photos provided courtesy of Vasna Wilson unless noted otherwise On May 1st of every year, Australian winery Penfolds releases their new vintage of luxury wines, including the legendary Grange. Coordinated tastings and dinners take place around the country so wine lovers have a chance to taste the new releases. Last year's release party included a dinner in San Francisco featuring the culinary creations of celebrity chef Curtis Stone.
This year's celebration took place at Michael Mina in downtown San Francisco. Once again Penfolds' brand ambassador Matt Lane narrated the evening of food and drink with colorful anecdotes and descriptions of each wine throughout the meal
Penfolds offers a full range of wines at all price points, but when it comes to their luxury wine selections, Penfolds knows how to roll out the carpet and do it right. May 1st isn't just about Grange, but all of the luxury wines in Penfolds' arsenal, including the RWT Shiraz, Yattarna Chardonnay, St. Henri Shiraz and Bin 707 Cabernet Sauvignon — all collectors items.
I started to feel all geeky about the night. Being a wine professional affords a lifestyle of fun experiences, but nights like this are what make it worth it. Wineries like Penfolds offer a reminder of why it's fun to be a sommelier.
As guests arrive, anticipation builds. To add a tongue-in-cheek reminder that wine isn't supposed to be pretentious, appetizers start coming out. The grilled cheese WITH CRUSTS CUT OFF are enough to put a smile on anyone's face. It's not enough to make grilled cheese in the first place, they do one better and serve it to guests just like Mom used to.
Kraft singles were nowhere to found — this is Michael Mina after all. The sandwich's were made with high quality frommage fit for the Yattarna Chardonnay in our glass.
I also like the....no wait, LOVED the cream of cauliflower soup with a tinge of saffron. This might have been the best dish of the night. I secretly stole 2 more of these little gems and didn't share with anyone.
White Burgundy may be the measure from which all Chardonnays are measured, but Penfolds Yattarna belongs in the conversation. Technically, I think we were supposed to wait to get into the Yattarna, but this is Mrs B's favorite Chardonnay so we jumped the gun ahead of the official pairings.
As guests started to settle in, the kitchen staff was hard at work preparing multiple courses to go with the wines. Michael Mina himself was there overseeing the line watching to make everything was executed perfectly. They were nice enough to let us come back and take photos of the food while it was being plated. Matt Lane tapped spoon to glass to officially start the evening's featured pairings:
Pairing No. 1 — Smoked Salmon Terrine with 2009 Penfolds Yattarna
Made with grapes in some of Australia's coldest growing conditions, Yattarna is more like Chablis than it is like Montrachet. Vineyards high up in Tasmania provide the Penfolds' wine making team with fresh, vibrant fruit high in acidity.
Bravo to the chef for slicing fresh smoke salmon, and adding layers of cream-based creation kissed with a hint of dill to offset Yattarna's fresh fennel notes. If Yattarna is known for anything, it's razor-sharp acidity — the kind that cuts through fatty salmon and cream filling like a light saber.
Yattarna is in line with the "new" style of Chardonnay with less oak, less malolactic ferment, more tropical fruit and crisp notes. In a word, elegant.
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Pairing No. 2 — Rabbit Porchetta Foie Gras Ballotine, Mache with 2008 Penfolds St. Henri Shiraz
Like a ying to the yang of Grange, St. Henri is the under appreciated Shiraz in the Penfolds luxury wine lineup. Very little or no oak influence allows a younger, fresher style of Shiraz. This is the wine you drink while you're waiting for Grange to age in the cellar.
St. Henri is a sneaky good wine that creeps up and surprises even the most discerning of palates. An aromatic, complex and silky choreography of tension between elements rewards the palate unfolding into layers of blackberry, black currant, stewed plum and holiday fruit cake wrapped in a blanket of mineral earth.
Delicate, yet complex notes in the wine gave way to delicate, yet complex flavors in the Rabbit Porchetta. This might have been the best pairing of the evening with a sense of discovery and experimentation. Beef eaters would agree this rabbit dish reinforces how good rabbit can be.
Grange is deserving of its reputation, but St. Henri deserves to be right there alongside Grange in every cellar.
