Peter Gago: “Grange has never been about bigness; it’s only ever been about balance.”

Last month, we interviewed Tyson Stelzer about the Great Australian Red trophy, and what makes the Shiraz/Cabernet blend so uniquely Australian.

This month, we spoke with Penfolds Chief Winemaker Peter Gago, who is only a few years' shy of marking 30 years with the iconic Australian wine brand.  He gives us his thoughts on the blend that makes up the most cellared wines in Australia, the strength of the Penfolds brand, and his top tips for service.

 by Erin Ogilvie

You started working with Penfolds in 1989.  What has kept you there for so long?

I’ve been with Penfolds for almost 28 years, yet truly - no two days have ever been similar! No regrets. During vintage, I’m still proactively involved in day-to-day winemaking decision-making and vineyard assessments, possibly more so than I was 25 years ago.  

Your grandparents’ strawberries, the tiny one they hand grew, they’re often better than the shiny big ones you see in the supermarkets.  The same can be said for wine.  We were family-owned until the mid-seventies and we have to be vigilant to maintain that care and custodianship.  We’ve been reasonably successful at doing the right thing by Penfolds; we try and put the wine first.  It sounds like a bit of a throwaway line, but that’s what we do.  We don’t always succeed but that’s the aspiration.

Some of Penfolds’ most famous wines like Bin 389 and even Grange are a blend of Shiraz and Cabernet.  What is special about this blend?

Straight Shiraz wines are lovely, yet when they’re complex with Cabernet, they become lovelier.  There is a proven blend track record of success that now stands well over half a century.  At the very highest level of Penfolds ‘Special Bins’ there have only ever been two vintages of our Bin 620 (1966 and 2008) and Bin 60A (1962 and 2004).  James Halliday acknowledged the 1962 Bin 60A as the finest red wine made in Australia in the 20th Century, and then he superseded this stating that it could possibly be the finest red wine yet made in Australia.  Penfolds Special Bins are often only one or two-offs, and we only blend the best of the best of the best.  And what are they?  Invariably Cabernet/Shiraz blends.

The market has always supported our Cabernet Shiraz blends, and their claim to fame often leans on their longevity.  Only two weeks ago, Wine Ark publicized the Bin 389 as the most cellared wine in Australia.  Number 1 was 389, Number 2 was Grange, and, believe it or not, Number 3 was St Henri.  There may be something working here - one, two, and three of the most cellared wines in Australia.  Compelling.

Why do you produce both Cabernet-dominant blends and Shiraz-dominant blends?  Why not produce just one or the other?

Invariably, it’s because of our Cabernet resource; it’s still easier for us to source more top quality Shiraz than it is to source equivalent quality Cabernet.  We’ve now made Bin 389 across 56 consecutive vintages, and we have never, in any market, been able to satisfy the market need.  In 2016, we are now at a significant release volume, but still trying to make more.  If 389 were a Shiraz Cabernet, we could make considerably more, but the market knows what it wants.  We’d never turn our back on that template. 

On the other hand, our entry-level Koonunga Hill is a Shiraz Cabernet blend, and since 1976 it’s been impressively successful around the world.  So is it one or the other?  No, and that’s because of an adherence and pursuit of style. A term I don’t like using is over-deliver, but you can actually over-deliver when you synergistically combine these two varieties.  And how lucky are we to be able to make both?

You’ve said that Penfolds is not that interested in trends.  Why is this?

We have to be cognisant of trends, but we’re not slaves to the current cycle.  Penfolds is renowned for making wines to a House Style and not blindly following fashion. Innovation yes, fad no. For example, Bin 707 is a multi-region Cabernet Sauvignon matured in 100% new American Oak, a time-honoured Penfolds’ style.  To stand alongside it, we recently created Bin 169, a single-region Coonawarra Cabernet matured only in French Oak. Bin 707 has not been ‘reconstructed’ to the whims of a focus group or reaction to a trend; we can’t satisfy the market with 707 so why would we change it?  It’s not broken.  Instead, we’ve released a more contemporary style, Bin 169, and can still oblige the loyalists. 

