As someone who both studies and enjoys wines, it’s sometimes annoying to be asked if I have a favourite. The notion that I would pick a single wine and hold it up over all others is a bit silly, as there are so many great wines out there and picking the right one is so often down to the situation. A perfect wine for a warm summer’s day on the veranda would not be right for a cold night by the fire. However, if pressed, I will sometimes confess that I actually do have a favourite, and today I will tell you about it with this Penfolds RWT Barossa Valley Shiraz 2005.
When I arrived in Australia, I was just starting to appreciate wine and Penfolds is one of the biggest names in the business. While they produce a huge range of wines, many at very low price points, they’re best known for their flagship Grange, widely regarded as the most famous Australian wine. Over my first few years here, I attended a number of Penfolds tastings as well as some elegant dinners at their Magill Estate restaurant, and eventually decided that if I was going to have a favourite wine, I could do much worse than RWT. I had tasted the wine on a number of occasions and enjoyed it greatly, so at some point I thought that if I could have just one wine, that would be it.
Given my wine journey over the last few years, it’s turned into something of an contrary choice. I work vintage with a tiny producer, making Pinot Noir in a cool climate. I love obscure grapes and lesser known regions. Penfolds RWT on the other hand, is a wine from a huge producer, made from an extremely popular grape in a prominent, warm region. However, I’m still happy to call it my favourite because I always enjoy drinking it.
Barossa and Shiraz are well known to this blog, so I’ll move directly to talking about Penfolds. It was founded in 1844 by an English doctor, Christopher Rawson Penfold, and the wines first produced at Magill were prescribed as tonic. The business grew quickly, producing both table and fortified wines, and over the century that followed grew to include vineyards throughout South Australia and New South Wales. The company pioneered fine wine in Australia through the efforts of Max Schubert, with Grange starting as an experiment in 1951, and continued by developing a distinctive house style of red wines through the 1960s.
In 1986 John Duval became the chief winemaker. Loyal readers will recognize that name not just from his white Rhône blend Plexus but also the Syrah he makes with Viña Ventisquero. In 1995 he embarked on a project to produce a high quality Shiraz that would be distinct from both Grange and another Penfolds premium wine, St. Henri. Both of those are multiregional, in that they are made of grapes that can be sourced from across Australia, and each will often have a small component of Cabernet Sauvignon depending on the vintage. For RWT (from red winemaking trials) Duval stuck exclusively with Barossa Shiraz, and while Grange is distinctively in new American hogsheads and St. Henri sees only old French oak vats, RWT is aged in half new French hogsheads.
Peter Gago took over as chief winemaker in 2002, continuing to this day, and I can’t resist telling a short story. My wife had met him in London at an international tasting and she was impressed that he turned up in advance and personally opened and tested every bottle of his wine - far from the norm. Fast forward to 2007 and my wife and I had reservations for a very small, local wine dinner in Adelaide that he was to be presenting. It was also the night of a lunar eclipse, and we walked by the restaurant 30 minutes before the dinner, on our way to an open area from which to watch the moon disappear. As we passed, there he was opening and tasting each of the wines, and it was my turn to be impressed.
In the glass, this wine is clear and bright, with a deep brick red colour and very slow, thick legs lining the glass when swirled. On the nose it’s clean and developing with medium plus intensity and notes of red cherries, boysenberries, cinnamon, and a little bit of leather. If you’ve ever smelled Red Vines, you’ll get that, too. On the palate it’s clean, with high intensity, medium plus acidity, medium plus mouth coating fine tannins, medium plus body, medium plus alcohol, and long length. It’s concentrated but not jammy. There are notes of red cherries, blackberries, black pepper, pomegranate, blood/red meat/iron, liquorice, and a black pudding finish.
This is an outstanding wine. It’s deeply concentrated, very rich and long lasting. A joy, but then again, it is my favourite, so I would say that. More objectively, it is well balanced, particularly for such a big wine. The range of flavours, both fruit and developed, is impressive and I expect it will gain further complexity with another ten years in cellar. The typicity is very strong, as is the expression of both the Barossa and Penfolds’ house style. I’m glad I have another half dozen in the cellar, and look forward to tasting through all the vintages at some point.