Penfolds is taking one of its biggest gambles, launching a new product which – looked at one way – is quite a conventional young vintage ‘Port’, but looked at another way, is revolutionary.
Put simply, it is a vintage ‘Port’, partially fortified with a spirit familiar to all Chinese: baijiu. It is an undisguised attempt to woo elite Chinese wine drinkers with a flavour they understand almost instinctively.
Baijiu is a spirit distilled from fermented sorghum, the best-known brand being Maotai. It is massively popular. Penfolds fortified winemaker James Godfrey, formerly of Seppeltsfield, travelled to China researching Maotai, and is clearly fascinated by its history. Maotai comes in a myriad of different styles and he experimented with various blends in his new wine, and tested it on Chinese Australians. They liked it.
“It’s a new product, something we hope has never been done before,” he said. “We looked at the entire range of the world’s spirits. Baijiu is not one thing, it’s a whole range of spirits. We found a style that was very different from what we’d been playing with before. We wanted it drier, and we wanted to express the grassy/leafy, rice-like savoury notes of the spirit with the rich plummy character of shiraz (the base grape of the fortified wine) and the liquorice of the Penfolds fortifying spirit. We liked the almost umami character of the spirit when it combined with our fruit characters. It’s remarkably compatible with a range of Chinese foods.”
The fact that China is currently the boom export market for Australian – and especially Penfolds – wine, was evidently a major factor. Godfrey said Penfolds has been exporting to China for more than 30 years.
He said the base wine, which might have once been called vintage Port and is technically a sweet red shiraz, was initially fortified to 17.5% alcohol using the traditional Penfolds fortifying spirit. The intention was to take it up to 20% by adding other spirits, at the same time reducing the sweetness. The finished wine, named Penfolds Lot 518 Spirited Wine With Baijiu, weighs in at 21.5% alcohol. It comes in the same bottle as Penfolds Grandfather Rare Tawny, but clear glass. It will sell at Penfolds’ cellar door for A$150 and is scheduled for release in August.
To the average Aussie taste, it is a vintage ‘Port’, but has a slightly unusual aroma note, due no doubt to the baijiu. Whether it succeeds or not has little to do with what round-eyes like me think, but how the Chinese take to it.
The other of these Penfolds Special Bottlings, which was released on July 3 and packaged in the same Grandfather bottle, is an altogether different drop: a very old and rather wonderful brandy. It’s called Penfolds Lot 1990 Pot Distilled Single Batch XO Brandy and is priced at A$425. It’s a single-vintage brandy, which is now 28 years old and has been in the company’s possession since it was newly purchased from a long-forgotten source. Godfrey always knew it was special, but never quite knew what to do with it. It’s been in wood all the intervening time. “Now it’s mature, it suddenly has a home,” he explains.
Coincidentally, it’s almost a century since the last Penfolds vintage-dated brandy was harvested, as far as Godfrey can discover. It was a 1919 Old Liqueur Brandy.
The 1990 brandy is 42% alcohol, and was matured in ex-Penfolds chardonnay barrels and ex-Grandfather barrels. A touch of Grandfather Port was added ‘for liqueuring’.
It is astoundingly intense, miraculously complex, and very dry – somewhere between an old Cognac and a single malt whisky. A great spirit.