Penfolds, The New World’s Quality Colossus – The Southern Star

02 Feb

“The phrase the New World is definitely problematic” says Peter Gago, Chief Winemaker at Penfolds, arguably the most important winery in the New World and home to Australia’s most revered and expensive wine, the Shiraz superstar Penfolds Grange.

“That word, New, is the problem. In wine it brings all sorts of baggage. It is often used negatively, suggesting that something has just been started up. That a winery for example is 5, 10 maybe 20 years old. But of course the New World has a history of wine that goes back centuries. I’d like to see us adopt a different phrase, maybe, Newer World.” Says Gago.

“At Penfolds we have been making wine for 165 years.” Says Gago.

“What we are talking about is that, there is a great deal of experience in what are described as New World wines. More than that, many New World vineyards too are now often as mature and as complex as the Old World. In fact for example in Block 42, our greatest Cabernet vineyard, we have the oldest producing vines on Planet Earth.” Says a clearly proud Gago.

The Genius Of Penfolds

Peter Gago is only the fourth Chief Winemaker of the Penfolds Winery, now in its third century, his predecessors include the most important winemaker in the entire history of New World wines, and essentially the man responsible for creating the landscape of he modern wine world, Max Schubert.

Schubert conceived and developed Penfolds Grange in the 1950s and with it the idea that wines from the so called New World, from Napa to Chile, and crucially from Australia could produce wines to rival the traditional wine producing regions of the world.

The genius of Max Schubert however, was not that he eventually invented a world class Fine Wine in the form of Penfolds epic Shiraz Grange, but that he and his fellow winemakers, as well as the marketing men and women developed an entire range of wines that demonstrated that, high quality, enjoyable wine could made, anywhere in the world if the effort and expertise was present.

In a decade they re-wrote the ideas at the heart of Terroir, that there was a ‘god-given’ right in the hands of the owners of special revered pieces of earth in France, Germany, Spain or Italy to an everlasting monopoly on excellence.

Up until this point, it was always understood that wines from the New World were perfectly interesting, perhaps occasionally useful alternatives to the real thing from the Old World, but no replacement.

After the revelation of Penfolds Grange in 1959, the New World could seriously be looked at as rivals and not curiosities.

Last week Peter Gago arrived in Ireland on a 24 hour stop on his nearly annual whistle-stop tour of world capitols. The following day he was due in Stockholm, having arrived from London.

Peter Gago represents the top of the hierarchy in Australian winemaking, and is regarded by many including Decanter, Wine Spectator and indeed Robert Parker as wine making royalty. Wine Enthusiast crowned him the finest winemaker in the world in 2005.

Gago has achieved that position for his tenure as winemaker responsible for almost a dozen of the world’s most sought after wines including Penfolds Grange, Penfolds Bin 707 Cabernet Sauvignon, Penfolds St. Henri Shiraz and latterly Penfolds Yattarna, a Chardonnay now considered as the white Grange.

These wines sell for huge amounts of money and are fought over by wine collectors.

Peter Gago’s visit to Stockholm the day after his visit to Ireland was to preside over the annual Penfolds Re-Corking Clinic in Europe.

The Penfolds Clinic is a symbol of the ambition of Penfolds. It is a day on which owners of Penfolds wines, 15 years and older can come along with their wines and have them checked, opened in many cases, topped up and re-corked.

It is a sort of NCT for very expensive wines.

It is also exactly the kind of best practice that has built and maintained Penfolds reputation for excellence over the years. The clinics do this by assuring wine lovers, especially those who are buying the top Penfolds wines, of Penfolds ongoing and lengthy commitment to those older wines. Secondly, the actual re-corking process and certificates of authenticity in that process add provenance and monetary value at auction to tested bottles, lastly , this activity puts Penfolds into a very select club.

The only other wineries involved in this kind of ‘aftersales’ care are the First Classed Growths of Bordeaux, exactly the kind of company Penfolds is happy to embrace.

The Rewards Of Patience

Central to the success and importance of Penfolds is the concept of patience and heritage.

That embrace of heritage and history extends to another asset, human beings, which makes Penfolds almost unique in the increasingly corporate world of global fine wine trade in emphasising human beings as a chief resource.

In many wineries, when a winemaker leaves, within a year or two, their name is gone from the records and removed from the wall, as the corporate entity tries to emphasise continuity over a roll of succession. Its not unique to wine, it happens in all walks of business life.

Within Penfolds however you will find detailed histories not just of Peter Gago, but of his predecessor John Duval, now in effect a rival and before that his predecessor Don Ditter.

Penfolds also produce a textbook called The Rewards of Patience, where they talk about the need to sit back and wait for some wines to develop, where they compare wines from the 1970s with wines from this year and come to frank, very direct views on what wines are doing well, which in retrospect underperformed and heap praise on each man and women who helped make that wine, be they past or present employees.

It is not just confined to writing either, there is an intellectual dialogue going on between Peter Gago and his predecessors every time Gago addresses a room, talks to a journalist or opens a bottle of wine.

