Q&A: James Halliday’s favourite Penfolds bottle of all time
Thursday, September 10, 2020 in News
Q&A James Halliday’s favourite Penfolds bottle of all time
As the South Australian and International portion of James Halliday’s vast private collection goes under the hammer, James shares with us some insights from his decades as Australia’s wine oracle. From his favourite bottle of Penfolds ever, to his dark horse favourite variety, and the oldest wine he has ever tasted, there’s plenty of insights (and more than a little wine envy!). Browse and bid on the James Halliday auction catalogue.
On South Australia
How important is South Australian wine to the Australian wine industry as a whole?
South Australia has 76,000 ha, more than half the Australian total of 146,000ha. It has far more vines over 100 years old than New South Wales and Victoria combined. The reasons are part historical, and part phylloxera, which wiped out most Victorian regions in around 1900. South Australia has never had phylloxera.
What's your most memorable South Australian red wine experience?
I have been lucky enough to have tasted the all-time greatest Australian wine, Penfolds 1962 Bin 60A, countless times over the past 30+ years. Made by Max Schubert, it is a blend of 66% Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon and 34% Kalimna Shiraz.
Between 1962 and the end of the 20th Century, it seemed the ‘62 Bin 60A would have nigh-on eternal life. Since then and up to the present time, some bottles show age, and others are as ravishing as those I tasted in earlier decades.
There is an oft-forgotten sibling, an experiment by Schubert reversing the blend to 34% Cabernet and 66% Shiraz. I tasted it in several Rewards of Patience tastings. It was a great wine, but not in the ultimate class of Bin 60A at its best.
There are some extremely rare bottlings of Penfolds in your cellar. How has Penfolds shaped Australia's wine landscape?
An obvious question is why aren’t 1952, 1953, or 1955 Grange rated as highly as Bin 60A? On a face-to-face comparison, the answer is simple. 60A is the greatest. On a broader canvas, the early vintages of Grange transcended all contemporary red wines. So much so that only a handful of wine experts understood what Schubert was doing, which, at the time, suited Penfolds down to the ground.
In the 1950s the general view of UK wine writers was that Australian red wines were brown, roasted and flat. Grange was the polar opposite. It was fresh, exuberant and filled with a balanced mix of rich fruits, powerful new vanillin oil and plentiful supple tannins. This feat was achieved by rigorous fruit selection, open fermentation using a rack and return process to keep temperatures under control and finishing the fermentation in 100% new American oak hogsheads, followed by maturation in the same barrels. These days, the aim of balanced freshness has sprung back into the contemporary approach of Australia’s best winemakers.
How do you see the increase in alternative varieties being planted across South Australia going for the state's winemakers?
Alternative varieties are of limited importance. Back in the 1970s, Orlando offered wine lovers wooden boxes of six different varieties not previously released under their varietal names. Today, most are used in low-priced blends with a brand name. Another cynical view is that they serve to emphasise the quality of Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Merlot and Grenache, with Petit Verdot, Durif and Tempranillo minor contributors. In financial terms, none are important on a national perspective.
What makes Aussie fortifieds like those from Seppeltsfield and Rutherglen so special?
Fortified wines were the backbone of the industry between 1850 and 1960. Indeed, as late as 1970, the production of herry (in all its forms) exceeded that of dry red wine. The Riverland regions produced more fortified wines from 1900 onwards, but two regions—the Barossa Valley and Rutherglen/Glenrowan—built small but important stocks of barrel-aged fortified wines of spectacular quality. They were the Rolls Royce equivalents, talked about but experienced by only a few.
The tip of the very large Barossa iceberg of sherries and ports (as they were then called) were matured in small, old barrels. The majority were solera blends, but one became vintage dated and is bottled only when its is 100 years old. Seppeltsfield Para Liqueur is the only Australian wine I give 100 points. Spectacularly complex and intense, it is sipped like a hummingbird tasting nectar from flowers.
Do you think they are under-appreciated in the market?
The wines are grossly unappreciated for two reasons. First, because so few people have actually tasted the wines, which are traditionally consumed at the very end of the meal with petit fours, and served as an alternative to cognac or other liqueurs. Second, there are no equivalents to either Rutherglen’s jewels or Seppelt Paras elsewhere in the world.
Why should customers who have never tried Australian fortifieds take the plunge?
For all the above reasons coupled with their prices, which are far below the cost of production and the number of serves per bottle (20+). A bottle will last for many weeks after being opened. A Vintec wine cabinet is desirable but not essential to preserve them.
On International Treasures
What combination of region and variety outside of the obvious big players is your personal favorite or hidden gem and why?
Vouvray and Chenin Blanc!
Tell us about the joys of Vouvray and the region's star grape, Chenin Blanc.
I think I may have had the largest collection of Marc Brédif Vouvrays in the southern hemisphere in the late 70s and early 80s. Brédif’s wines were labelled Sec, Demi-Sec, Moelleaux, Doux, and the occasional Liquoreux, in ascending order of sweetness. I had six bottles of ’21 Liquoreux, and served it at Single Bottle Club dinners, on more than one occasion, with ’21 Château d’Yquem. It either matched its more illustrious partner, and was at least once clearly better. Incredibly unctuous and pure, its key was the mercurial spine of acidity.
I imported the wines direct from Brédif in several shipments. They had been stored in the most unusual cellar I have ever visited, in chalk caves (a la Champagne) except they were horizontal, penetrating the chalk cliffs running parallel with the Loire River. They were dry, but the single electrical wire running along the centre of each chamber glistened oddly. The cellars had been created thousands of years earlier by troglodytes, the ceiling height lifted substantially by the first vignerons with their Chenin Blanc vineyards on top of the bluff. One regret was my inability (no cash) to accept a final offer from proprietor Jacques Cartier of his oldest vintages before selling out to another Loire producer, Ladoucette.
I also had a significant number of vintages of Moulin Touchais. I was at a dinner held at Jacques Reymond’s restaurant known as ’The Dinner of the Century’ not so many years ago. The feature was three of the greatest sweet wines I have ever tasted—1892, 1885 and 1872.
What's your fondest memory of a Port wine?
Without question, 1931 Qinta do Noval Nacional. I have tasted it three times (possibly four), the last sent accidentally from David Doyle’s cellar in California for a small dinner with Len Evans. He specified that he wanted 1931 Quinta, not the pre-phylloxera sourced Nacional. The late Michael Broadbent wrote in his Vintage Wine tome, ‘I have long considered it as the Everest of Vintage Ports’. I would add that it’s the ultimate iron fist in a velvet glove in the world of Portugese vintage ports with a magical mix of medium-bodied sweetness and irresistible power.
How do Port wines compare to our homegrown equivalents such as Seppelstfield?
I assume the question asks for a comparison of vintage port styles, the obvious difference being in varietal makeup. Australia is mainly Shiraz-based, Portuguese Touriga Nacional, Barroca, Tinta Roriz and Tinta Cão among 60 or so varieties. The most important difference in taste and mouthfeel is the lower baume of Portuguese wines, which results in a more detailed and fresh flavour profile.
The vintages in the James Halliday Collection go back a long way. Can you tell us about the oldest wine you have ever tasted?
The oldest wine I have ever tasted was a 1646 Tokay, purchased by Len Evans at Christie’s Auctions decades ago. The wine was absolutely sound, but was no longer sweet.