Penfolds’ Peter Gago: ‘People say we’re getting too big. I say look at the results’

The Australian winery is launching its latest vintages – and two new ‘Superblends’. So, is it in danger of overstretching itself?

Words by Guy Woodward

Peter Gago - Penfolds
Penfolds chief winemaker Peter Gago is confident that his two new 'Superblends' will be in high demand

As Penfolds prepares to launch its latest collection of wines around the world, chief winemaker Peter Gago has responded to criticism that the vaunted Australian winery is spreading itself too thin.

In recent years, the brand has expanded its range to include a multi-vintage blend of its most famous wine, Grange, as well as Penfolds-branded wines in Champagne and California. Now it is set to launch two further new cuvées – christened, in a name sure to stir up reaction, ‘Superblends’.

The wines – Cabernet-Shiraz blends – have been shown to Australian-based journalists but not yet tasted further afield, with global critics instead being sent the new vintages of Grange (2017), St Henri (2018), and the 2019 Bin 707, Yattarna and Magill Estate among the standard Penfolds’ annual releases, ahead of reviews expected this week.

The Penfolds Collection
The 2021 Penfolds Australia Collection features two new 'Superblends', both featuring Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz

The two new wines, with the working names 802.A and 802.B, use the same blend, but have been created ‘very differently’, says Gago. The first wine’s component parts were vinified and aged separate throughout maturation, and only blended immediately prior to bottling.

The second version, 802.B, adopted Penfolds’ more common ‘no guts, no glory’ approach, says Gago, with the blend done straightaway and aged in barrel as a blend. The ageing also diverged – 802.A was matured for 22 months in 100% new American oak, whereas 802.B was housed for 19 months in 54% new French oak (and 46% one-year-old).

Sure, the name – Superblends – is a bit provocative and naughty

‘The blends are essentially the same, but the wines couldn’t be more different,’ says Gago. Asked about the sourcing of the wine, he responded: ‘People say we’re compromising Grange and our flagships with this. Well no, the Superblend is a wonderful Cabernet-Shiraz at that same highest level, but without being gimmicky.

‘Sure, the name is a bit provocative and naughty, and I’m very aware of the likes of SuperTuscans around the world. But the wine was actually inspired by Matthew Jukes and Tyson Stelzer’s Great Australian Red competition that celebrates the Cabernet-Shiraz blend. Australia’s most famous wine ever was 1962 Bin 60a, a Cab-Shiraz blend. So, who better than Penfolds to do something at the very top level to celebrate that?’

The Penfolds Superblends are expected to be launched in Australia at just under AUD$900 (£485) a bottle, $50/£25 cheaper than Grange

Penfolds’ Bin 389 also harnesses the same blend, but Gago pointed out that it employed ‘A3’ grade fruit rather than the ‘A1’ of the Superblend. The new wine would not be made every year (no 2019 or 2020 has been vinified, although a 2021 is on the cards), but instead ‘maybe three or four a decade’.

‘We don’t want to take the heart and soul out of our flagships,’ he added. ‘It’s like our special bin philosophy – we need to make the St Henri, Grange, 707 and so on, and then if we still have some A1 fruit left, we can make them. This isn’t quite at special bin level – I need to call in the tribal elders for [permission to make] those – but it’s pretty special.’

The wine is expected to be released in Australia alongside the main collection, at around AUD$900 a bottle, $50 cheaper than Grange. It will follow in other markets later in the year, with some releasing ‘A’ first and ‘B’ in early 2022. Gago is confident the wines will prove popular.

‘I’ve no doubt consumers are willing to spend that amount of money – people are already queuing up’ – but he’s preparing himself for criticism. ‘I got criticised when we launched our ampoules in Moscow, people telling me “You’ve sold your soul to Russian oligarchs”. Well, Russia only got one. It was the same when I did a big launch of Bin 620 in Shanghai – “you’ve sold out to Chinese billionaires”. Well, no – all the wines are strictly allocated across all our global markets. This will be the same. We’ll get complaints in the US because they only get a certain amount, but that’s the way of things.’

California Collection
Earlier in the year, Penfolds launched The California Collection, featuring two cross-country blends – Quantum and 159 – that mix Napa Cabernet with Australian Shiraz

Gago claims that the launch is a boon for Penfolds’ army of growers, who now have another premium wine to aim for as well as Grange, Bin 707 and the brand’s two cross-country blends Quantum and 159, which mix Napa Cabernet with Australian Shiraz. Independent growers who supply Penfolds are paid according to the grading of their fruit, with A1-graded grapes that end up in the top wines yielding a greater payday. He is all too aware of the challenges for growers, he says.

