It’s hard to imagine Peter Gago breaking into a sweat. When temperatures in London hit 38C last month, the (native) population dripped and melted, and even City brokers took their jackets off. But the veteran Penfolds chief winemaker, who’d flown in from Melbourne to launch the 2019 Penfolds Collection to a small group at the swanky Morton’s club in Mayfair, was wearing three layers of black, including a natty zipped jacket. “It controls the sweat,” he explained.
Gago likes to be in control. A chemist by training, he doesn’t batter his audience with pH levels and tannin indices (it’s all there in the technical sheets); he hovers about the room, pouring wine and explaining his philosophy, which is to focus with laser-precision on every aspect of winemaking from soil to barrel to bottle. There’s nothing new about that, of course, but Gago has been in the job for so long (he joined Penfolds in 1989 and has been chief winemaker since 2002) and has been so successful that he’s allowed to do just about anything. Of a new project which we saw but can’t reveal until October, he said, “nothing like this has ever been done before. I had to persuade the board, but I’ve still got my job.”
Gago spends his life flying between capital cities on an almost-never-ending promotional tour, like a vinous Bob Dylan. He’s one of the best salesmen in wine: journalists love him because he’s witty and quotable, he likes to talk, and the products he’s flogging are among the world’s greatest wines.
He’s a restless experimenter. Sometimes he goes a bit over the top, as with the hand-blown sealed glass “Ampoule” full of Kalimna Block 42 Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 that retailed for $168,000 (or the cost of four teachers or five nurses for a year as some pointed out). All twelve sold.
Gago spends his life flying between capital cities on an almost-never-ending promotional tour, like a vinous Bob Dylan
For the 175thanniversary he’s teamed up with Champagne Thienot to make three Champagnes that have been very well received. He wanted to put Yattarna in the dosage but the Champagne ruling body wouldn’t allow a drop of anything foreign in the wine, so they sent over Yattarna barriques for the ageing.
There are also plans afoot for an Aussie-Napa collaboration, with Penfolds’ sister wineries Beringer and Beaulieu Vineyard (BV), both revered icons with some of the finest vineyards in the appellation. Watch this space.
The Penfolds Collection 2019 – released as the winery celebrates its 175 anniversary – shows the wonderful variety of styles that is the hallmark of this range. Each wine brings a surprise, a different expression of its terroir and its blend, the styles honed by differences in maturation, in barrel age, in selection.
Grange 2015, with its sweet, cool spice on the palate and concentrated tannins is the result (among an infinite range of variables) of 20 months in 300-litre hogsheads of new American oak; its counterpart, St Henri 2016, sees no new oak, its marvellous layered aromas teased out by a year in 1,460-litre vats, some of them 50 years old.
From the luscious, sappy Bin 51 Riesling (what a treat after walking through broiling Berkeley Square), through the mid-range Bins, to the A-list quintet of Bin 389, Magill, RWT, St Henri and Grange, this is a complex and compelling range of wines. There are blips, of course – hints of alcohol burn here, a short finish there – but in such a parade of excellence, that’s fine. As Gago would certainly say, he’s learning all the time.
The Penfolds Collection 2019 shows the wonderful variety of styles that is the hallmark of this range
In any case, perfection is boring. Writing on Burgundy in the first issue of Club Oenologique Jasper Morris celebrated imperfection: “Subtle flaws shouldn’t stop us enjoying the view of a drystone wall, though it might be fractionally less than perpendicular, nor the taste of a bottle of Burgundy with a tiny imperfection due to vintage variability or human foible. I love them for what they are.”
The Penfolds roadshow will be in another city now, with another roomful of critics for Gago to wow. He appears to find it very easy, which with wines as good as this, it is. As one of my colleagues said, “Sure, there’s a bit of sparkle and razzmatazz, but that’s fine, because this stuff is real.”
[There are two absences this year – Bin 707 Cabernet Sauvignon and Bin 169 Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon. Gago said there was too much rain in Coonawarra towards the end of the vintage in April to make the icon wines. Bin 407 was increased correspondingly.]