Penfolds California Collection – a tale of two countries

The new Penfolds California Collection marks the Aussie giant’s first big move out of the southern hemisphere. It’s a bold and exciting project – but is it brilliant winemaking or slick marketing?

Words by Adam Lechmere

Paso Robles - Penfolds California Collection
Camatta Hills vineyard in Paso Robles, California, planted in the late 1990s with Shiraz cuttings from Penfolds' Magill and Kalimna vineyards in the Barossa

The Penfolds California Collection, launched last week, consists of four predominantly Californian Cabernet Sauvignon wines, two of which contain percentages of Australian wine.

The wines range in price from £45 to £545 per bottle and it’s the two flagship cuvées – labelled “Wines of the World” – which have that headline-grabbing injection of Aussie juice. The £545 Quantum Cabernet Sauvignon contains 13% of what senior winemaker Steph Dutton calls “A-grade Australian Shiraz”; similarly, the £125 Bin 149 Cabernet Sauvignon has 14.9% of top-grade Australian Cabernet Sauvignon. Penfolds isn’t being any more specific than that.

But possibly more interesting than this highly-unusual cross-country blend is the manner of Penfolds’ move into California. Throughout, chief winemaker Peter Gago has made clear that the brand trumps everything. There’s California sun and California soil, “but everything in between is Penfolds,” he said.

California Collection
The Penfolds California Collection comprises a quartet of reds, two of which contain small percentages of Australian wine

This isn’t Penfolds’ first foreign foray. In 2019 it launched a Penfolds Champagne (with Champagne Thiénot), and a Bordeaux is planned with Château Cambon la Pelouse in the Médoc, which Penfolds’ parent company Treasury Wine Estates (TWE) bought in 2019.

Penfolds has had a California outpost in the Camatta Hills vineyard in Paso Robles since the late 1990s, when it planted Shiraz cuttings from Barossa’s Magill and Kalimna vineyards. There was even a Paso Robles Shiraz ready for release in 2007, before it was vetoed by the top brass (with good reason: if Penfolds California has an odd ring to it now, Penfolds Paso Robles would have seemed wilfully eccentric a decade ago).

Everything changed in 2017 when TWE bought up the US holdings of fellow giant Diageo. All of a sudden, Gago had access to fabulous California resources: Chateau St Jean, Acacia, Beringer, Beaulieu Vineyard, Stags’ Leap Winery, Sterling, and Etude, great old wineries whose dowry included some of Napa’s most prized vineyards. The new California Collection wines are a blend of the different AVAs from which these wineries draw their fruit: Quantum is a blend of Diamond Mountain and Oakville; Bin 149 blends Oakville, Rutherford and Calistoga; Bin 600 is pure Paso Robles; Bin 704 a cross-valley blend of Cabernets.

The four wines are not the result of a joint venture, Dutton makes clear over a long tasting session. From the beginning, this was to be a Penfolds operation, albeit in the US.

“[Winemaker] Andrew Baldwin and I have 46 years at Penfolds between us – Penfolds is all we know”, she says. Indeed so keen were they to reduce the variables that they initially shipped over barrels to Napa (even though California is well-endowed with world-class coopers). “We even retrofitted some of the facilities to make a mini-Penfolds winery.”

Dutton loves the synergies between the two regions. She compares “Rutherford dust” (the tang of ultra-dark chocolate and minerality that aficionados note in tannins from the appellation) with the famous terra rossa of Coonawarra. There are explicit echoes of Australia in the wines – Bin 704 Cabernet, for example, is the “mirror” of its Aussie counterpart, Bin 407, she says.

Andrew Baldwin & Steph Dutton
Winemakers Andrew Baldwin and Steph Dutton have nearly 50 years' combined experience at Penfolds

As the project began to gather pace, and Dutton and Baldwin walked the vineyards with veteran winemakers such as Beaulieu’s Trevor Durling, Etude’s Jon Priest and Margo van Staaveren from Sonoma’s Chateau St Jean, preconceptions began to fall away.

“We were so reliant on getting things exactly the same [as in Australia] that we became too preoccupied with making wines in Penfolds’ house style. We changed our thinking quite early on because it meant we weren’t flexible to what we want to tweak.” So oak regimes and even coopers were changed (barrels are now assembled in Napa) and skin-contact time was lengthened to bring the best out of what Dutton calls the “tight-knit” Napa tannins.

“That was definitely where I gained most knowledge. In Australia, the tannin can be coarser, it has a loose weave. In California, everything is a bit tighter.”

The story of how the South Australia wine was added to the blends is well known. During blending sessions in early 2019, the team thought the Bin 149 Cabernet Sauvignon lacked a little sweetness in the mid-palate, and as they happened to have some benchmarking samples from home with them, they added “a couple of drops”. So the Bin 149 was born; the same was done for the Quantum, which has 13% Australian Shiraz.

Winemaker Steph Dutton is certainly alive to the publicity value of the exercise

Very few winemakers have attempted multi-country blends – even Penfolds, which happily mixes multiple regions in Grange. One who has tried it, with some success, is Jean-Charles Boisset of the Burgundy dynasty, who is based in Napa and owns Raymond Vineyards and Sonoma’s Buena Vista among others. His JCB No3 is a blend of Pinot Noirs from Côte de Nuits and the Sebastopol Hills.

Like Dutton, Boisset’s aim is for the two regions to complement each other. “We’re not trying to achieve homogeneity within the wine,” he told Club Oenologique. “That would be uninteresting and ultimately lose the expression of the terroirs we so value.”

Boisset’s wine is a more or less equal blend of the two regions; Dutton has no intention of upping her Australian-wine percentage by that much, although she says it will vary. And like Boisset (a natural showman) she’s certainly alive to the publicity value of the exercise. “Much as the Cabernet percentage of Grange [typically less than 5%] becomes a magical focal point at each release, I imagine this number may garner interest from year to year, too.”

JCB No 3
Jean-Charles Boisset
Jean-Charles Boisset's JCB No 3 is a blend that combines Pinot Noir from Burgundy and California. Photo: Moalani Jeffrey

These are smart wines. They are finely crafted and delicious. The £545 Quantum is superlative. Its fruit is from Diamond Mountain and Oakville; its magnificent tannin structure (it won’t be ready to drink for a decade) puts me in mind of the famously long-lived Cabernets of Diamond Creek.

Bin 149 is similarly well-made but its plushness and creaminess are obviously there to please an international audience: it’s accomplished but somehow stateless, a wine destined for top restaurants from Dublin to Dubai. Bin 600 and Bin 704 are succulent and delicious, both with characteristics that place them squarely in California.

The portfolio will definitely expand, Dutton says, and they are certainly not wedded to multi-region blending. “You have to know when not to blend.” She sees great potential in Oakville and hopes to source fruit from Atlas Peak and Mount Veeder. “I want to be talking about a single vineyard one day.”

When Orson Welles first saw the RKO studios in Hollywood he said it was like the biggest train set a boy could wish for. Like film directors, winemakers are born experimenters – they love to tinker and adjust – and it’s only the luckiest who have the whole of Napa to play with.

The Penfolds California Collection is available in the UK at Berry Bros & Rudd and Harvey Nichols.