‘People ask why we don’t buy more vineyards,’ he says. ‘Simple – because of climate change and risk. It might seem a Machiavellian thing to say, but the grower is taking the risk, and we’re not so much. So we try to help them as much as we can.’

The sources of Penfolds’ top wines have changed hugely even in the past 20 years, he says, on account of climate change. ‘Some don’t even exist any more. We used to source from a site in Modbury, north of Adelaide – now it’s a public hospital. There’s a lot of risk for growers, and some have fallen off, others we’ve waved goodbye to. We still support some multi-generational families who haven’t made it into Grange for 15 years – we have other layers they can provide for.’

Sourcing from different regions in the face of climate change, and juggling all the supply lines is without doubt the biggest challenge he faces in coming years, says Gago. ‘It’s a logistical nightmare. Without computers and GPS, we wouldn’t be able to do it.’

He describes recent fires in Australia and California as ‘like Armageddon’ but remains sanguine about the challenge, pointing out that there are higher-elevation sites to turn to. ‘The highest peak we source from in Tasmania right now is 190m, but some properties there go up to 400m. It’s the same in the Adelaide Hills – some sites are at 300m, but others go to 600+. But viticulturally is the main way to combat climate change – with mulching and canopy management’.

Gago turned to the brand’s premium Chardonnay, Yattarna, as an example. Sourcing for the wine has changed hugely since the inaugural 1995 vintage, he says. In 2006, grapes from Tasmania were first used. By 2010, they comprised 96% of the blend. ‘Some of the vineyards we’re using now were originally for sparkling wine,’ says Gago. ‘They were on the cusp of physiological ripeness.’ Stylistic trends have also come into play. ‘Pre-2000, we were like a musical producer on an album, trying too hard, aiming for anything that tasted like great white Burgundy. It took from 1995 to 2000 for us to realise that less is more – it’s not about what you put into Yattarna, but the barrels you leave out.’

Rhône Valley - Penfolds
The Rhône Valley – Gago's next aim is to make a Syrah from this classic French region

So does Gago have his eye on anywhere else in the world? Quite possibly. The 64-year-old started out as a sparkling winemaker, so, he says, it ‘made sense’ to go to Champagne, where Penfolds teamed up with Thienot (a rosé fizz will be added to the portfolio later this year). Similarly, producing Cabernet in California wasn’t too much of a stretch. It comes as no surprise, then, to hear that Gago’s dream is to make a Rhône Valley Syrah. ‘It’s early days, but it would be silly to say we’d never do anything there,’ he says. ‘But we’re not going to do anything short-term or reactive – and it would most likely be collaboratively. Watch this space.

‘We did Champagne, which has been embraced – when we launched it at the Ritz Paris, most of the people there were French, and they loved it. Then our Californian wine, Quantum, sold out, and Bin 149 [the second wine] sold out in a week, at $220 a bottle, so it must have worked.

‘In California, we’re sharing vineyards in a soft, sensitive, quiet, gentle way. We’re not going over there and saying: “We’ll show you how to make Cabernet.” We’re just asking to have a dabble in the odd block in the corner of the odd vineyard. It’s a Burgundian approach. Look at Clos de Vougeot and Echezeaux – everyone from DRC [Domaine de la Romanée Conti] to the guy down the street is making wine from there.’

In California, we’re sharing vineyards in a soft, sensitive way. We’re not going over there and saying: “We’ll show you how to make Cabernet”

But is it all in danger of getting a bit unwieldy? ‘People look at the Penfolds portfolio and say “Gee, it’s getting a bit big,” but lots of wines have fallen off. Our Clare Estate wines, our Barossa Old Vines Semillon – a lot have quietly left the fold.

‘Others have happened quicker than I thought. I didn’t think g3, and now g4 and g5 [the Grange multi-vintage blend, the latest of which is due for release next year] would happen so quickly – no-one here [at corporate owner Treasury Wine Estates] wanted it to happen. It was $3,500 a bottle, and it was gone in a week, so no-one’s complaining now.

‘Yes, it was controversial: “You’ve gone beyond terroir, gone beyond vintage,” they said, “what are you doing?” But it sold out immediately and people loved it. Whether it’s theoretically or puristically correct… it is what it is.’