After tasting 19 vintages of Penfolds St. Henri Shiraz with Chief Winemaker Peter Gago, the Wine Spectator’s Harvey Steiman remarked, “The sneaky little secret that so many savvy Australian wine collectors know is that, yes, St. Henri can age as long as Grange does.” (Penfolds St. Henri Shiraz: Old School by Harvey Steiman, Wine Spectator, 12 May 2008)
Well, I certainly hope that you are one of the savvy ones. At around $75 on release St. Henri is a real bargain compared to its fabled sibling Grange! But as Steiman also notes, “while Grange tastes amazingly good upon release and continues to develop extra nuances in the bottle, St. Henri takes a few years to show what it has.” So properly cellaring a newly released St. Henri is essential if you want to enjoy the wine in its prime.
Determining the optimal drinking window for the St. Henri can in fact prove quite a challenge. Steiman called the phenomonal 1976, which he gave 95 points, “almost under-developed for a 32-year-old wine.” Here’s his glowing review:
Rich and meaty in flavor, with a gamy grace note to the vibrant blackcurrant and plum flavors, riding on a supple frame. Fine tannins, round and generous, with power and elegance. Just now developing an old-wine character…Spectacular.
That is not to say that younger vintages aren’t drinking well. The Wine Advocate has a drinking window of 2013 to 2025+ for the spectacular 2006 vintage. And as Steiman comments, “It’s not that the unready wines are harsh or difficult to drink. On the contrary, they are really pleasant. But they get so much better with longer cellaring.”
So what makes the St Henri such a great wine for ageing?
St Henri was originally made in the 19th century by the Auldana Winery, which was next door to Penfolds’ Magill Estate. (It takes its name from the original winemaker’s son Henri). After Penfolds bought the property in 1944, Penfolds winemaker John Davoren recreated the style. While Max Schubert was experimenting with new American oak for his nascent Grange, Davoren continued the practice of maturing the St Henri for 12 to 15 months in the traditional large format, 1460 litres, fifty year old, well seasoned oak vats.
Both approaches to barrel maturation have certainly proved their worth, confirming The Wine Front’s Campbell Mattinson’s observation that if the components of a wine are in balance as young wines, even if these various components are very different to one another, the wines will age well. (Oak and the Aussie Red by Campbell Mattinson, Langton’s Magazine)
St Henri is also a blended wine, made to a house style. Some years, depending on vintage, a percentage of cabernet sauvignon will be added. The 2006, for example, is 11% cabernet sauvignon but the 2007 is 100% shiraz. Fruit for the wine is sourced from exceptional vineyards at Robe and McLaren Vale, Langhorne Creek and Padthaway, the Barossa, Coonawarra and Adelaide Hills.
Current chief Penfolds winemaker Peter Gago believes that one of the advantages of blending is that it allows the winemaker to pick and choose from different vineyards in order to get the right individual characters for the wine. The inclusion of fruit from the Adelaide Hills and cooler regions, for example, is a nod to Davoren’s original preference for fruit that was less ripe than what Schubert had selected for his Grange.
As Steiman notes, less-ripe fruit and no oak influence can make a wine seem simple when young. But after 10 to 15 years of bottle ageing, St Henri reaches a stage of evolution where the depth, completeness and other nuances of ageing come to the fore. Oh, the “rewards of patience.” (St. Henri—Penfolds’ “Other” Shiraz by Harvey Steiman, Wine Spectator. 15 October 2008)
Merrill Witt, Editor
Current and back vintages of Penfolds St Henri Shiraz are available on the Cellarit Wine Market.