We’re lucky: it’s a function of our size and our patience, and a function of slow, considered evolution.  Perhaps if I were starting a new winery tomorrow, I’d be more attentive to focus groups, implementing what appears to work, what gains immediate endearment. 

Do you think this has helped Penfolds build its reputation for reliability and quality?

People who make wine and believe their own press tend not to last too long.  We’ve been in the game for 172 years and we have to be able to anticipate what may happen in the future, and also continue to evolve and improve our winemaking and grape growing.

In 1997 we made our first RWT Shiraz.  RWT is a single-region, Barossa Valley Shiraz matured in French Oak.  Now, Grange has been up there for more than 60 years.  Will the market ever tire of it?  It might, it might not.  But will we ever change the style?  No.  Not because we’re arrogant or intransient, but again, why would we change something if it’s not broken? So the Grange style remains uncompromised, but we now have a contemporary alternative.  It's about choice.

We still create wines and concepts that are cutting-edge, but the core of Penfolds – Bins, Grange, St Henri – connect tradition with the RWTs and 169s of the present. 

Do you think this philosophy has aided Penfolds longevity?

A new wine, a new label, a new story, is a relatively easy sell for a vintage or two.  But then you have to sell it in year five or year ten.  Our Penfolds sales colleagues have to sell our wines in years 28, 43, 53… and that’s difficult!  Peter Teakle wisely once said, “The label sells the first bottle, the winemaker sells the second.”  That’s the real story.  It’s not just about the current buzzword, trend, or clever back-label copy. It’s not just the current vintage – ideally there’s a track record, proof of longevity, improvement.  Also not to forget: a great wine doesn’t become great in year 13 or year 31; it starts off that way.

We’ve never proclaimed Grange to be Australia’s best wine.  There may well be a better wine in a given year, there might not be, it’s not our call anyway.  Living in a country where the Tall Poppy Syndrome runs rampant, to have something perched up there for well over half a century is an amazing achievement.  Grange has never been about bigness; it’s only ever been about balance.  And its propensity to age and complex over time.

You are in the midst of the Penfolds Recorking Clinics, celebrating 25 years this year.  As a service offered, what’s the importance of the Clinics?

Penfolds used to replace the odd cork – Max Schubert used to ‘repair’ wines that were ullaged or actively leaking.  We’ve turned it into a program, one that’s gone from strength to strength.  After 25 years, they’re bigger and busier than they’ve ever been.  In Sydney last week, we had three full days with eight Penfolds winemakers.  Next will be three days in Melbourne, then we’re off to LA, then Manhattan, then Vancouver, with one over in London.

It’s not just about putting new corks in old bottles: it’s about education, (drinking windows, cellaring) and after-sales service, goodwill.  Anywhere.  Any Penfolds red wine 15 years or older.  And they’re still free!

How has the wine drinker’s attitude changed over those 25 years?

It’s multi-generational now: people were bringing in their children, and now those children are bringing in their children. In Australia, in the 60s and 70s, you’d look around a restaurant to view those drinking wine and there might have been a glass here and there.  Now you look around a restaurant and it’s easier to spot those not drinking wine.  A huge transformation.  Our competitors love Penfolds Recorking Clinics – we’re educating their clientele as well!  Awareness is growing, everyone wins. 

What is your number one tip serving Penfolds?

Well, we’ve long used quality Riedel stemware in all continents, in all countries.  In these glasses, wine serving temperature is critical.  Too often we over-chill whites and invariably serve reds too warm.  “Ambient temperature” has little meaning because ambient temperature is so variable.  If in doubt, always serve reds a little cooler, but never ever serve a red wine too warm.  You end up almost with a taste/structural chromatogram where the oak, the fruit, the alcohol, and the tannins all separate.  Not nice!

If a red wine is served a little too cool then simply warm it up in your hands, or allow the temperature to rise sitting on the table.  Just a little more difficult than trying to cool a warm glass of red once poured!

To find out more, go to penfolds.com.