Home on the Grange with Penfolds chief winemaker Peter Gago

The Final Blend
by Anthony Gismondi

Anthony Gismondi Portrait Colour_Cropped

Anthony Gismondi

The Penfolds Recorking Clinic came through Vancouver last week led by the pied piper and chief winemaker Peter Gago. Gago is the face, the force and the keeper of the soul of the Penfolds brand or as he prefers the “Penfolds culture.” Against all odds Penfolds has persisted under numerous corporate cultures that have taken it from brewing to household water heaters and since 1989, Peter Gago only the fourth chief winemaker has thrived as the defender of the culture, the historian and worldwide ambassador.

In an extraordinary way, Gago’s personality overcomes all the trappings of the corporate boardrooms and shareholders that own the winery, yet in a dance even Mikhail Baryshnikov would admire, Gago, at work, is the ultimate team player at Penfolds. As an aside during the current recorking clinic in Vancouver he casually mentioned that he never personally signs a bottle of Penfolds Grange, but rather the team does. It’s another window into the world of Peter Gago, the extraordinarily, ordinary man.

Born in Newcastle, England, his family moved to Melbourne, Australia when he was six. After completing a Bachelor of Science from the University of Melbourne, Peter took to teaching chemistry and mathematics (I wish I had been in that class) before the wine business came calling. A Bachelor of Applied Science (Oenology) at Roseworthy College was up next before he arrived at Penfolds in 1989 – where oddly – he was put in charge of sparkling wines. Next up he was Penfolds Red Wine Oenologist before taking on his current job as only the fourth chief winemaker to run the Penfolds ship, succeeding John Duval in 2002 and shouldering the Grange mantle.

Today he has two enormous jobs. From January to June he is all wine at Magill and Nuriootpa working closely with the team: Steve Lienert, Penfolds Senior Red Winemaker; Kym Schroeter, Senior White Winemaker; Andrew Baldwin, Red Winemaker; Adam Clay, Red Winemaker; Stephanie Dutton, Red Winemaker; and Matt Woo, Fortified Winemaker. July to December Gago boasts one of the most punishing travel schedules in the business as an ambassador and educator, moving effortlessly through media, customers and heads of nations as he spreads the gospel.

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As someone who has been tasting Penfolds wines for more than three decades it is clear the current editions are the best we have ever seen. When I asked Gago how he explains the amazing quality of the 2012 Penfolds Grange he is quick to point out it’s not really a vintage thing, nor is new barrels, a different cooper or a better press but rather, “It is a long series of small tweaks usually representing a half of one percent change that have brought all the wines to where they are today.”

When I asked if Penfolds was making a lot of new wines, Gago responded “We honour the classic Penfolds styles but we have other more modern wines. Take Grange versus RWT. Grange has always been a multi-regional red in American oak and is the archetype for the style, yet RWT, is a single region, all French oak aged red that is a whole new direction. In fact, there are a slew of new or one-off labels at Penfolds we never see in Canada because… because Treasury doesn’t push them into Canada or Canadian wine buyers remain unaware of these treasures.” Gago went on to say “In the early days I accepted the explanation that it [Canada] is not a mature market, but hang on, how long have I been coming here?”

This fall and/or spring, depending upon which hemisphere you live, is the 62nd consecutive vintage release of Grange, the 2012 vintage, and the unveiling of The Penfolds Collection 2016. Early remarks from Penfolds point to its plush, alluring taste “stylistically akin to the 1963 Grange, with a contemporary ‘2012’ personality.” My take on what is a sensational 2012 Grange is it will live comfortably for three to four decades. After having tasted every Grange except the 1951 in New York four years ago, I would say the style (using a Bordeaux barometer) of this multi-regional shiraz with only two percent cabernet sauvignon is closer to Lafite in 2012 than in 2010, when I thought it closer to Latour. “It’s remarkable no matter what your take and among one of the finest young red wines I have ever tasted. Gago says “It’s a wine you can drink in sixty years’ time or have it for dinner tonight.”

It is the balance that makes that happen and it is perhaps the biggest little incremental change under Gago’s watch. I remember when so many people said the 1982 Bordeaux would never last, that they were too soft and too round, or to put it the way we were talking back then, if there was no pain (a long wait for the dry, tough tannins to dissipate) there was no gain. We know better now and so does Penfolds. But let’s leave it to the maestro Mr. Gago who simply says “It‘s not a wine, it’s a story.”

There are nineteen wines that were released worldwide on October 20, made from five different vintages, some multi-region, some multi-vineyard blends, some single-region wines and some single-vineyard wine. While the bulk of the release bears the 2014 vintage, the 2013 St. Henri Shiraz is a textural masterpiece in what is the 60th year since the wine’s first commercial release.

The WineAlign team across the country will be busy posting notes on all these wines in the coming days, so be sure to check out our thoughts. In the meantime, based on some preliminary tastings and my interview with Peter Gago, tasting wine blind is the best way to assess a new vintage. That said, over the decades I have learned it’s still possible to buy some wines blind; the current Penfolds regime makes that very short list with ease.


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