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waters on wine

When Peter Gago was launching the new vintage of Australia’s most famous red wine around this time last year in New York – donned in a sharply cut suit and crisp dress shirt – he prowled around a podium with unbridled enthusiasm. Not many winemakers' skill sets combine grape growing, fermentation and blending knowhow with moves like Jagger, but that’s part of the gig for the person responsible for bringing Penfolds’s Grange to life each year.

This year’s rollout of Grange and other special releases is taking a different form due to COVID-19. There’s zero glitz. No velvet ropes, no klieg lights. Instead, chief winemaker Gago is hosting Zoom calls with journalists to introduce the range from the Penfolds Magill Estate in Adelaide.

On the day we connect, he’s wearing a cozy knit sweater and talking about how he’s binging Lucifer on Netflix. “I’ve become reacquainted with watching television,” he says. He was never home enough – or idle enough – to have the time before.

“It’s a very slow rotation around the world,” Gago says of the staggered remote tastings. “I started some previews back in July. Now here we are in October.” The process was easier in the past, he added, when the roll-out happened in a matter of weeks – even though he was flying so much it felt like he was never off of a plane.

The largest in-person tasting he’s hosted in months was for four people at the winery, whereas he’s recently hosted a Zoom tasting for 562 trade and media spread across 13 countries. “You just go for it,” he says. "It’s a one-hour presentation, speaking to a little camera on a laptop, and you have no idea what’s going on. … Is anyone listening?

Penfolds chief winemaker Peter Gago has been hosting online wine tastings over Zoom.Handout

“I’ve since seen the transmission, and it came across really well,” he says. “How great to have this technology and the ability to send out samples so they have the wines in front of them. That’s the connectivity.”

Even without the usual fanfare, the new edition of Grange conveys its exceptional quality where it matters most – in the glass. Grange retailed for $250 when Gago paid one of his first visits to Canada in 2002 to introduce the 1997 vintage. The newly released 2016 edition is $999.95 and sold out on the morning of its release through a virtual offering with the LCBO on Oct. 22. With that inventory snatched up, Penfolds' collectable wines are available to Ontario consumers from its agent Mark Anthony Wine & Spirits. Contact privatecollectors@markanthony.com.

The British Columbia Liquor Board and the SAQ in Quebec will present Penfolds spotlight releases in November with similar prices. Demand for the wine in Australia and global markets has seen prices skyrocket. If you’re a serious collector or simply looking to snatch up one of the greatest recent vintages of one of the world’s most collected wines, you won’t be disappointed. It’s outstanding.

But the beauty of the Penfolds portfolio is you can find exciting but more affordable wines in what the winery refers to as the special-bin range, and this week’s recommendations highlight two of my favourites for the cellar or upcoming special occasions. There’s also a look at the 2010 edition of Dom Pérignon, which is one of the few prestige releases we’re likely to see from that challenging vintage. Finally, there’s a current release from Time Winery that shows how syrah is performing like a rock star in the Okanagan.

Dom Pérignon 2010 (France)

Rating:96 /100

SCORE: 96 PRICE: $267.95

You won’t see many vintage Champagnes from 2010. A mid-August deluge saw the equivalent of two months of rain fall in a two-day period. Much of the grape crop rotted on the vine and needed to be rejected. But Dom Pérignon only produces vintage Champagne and is increasingly producing exceptional sparkling wines even in abnormal conditions (it also did well with the torrid heat of 2003). This is surely a more limited release compared with more classic vintages, but it lives up to the legendary Dom reputation. It’s immediately accessible, with rich and concentrated character that’s balanced beautifully by refreshing acidity. Drink now to 2030. Available at the above price in Ontario, $245.99 in British Columbia and $262 in Quebec. Vintages vary in other markets: $241.49 in Saskatchewan, $251.29 in New Brunswick, $249.99 in Nova Scotia, $265.29 in Prince Edward Island, $297.88 in Newfoundland.

Penfolds Bin 28 Kalimna Shiraz 2018 (Australia)

Rating:94 /100

SCORE: 94 PRICE: $49.95

Produced every year since 1959, Kalimna is named after a vineyard in the Barossa Valley but true to the Penfolds house style, this is a multiregional blend made with shiraz grapes grown across South Australia and aged exclusively in older American oak barrels. This 2018 displays the classic concentration and appealing texture one expects from Penfolds but with remarkable freshness and purity to balance all of that flavour. It’s ready to drink but has the hallmarks of being able to mature gracefully for decades. Drink now to 2040. Available in Ontario at the above price, direct from privatecollectors@markanthony.com, various prices in Alberta, $42.49 in Saskatchewan, $49.99 in Manitoba (2016 vintage), $54.99 in New Brunswick and Newfoundland, $55.04 in Nova Scotia,

The Penfolds Magill Estate produces world-renowned wines in South Australia.Handout

Penfolds Bin 389 Cabernet Shiraz 2018 (Australia)

Rating:96 /100

SCORE: 96 PRICE: $99.95

First produced in 1960 by Max Shubert, the winemaker responsible for creating Grange 10 years earlier, Bin 389 blends cabernet sauvignon for structure and shiraz for richness. Its production is limited each year due to a lack of high-quality cabernet grapes. The 2018 is an exemplary example of what has long been one of Australia’s most collectable labels, with wonderfully integrated sweet and savoury notes. A mix of fruit grown in cooler and warmer sites contributes to the layers of flavours, suggesting ripe blackberry and cherry with vanilla, spice and meaty notes that add complexity upon release. But its real quality will become evident with age. You can expect more complexity and polished character, without losing much of that opulent intensity. Drink 2025 to 2050. Available in Ontario at the above price, direct from privatecollectors@markanthony.com, various prices in Alberta, $84.99 in Saskatchewan, $99.99 in Manitoba (2016 vintage), $99.99 in New Brunswick and Newfoundland, $100.04 in Nova Scotia.

Time Winery Syrah 2016 (Canada)

Rating:90 /100

SCORE: 90 PRICE: $34.99

This full-bodied and flavourful wine is one of the current releases at Time in Penticton, B.C., an innovative winery operation working out of an extensively remodelled movie theatre in the downtown core. (Evolve and the McWatters Collection are also produced there.) This striking red made with grapes from the Sundial Vineyard in nearby Oliver is one of the most enjoyable wines on offer right now. Drink now to 2023. Available direct through fivevinescellars.com.

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