My love for Penfolds Bin 389 dates to the late 80s. I wanted to taste more fine wines than I could afford, so I formed “The $100 Club”. Nineteen wine enthusiasts each paid $100 to join me for a monthly tasting of wines with a total value of $2,000.
My search for suitable wines led me to Penfolds. I told them about “The $100 Club” and asked if I could buy a vertical collection of one of their classic red wines spanning 12 vintages. The Australian wine producer generously gave me 12 consecutive vintages of Penfolds Bin 389 Cabernet Shiraz.
The tasting was a great success. Every wine was in pristine condition after spending its entire life in Penfolds' temperature-controlled cellar. We tasted a dozen marvellous wines, all with varying degrees of bottle age.
Bin 389 is often referred to as “Baby Grange”, in part because components of the wine are matured in the same barrels that held the previous vintages of Grange. Bin 389 was first made in 1960 by the legendary Max Schubert. It was the wine that helped forge Penfolds' reputation with red-wine drinkers, by combining the structure of cabernet sauvignon with the richness of shiraz.
This portrait of legendary Penfolds winemaker Max Schubert hangs in the company's historic winery in Adelaide, South Australia. (Image: NZME)
Bin 389 is, in true Penfolds style, a blend of wines from several different regions, the mix of which may vary from year to year. The latest 2020-vintage Penfolds Bin 389 is a mix of 51% cabernet sauvignon with 49% shiraz from McLaren Vale, Barossa Valley and Padthaway. Penfolds' goal is to make the very best wine they can from their extensive grape resources.
The wine is matured for 14 to 18 months in 300-litre American oak hogsheads, which are 20-30% new and 70-80% one- and two-year-old oak, including barrels used for the previous vintage of Grange and Bin 707.
The Bin 389 vertical tasting stimulated my enthusiasm for a wine that I have now enjoyed off and on for many years. I continue to buy, age and enjoy Bin 389 to this day.
It must be a duck
Shortly after the tasting, I was chatting to a Penfolds representative about wine forgery and said that if you bought 50 cases of Bin 389, relabelled it as Grange and sold it, I doubt that anyone would complain. Although Grange is mostly shiraz (the latest 2018 vintage includes 3% cabernet sauvignon), both wines are intense, complex and formidable reds. Bin 389 labelled as Grange would fall into the “looks like a duck, sounds like a duck, it must be a duck” category. The man from Penfolds agreed.
I hasten to add that my suggestion is not an invitation to commit wine forgery and that Penfolds have put safeguards in place to prevent anyone committing that crime, but I have continued to wonder whether Bin 389 could be mistaken for Grange in a blind tasting.
The opportunity to put Grange and Bin 389 in a head-to-head tasting recently presented itself. Once a year, Penfolds invite wine critics to taste a dozen of their top wines, known as “The Penfolds Collection”. That release coincided with my wine certificate course. I felt sure that the good people at Penfolds would be happy for me to share my bottles of Grange and Bin 389 in a blind tasting to see if my students could identify “Mr Big”.
I should remind you that Grange has a retail price of around $1,000, while Bin 389 has a more-modest price tag of $100. Grange is clearly Australia’s most iconic wine.
My class of 14 students were keen to take part in the tasting. Eleven of them had a wine cellar, which gives some measure of their interest in wine.
I masked both bottles and served the students a small measure of each in two glasses, after explaining that one contained a sample of $100 Bin 389 and the other a small taste of $1,000 Grange. Once they had tasted both wines, we took a vote –13 students correctly identified the Grange.
That is a good result for Grange, which is clearly an outstanding and distinctive wine. Here are my tasting notes for both wines:
Penfolds 2020 Bin 389 Cabernet Shiraz, $100
A generously proportioned cabernet shiraz blend with layer upon layer of concentrated dark berry, cassis, charcuterie, five spice and dark chocolate flavours supported by firm, mouth-gripping tannins that suggest it will be a long-distance runner. Wonderfully complex wine, with cabernet playing a slightly dominant role.
Penfolds 2018 Grange Shiraz, $1,000
An intense, powerful red, with cassis, Christmas cake, chocolate/mocha, liquorice, dark berry/cherry, dried fruits, vanilla and spicy oak flavours. Surprisingly accessible, with a welcome core of sweet fruit balancing ripe and generous tannins. There is no question about its ability to age, which has not been compromised by being approachable now. Everything I expect from Grange – and more. Remarkable wine from a top vintage.