“Penfolds Grange 1990, now regarded as one of the stars, it’s a brilliant piece of work by John Duval and is showing great real energy and finesse at very nearly 20 years of age now.” Says Gago, personalising the wine as a product not just of soils and vines but of John Duval, Gago’s immediate predecessor as Chief Winemaker and then explaining what Duval was trying to do with his winemaking.

It is quite academic and it comes as no surprise that Peter Gago began life as a maths and science teacher before embracing the world of academia achieving firsts and qualifying first in his class or Dux as the say in Australian and Scottish Universities. His academic genius was quickly noticed, he was snapped up by Penfolds in 1989 where he was promoted through the ranks hitting the top spot, in a business and a company that venerates age at a comparatively sprightly 45.

The Penfolds Miracle

Penfolds was famously, founded in 1844 by a young English doctor, Dr. Christopher Rawson Penfold and his wife, Mary. They had come to Australia seeking their fortune and bought the best lands they could afford, which were even in 1844 regarded as very good property in the foothills above Adelaide.

They built a stone house that they named, The Grange, it was this house that gave its name to the famous Grange wine in the 1950s. Within a decade they had a thriving business making tonnic wines along side Dr. Penfolds medical practice. After his death and right up until the turn of the century, Mary Penfold developed the wine business into one of the largest and most highly regarded in the young colony.

On her death in 1896, her daughter and her son in law, Thomas Hyland, took over the business, continuing to make a huge range of wines including a Shiraz, Riesling, Bordeaux, Sherry and Port style wines. It was these later sweet and fortified wines that really took off in the 20th century. By World War II, Penfolds wines accounted for perhaps 40% of all Australian wine production.

So when in 1950, Max Schubert was sent to Europe to survey the fine wines of the Rhone and Bordeaux he was an emissary of what was already a huge and successful business. What Schubert saw was a future in dry, still, fine wine, he instinctively understood after hands on study that the winemaking, was the cornerstone. If you had good fruit, then great winemaking replicating the exacting techniques of the top French Chateaux could transform that good juice into great wines.

Schubert was allowed to make the still, dry wines using the expensive and exacting techniques of the top Bordeaux chateaux, but everyone hated the results. What his superiors did not seem to realise was that just like Bordeaux and Burgundy wines, these new Australian fine wines were going to need time to soften and mature.

The story of Schubert continuing to make his dry red wine secretly from 1951 onwards is now legendary in wine circles. Bottles of the underground vintages sell for silly money. The 1951, unauthorised Grange, last sold for $52,000 for a single bottle.

Eventually these early wines matured, were found to be staggering wines matching the best of France’s top wines and were offered for commercial sale.

The daring and bravery of what Penfolds did next is why they are so revered as a company today.

Despite making a fortune and having a very fine business as makers of sweet and fortified wines, they turned the company around in its tracks. Instead of seeing Penfolds Grange Hermitage, as it was then known, as a one off flagship or icon, they used Grange as the starting post to evolve a series of dry fine wines around Grange, using the reputation they had gained in Shiraz, to develop a topflight Cabernet Sauvignon, Penfolds Bin 707, then a Cabernet Sauvignon Bland Bin 389 and so on.

Then almost in reverse order extending outwards and downwards in price creating, where none existed at that time a mass market in affordable high quality dry red and white wines.

Penfolds Today

Remarkably, and thanks to strong personalities like Gago and his predecessors, Penfolds has remained a symbol of quality, in medium and top priced wines, despite having now been swallowed up by several large companies over the years, who in other parts of their large portfolios of wineries preside over an Australian wine scene that is now horribly split between increasingly bland brands and worryingly expensive, albeit dazzling bespoke fine wines.

With Penfolds, there is at least predictability and order. If you want to pay hundreds of euro, and sample some of the finest wines on the planet, you opt for Grange and its companions on the top deck, if you want quality and reasonable affordability you pick the increasingly broad range of other Bin numbers and if you want hip experimentation you investigate their Cellar Reserve range.

Selected Penfolds Highlights

Penfolds Koonunga Hill Autumn Riesling 2008 (88) around €16
Penfolds Koonunga Hill Chardonnay 2007 (88) around €13

Penfolds Koonunga Hill Seventy Six Shiraz Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 (89) around €15

Penfolds Grange 2004 (95) around €250

Penfolds Bin 707 Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 (94) around €100

Penfolds Bin 389 Cabernet Sauvignon Shiraz 2003 (91) around €30

Penfold Bin 128 Coonawarra Shiraz 2005 (90) around €20

Penfolds Wines are widely available, with specialist wine shops offering broader ranges or the more expensive end of their portfolio. Nationwide O’Brien’s Wines; Tesco supermarkets and O’Donovan’s Off Licence Chain in Cork City and County, offer very extensive ranges including Penfolds Grange. Also available in most independent Off Licences including The Vintry, 102 Rathgar Road Dublin 6; 64, Glasthule Road, Sandycove, Co Dublin and online at; McCabes, Mount Merrion Avenue, Blackrock Co Dublin; The Vintry, Rathgar Road, Dublin 6 and Redmonds of Ranelagh.

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