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Pairing No. 3 — Braised Pork Belly with 2009 Penfolds Bin 707 Cabernet Sauvignon
This was not the right pairing for the Bin 707. Generally speaking, I wouldn't put Cabernet Sauvignon with succulent braised pork belly. Especially considering this pork belly was braised for five days! Suffice to say, the pork belly was insanely tender and juicy from all the rendered fat in the meat. Of course the delicious reduction sauce and sweet local pea pods didn't hurt.
I'm a big fan of the Bin 707 Cabernet Sauvignon. It's made with grapes from some of the oldest Cabernet grape vines on earth. Every once in a while when the conditions are just right, Penfolds pulls some of those old Cab grapes aside and makes something called Block 42 Cabernet Sauvignon. If you can find it, it's like a leprechaun — catch it and you'll feel like you found the pot at the end of the rainbow.
My avatar on a few social media sites is a photo holding said bottle of Block 42. To this date, it's one of the best Cabernet Sauvignons I've ever had and I've had some good ones. Winemaker Peter Gago opened a bottle when I visited with him last year at Magill Estate. It took plastic surgeons 2 hours to get the smile off my face after drinking that one.
That aside, Bin 707 is the beneficiary of the Block 42 grapes when they don't make it into their own bottling so it's pretty darn good.
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Pairing No. 4 — Vacca Rosso Risotto with 1999 and 2009 Penfolds RWT Shiraz
I must've been busy talking or tasting because the photos didn't turn out well enough to post. But what was cool was the presentation. The wait staff brought out plates of risotto, then served a copper kettle on the side with a savory stew of sorts. They poured it over the risotto to make an intoxicating combination of savory and richness.
RWT Shiraz couldn't ask for a better companion on the dinner table. Rich and savory met rich and savory in the glass. RWT Shiraz, aka "Red Winemaking Trial" offers class and elegance without the price tag of Grange. Voluptuous and seductive plum and blueberry feel like a round ball of ripe juicy textured juice on the palate, but with enough acid to cut through the rich risotto.
Penfolds opened the kimono a little bit and showed us the 1999 vintage along side the new 2009 vintage. Talk about consistency! The wine was exactly what you'd expect...it was like Marty McFly going back to the future. Nothing changed from one vintage to next, except one vintage was just a little more mellow, and the wood just a little more integrated into the wine.
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Pairing No. 5 — Milbrook Farms Spice Crusted Venison wit 1997 and 2007 Grange Shiraz
This is it. This is what people show up for — Penfolds Grange. One of the most desired and collected wines in the world. But if you were paying attention, you would've already seen the Penfolds pedigree and heritage in previous wines. For me personally, I like the Grange because it's everything it's cracked up to be. However, it costs a lot whereas a wine like say, the St. Henri is a deal. I'd almost rather drink St. Henri than wait 20 years for Grange to come around.
The pairing was fine. It wasn't mind blowing, but it was good. You could serve Grange with roadkill and it would be good because, hey, it's frickin' Grange. The venison was an hommage to jump steak, or kangaroo cuts I suppose but Grange deserved the best pairing.
After rich and savory risotto, perhaps a leaner cut of protein with a sprinkle of salt was the way to go but I would've given Grange a bit more credit than that.
In the past, Grange was made to age in the cellar for years before drinking but recent vintages show a shift in methodology making Grange more accessible at a younger age. It's still Grange, but it's Grange 2.0 for a new generation of wine drinkers.
We had the benefit of looking at the 1997 vintage along side the newly released 2007. Like RWT Shiraz, there was impeccable consistency between the vintages.
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As we ate and drank our way into the night. Table guests became friends and contact information was exchanged. At the heart of the experience, wine and food did what they were supposed to do — bring people together. Mrs. B and I joined the Penfolds wine club last year after the release dinner because we were so impressed with the caliber of wines. We have kept in contact with people we met at both dinners last year and this year.
Penfolds continues to raise the bar through consistency and innovation. Winemaker, Peter Gago keeps finding new ways to surprise and delight wine consumers while staying true to the Penfolds lineage. Penfolds might be the biggest small winery in the world, but no matter what wine or price point ends up in your shopping cart, this brand will deliver the goods.