely fruit density, richness and mineral length. A classic cabernet shiraz with a passing salute to the much-loved South Australian Bin 389 style. Plenty of ageing potential.

14.5% Drink 2024-2035+
95 points

2018 Penfolds Bin 704 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley

Napa Valley, Barossa Valley and Coonawarra, 16 months in (40%) new and (60%) second-season oak.

2018 Penfolds Bin 704 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley

Medium deep colour. Intense blackcurrant dark chocolate box cedar aromas with roasted chestnut, dukkha notes. Well-concentrated blackcurrant elderberry dark chocolate cedar flavours, fine grainy touch granular textures, underlying roasted chestnut/ vanilla oak notes, finishes chocolaty firm and long. Lovely balanced and supple-textured wine with superb fruit definition and elemental structure. Will need some years to unfold and hum. References Bin 707 and 407 and sits somewhere between in shape and volume. Distinctly Penfolds in style with Napa Valley’s hallmark tannin richness.

Alc 14.5% Drink 2024 – 2035+
97 points

2018 Penfolds Bin 149 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley & South Australia

16 months in new (80%) French and new (20%) American oak.

2018 Penfolds Bin 149 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley & South Australia

Medium deep colour. Expressive dark cherry blackcurrant elderberry aromas with roasted chestnut notes. Densely concentrated and vigorous with pure inky dark cherry, cassis, dark chocolate flavours, perfectly balanced grilled nut/ vanilla oak complexity, fine plentiful al-dente tannins and underlying marzipan/truffle-like notes. Finishes gravelly firm with plentiful dark choco-berry fruits. A superb ultra-fine Cabernet Sauvignon taking Penfolds cross-country winemaking tradition into a brand-new era of discovery, imagination and enlightenment. Audacious, animated and complex with remarkable intensity, power and balance.

14.5% Alc Drink 2024-2038
98 points 

2018 Penfolds Bin 98 Quantum Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley &;amp South Australia

16 months in new (80%) French and new (20%) American oak.

2018 Penfolds Bin 98 Quantum Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley & South Australia

Deep colour. Beautiful dark chocolate, blackberry aromas with roasted chestnut, apricot, chinotto, truffle notes. Densely concentrated wine with saturated dark chocolate, blackberry, boysenberry liquorice flavours, complex apricot/stone fruit notes, superbly integrated roasted chestnut/ hazelnut/malty oak, lovely mid-palate richness and fine loose knit supple gravelly tannins. Finishes firm and tight with a beautiful inky plume. A cross-Pacific, partially barrel-fermented blend based on rigorous classification and the best parcels of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon (87%) and South Australian Shiraz (13%). Elemental, multi-layered and brash, yet unmistakably Penfolds in style with superb fruit definition, oak integration and structure. Will take some years to unfold, but the wait will be worthwhile.

Drink 2027-2045+
97 points

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