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For more than 177 years, Penfolds has celebrated winemaking excellence. Its winemaking history is steeped heavily in tradition, from its origins as a maker of fortified wines in 1844, to building a portfolio of famed table wines, starting in 1951 when Max Schubert began his first experimental vintage of Grange.
The Penfolds white wine story is just as integral to the Penfolds backbone, as it forms the wider story that has made Penfolds the celebrated luxury winemaker it is today. Although the white wine portfolio has remained a smaller part of the story, Penfolds has been making white wines in one form or another since the days of Mary Penfold’s reign in the 19th century. Mary Penfold was the matriarch of the Penfold family. Wife of Dr. Christopher Penfold and co-founder of Penfolds Wines, Mary was, in many ways, the unsung hero of Penfolds. Many of the experimentations, growth and winemaking philosophies of Penfolds started with her.
During this era, fortified wines were the mainstay of the Australian palate and market. But there was something going on at Penfolds that was revolutionary for its time: white wine was being made, and Mary Penfold was at the helm of its production.
While it’s uncertain exactly what grape varieties these wines were made from, the current team at Penfolds would like to think it might’ve been a Riesling, given this was widely planted around South Australia in those days.
Penfolds released the first Koonunga Hill Autumn Riesling in the 1970s, a wine that is still made to this day. Originally destined to be labelled ‘Lady Grange’ – a white wine to counterpart the flagship Penfolds red wine – it was, however, the release of Yattarna Chardonnay in the 1990s that this name was given to.
And the start of a historic Australian Chardonnay was born.
Chardonnay took off in popularity during the 1990s, both in Australia and around the world. During this time, white wines became more of a priority for Penfolds. The winemaking team began to explore Chardonnay through experimentation and innovation, and in the mid-1990s, Yattarna and Reserve Bin A were born.
It was the unveiling of these two wines that cemented Penfolds’ foothold in the white wine space. The development of Yattarna was no small feat, regarded by many pundits as the most anticipated wine release in Australia at the time. Dubbed by the media as the ‘White Grange Project’, Yattarna still carries this name – and importance – today.
So, what made Yattarna so important for the development of the Penfolds white wine portfolio?
It was, perhaps, the counterpart it plays to Grange. Before Yattarna, there wasn’t a white wine in the Penfolds portfolio that could stand up to the prowess of flagship Grange. Yattarna changed that, and its evolution since has been a fascinating one to watch.
Originally sourced entirely from the Adelaide Hills, it slowly evolved into a multi-region, multi-state expression, characteristic of the Penfolds House Style. It was this pursuit of excellence that was admired by critics and wine loyalists alike – the winemaking team explored renowned cool-climate chardonnay regions outside of South Australia to source the best fruit they could get their hands on for this special wine. Let’s not forget the importance of Reserve Bin A Chardonnay from the Adelaide Hills. Emerging around the same time as Yattarna, Reserve Bin A Chardonnay holds its own as the go-to for an alternative expression of Chardonnay. Think single-region, fruit sourced 100% from the Adelaide Hills, where it was originally sourced and is to this day.
The world really started to take notice of the Penfolds white wine portfolio with the accolades accumulated by both Yattarna and Reserve Bin A. When the 2009 Reserve Bin A Chardonnay won ‘Best White Wine in the World’ at the International Wine Challenge (IWC) in London in 2011, this was a momentous achievement for Penfolds and the white winemaking team, led by Kym Schroeter, and it reinforced the talent and vision of Penfolds winemakers in the world of high-quality white wine.
Over the past 20 years, there have been outstanding advancements in the world of Chardonnay production coming from Australia. Australia is often looked upon as a winemaking country to learn from in terms of producing new world Chardonnay of exceptional quality. Yattarna sits as the highest benchmark for its for its unique style, quality and ageability.
It’s not surprising to see a Penfolds Chardonnay – or Riesling for that matter – cellared for ten years or more and continue to develop in flavour and profile. Yattarna, for example, has had its fruit sourced further south-east in Australia since the mid-2000s, resulting in a wine that can be easily cellared for up to two decades.
It’s never been a more exciting time in the world of white wines here in Australia, and Penfolds is at the forefront of its innovation.
Today, Penfolds has a Chardonnay for everyone. Whether it be an elite flagship wine like Yattarna and Reserve Bin A, or the ethereal Bin 311 Chardonnay, which is the perfect wine to offer someone beginning their Chardonnay journey, Penfolds has a white wine portfolio that offers wines of both affordability and exceptional quality, with a great history to match.
By Josh Bozin & Zöe Warrington