Remember that scene in “Sideways” in which the character played by Virginia Madsen says that she likes to drink wine because she likes to think about how it is a living thing, how every bottle has its own history?
That scene has always stuck with me. Sometimes I get surprised by a wine, buying it because it is affordable and tastes good and then later learning all kinds of things about it.
That’s the case with the Penfolds Rawson’s Retreat Shiraz Cabernet. I have had this wine many times before and keep returning to it because I like the way it tastes — fruity without being overbearing, easy drinking — and because it falls within my self-imposed spending limit on wine, $7.99/bottle.
But after researching this wine for this blog post, I discovered its amazing story and that got me thinking about its journey from the grape fields of southeastern Australia to the store shelf where I found it.
Penfold’s is one of Australia’s most respected brands, sort of like Ford or Budweiser here in the US. The winery was founded in 1844 by Dr. Christopher Rawson Penfold, an English physician who emigrated to Australia with his wife, Mary, settling in the Magill Valley in southeast Australia, just outside Adelaide.
Penfold was an advocate of the medicinal benefits of wine, and he planted a large vineyard so that he could produce fortified wines for his patients. Fortified wines are wines that have brandy added to them to make them stronger. Examples include ports and sherries.
The modest house he built was called “The Grange”, after Mary’s family’s home back in England. Later, in the mid-20th Century, Penfold’s would launch a very successful series of wines under the Grange brand name.
The company struggled to survive during the two World Wars, then its wines started to gain popularity in Australia during the 1950s, when the country opened its doors to immigrants. Soon, it was one of the largest wineries in Australia.
The company itself was owned by the Penfold family until 1976. It has changed hands a couple of times since then and is now owned by Foster’s, which of course is Australian for beer. Penfolds still operates two wineries — the original one in Magill and another in Nuriootpa in Barossa Valley.
Penfolds has a wide variety of wines at all levels of sophistication and price. The Rawson’s Retreat brand is considered an “introductory” level wine, probably because of its affordability and the fact that it is made with grapes grown not from a single vineyard but from throughout the region, including Padthaway, Langhorne Creek, Riverland and McLaren Vale.
The Rawson’s Retreat label — which refers to a stone cottage Dr. Penfold built in his vineyard — includes other varietals such as cabernet, merlot, chardonnay and a semillon chardonnay blend. I like this one because shiraz is one of my favorite types of wine and Australian shirazes are some of the best in the world, even entry level ones such as this.
This blend is made from 60% shiraz and 40% cabernet sauvignon grapes. Selected parcels of the wine are matured in French and American oak barrels.
This may not be Penfolds’ most complex or celebrated wine, but it is a delicious everyday wine that allows me to savor Penfolds’ rich history in my wine glass.