It's not every day you get a $1,000 bottle of wine sent to you.
OK, fine—I've actually never had a $1,000 bottle of wine sent to me, so I was at a bit of a loss as to what to do with the precious cargo. The wine in question represents a pretty huge leap—maybe even a Quantum one—for Australian wine powerhouse, Penfolds. The company, famous the world over for their Grange Shiraz (itself a member of the four-figure price tag club), purchased land in California decades ago with the idea of expanding their oenological footprint. But it was only after a series of mergers (that saw it join forces with Napa powerhouses Beringer and Etude) that the program started to really take shape.
The idea—as described by legendary head winemaker Peter Gago—was not to come and try to make high-end Napa Cabernet in the mold of the established greats (Harlan, Screaming Eagle, Schrader) but to make Penfolds's wine using California grapes. Initially that would mean using time-tested techniques like open top fermenters, their unique oak aging et al. But, during a tasting session of potential cabernet to be included in the blend, Gago did something... bananas. He added a small amount of South Australian wine to the prestige Californian Cabs, and the results were so impressive that the idea of blending grapes from two different hemispheres took hold.
It's a radical decision, one that flies in the face of two centuries of conventional winemaking, but the Penfolds team seems energized by breaking the rules to achieve something special.
The resulting wines—Quantum and Bin 149 Cabernet Sauvignon (a blend with South Australia Cabernet)—are labeled "Wines of the World," which will either become part of the global wine vocabulary, or an interesting historical anomaly, depending on how things play out. And to really double (or triple... or quintuple) the stakes, the two bottles are arriving this summer with princely price points. The Bin 149 is the affordable option at $299 plus tax; the Quantum a cool $900. It's rarified air, indeed, although those aforementioned Napa comparables sell out every year at prices well above, so it's not without precedent.
All of which leads me to the foreign and puzzling situation of having a $1,000 bottle of wine in my hand. Do I review it as if it were a $17 bottle of Spanish Garnacha? Do I legally adopt it as a child? Do I bury it in my backyard in the hopes that an entire case will grow in the Spring?
Ultimately, I went the Mother Teresa route and shared it with some oenological underprivileged sorts—my fellow editors.
Their wine knowledge ranges from solid (Anicka) to... less than solid (Alyssa and Nathan), but I was legitimately interested in what their thoughts were. Would they find it appealing? A step up from the usual? Or would it be too challenging, especially at this early stage? So I apportioned out four generous servings (about $85 per by my calculation) in some small glass bottles, donned my mask and made some Friday afternoon deliveries. Here's what they thought:
Subject #1: Nathan
Wine Knowledge: He's familiar with the Champagne of Beers?
"I think the maximum I would roll on a bottle of wine is $200, and that would be to impress the parents of a girl I really liked. And then I would say something like, 'Oh yeah, this is just a bottle this wine expert I know recommended. It was a limited edition run.' And if this is what was inside there? I would be very happy with it."
Subject #2: Anicka
Wine Knowledge: Solid. Probably knows that Malbec is originally from France. Doesn't call sparkling wine not from Champagne, "champagne."
Anicka's Take: "Honestly I want to drink only this wine. I decided to take a tiny sip of the Lolita’s box wine I have on my counter after, and it revealed just how awful that box is. No surprise."
"Also smell-wise – it struck me that there are no off-notes. No slight tinge of gasoline, or sulphur, or anything other than something I wanted to drink immediately. Tasted a little like leather and raisin, incredibly smooth drinking."
"And seriously. I didn’t/couldn’t have anything else for the rest of night."
Subject #3 Alyssa
Wine Knowledge: Somewhere in the Work-in-Progress realm.
Alyssa's Take: "This wine is smokey and woodsy and tastes like dried cherries or cranberries. I definitely like it and it also definitely doesn’t feel like any wine I’ve ever had before—there’s none of that tartness at the end that reminds you what you’re drinking is really old grapes."
Subject #4 Stacey
Wine Knowledge: Mildly interested amateur.
Stacey's Take: "I didn’t know this was a $1,000 bottle of wine until I was starting to draft up my notes. Had I been paying closer attention to Neal’s Slack instructions, I probably would’ve treated it with a little more respect. So: apologies to both the winemaker and my colleagues for tipping it into whatever the first glass I could find. (I’m in the middle of a move, so sometimes a hand-me-down Ikea juice cup from 1989 is the best one can do, okay?!)
But a powerhouse wine like this didn’t need any fancy accoutrements to shine. It was funky, and fruity, and just the right level of dry. Complex, but not overpowering: a wine that feels inviting and welcoming, like you should top up your cheapo glass and stay a while. I regret using the improper glassware… but I regret sharing my sampler with my husband more."
Well they all seemed to like it, which was good. Several of them note that the wine was fruity, which I take to mean that there's those characteristic fruit notes—in this case blueberries and blackberries seem prevalent—that present themselves early on in the palate.
But they also are quick to point out that the wine was dry—so it was not overripe sweet fruit that we're talking about here (sometimes called "jaminess"), but a more refined delivery system. And more likely when they say "dry," they're noticing the wine tannins, which are naturally occurring compounds found in the skin (and stems and seeds) of wine grapes—especially Cabernet Sauvignon, the grape we're dealing with here. Their presence leads to the drying sensation one feels when drinking big, red wines. Oddly this wine, which is indeed exceptionally powerful and deep, has extremely well integrated tannins, allowing it to be drinkable (and enjoyable) very early on its evolution. A Bordeaux from the same year has not even been released, but if one were to taste a comparably priced bottle (made with predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon) it would almost certainly be much more tannic and hard. And its fruit would be more restrained or "tight."
Anicka also noted that the nose was more or less perfect—no notes that she wasn't expecting which can happen even in high-end wines (give a newbie a bottle of aged riesling, and they'll think you're poisoning them with gasoline). Here you get the obvious, "clean" fruit and maybe some secondary notes, like leather and wood, but it's not disjointed at all.
One thing I was struck by, that none of my colleagues mentioned, was the wines freshness. Often prestige wines, especially from California, are so laden with ripe, ample fruit that they are overpowering to everything else around. And while they'd garner great scores for this power, they're really tricky to pair with food, and having more than a glass seems a chore. But Quantum has quite unique freshness, given that it's still a very young wine—it's quite amazing and it would not only work well with a hearty meal, but I could (and will, if asked) polish off an entire bottle without question.
They were all also struck by the wine's intensity, and it's no surprise that going back to lesser wines felt like they were changing gears completely. There's just so much packed into this bottle. But is it worth four figures? I think it's fair to say that none of us are the target audience. The sad reality is that this wine will very likely become a beacon for collectors and may morph more into a commodity than a consumable. And that's such a shame, because this wine—unlike so many other trophy bottles— is so drinkable, and so delicious.
The entire Penfolds California Collection drops this summer; we'll follow up when they arrive in stores.