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An interview with Peter Gago
“Aspirationally, we benchmark many of our wines against many top French examples”

British-born Peter Gago has been instrumental in taking Australian wine to new heights of quality during his tenure as chief winemaker at Penfolds. More recently, he has further broadened the company’s vinous horizons by ramping up its presence in France. Vitisphere asked the custodian of the iconic Penfolds Grange to share his ethos as a winemaker and experience of the French wine industry.
By Sharon Nagel May 08, 2023
“Aspirationally, we benchmark many of our wines against many top French examples”
Peter Gago is one of just four Chief Winemakers ever at the helm of Penfolds, a fact that speaks volumes about the company’s sense of permanence and heritage, yet does not preclude innovation. - crédit photo : Penfolds
A

s a long-standing winemaker and chief winemaker at Penfolds, have you tried to follow in your predecessors’ footsteps or make your own mark? What are your own distinctive qualities as a winemaker?

Following in my Penfolds predecessors’ footsteps actually involves making my own mark, so I’d have to say it’s a bit of both! Pushing boundaries in the pursuit of progress is, and always has been, inherent in the Penfolds culture and our approach to winemaking. Over the 21 years since I became Chief Winemaker, I’ve worked hard to build on the great work of those who have served previously. Often it’s via refinements and fine-tuning, but there have also been some ‘tree-shaking’ moments, such as the creation of the Cellar Reserve tier of experimental wines/style in the mid-1990s, the Penfolds Ampoule, and g3, g4 & g5 multi-vintage Grange blends. And, most recently ‘Superblends’ and V Chardonnay! As for my distinctive qualities as a winemaker, I’d have to say they remain tenacity and resilience, and a penchant for a little ‘trial & error’, with hopefully not too much error!

 

Are you satisfied with where Penfolds, and Australia, have come so far or have some of your aspirations and ambitions been left unfulfilled at this stage?

Penfolds & Australia have made huge inroads into the global World of Wine. All has ebbed and flowed since the 1800’s, through World Wars, a Depression… and most recently, COVID! Geographical isolation both helps & hinders. Yet, I’m very pleased with progress to date. Spanning a diverse range of climates and soils across the huge island continent of Australia are so many grape varieties, wine styles, personalities… terroirs. The longevity and quality of premium Australian white, red, sparkling & fortified wines attests to the aspiration and ambition of our winemaking predecessors. Now for the refinements, tweaking and the continuation of innovation, trialling and learning.

 

You are famously the custodian of Penfolds iconic Grange. As a winemaker, isn’t it frustrating to be tasked with a 100-percent-scoring wine where any changes can only be marginal?

There actually remains so much latitude - sourcing, blending, relegation… And yet, the Grange enigma ‘isn’t broken’ so the ambition remains to make a better wine than the legendary ’52, ’53, ’55, ’62, ‘63, ‘71. ’76… not via ego or proactive style change, but via optimising every touchpoint – from grape to bottle.  As we often comment – ‘all the one-percenters’!

 

Are nature and the winemaker allowed to express themselves in Grange?

Most certainly. Whilst Grange is a blend, all of its derivative vineyards are directly yet differently influenced by nature and winemaker. A Grange stylistic-template sensitively and guardedly frames the constraints/boundaries of each parcel assembled to create the blend, however no two vintages are climatically or chronologically the same. Flavours, structure, tannins are all directly ‘managed’, firstly up to a point by nature in the vineyard, and then by the winemaker – from vineyard to winery to bottle. A continuum of decision-making and crafting opportunity presents itself throughout! The selection of Grange’s base-wines happens purely ‘honestly’ (and personally), via the Penfolds Classification tasting regimen.  Wines are selected organoleptically blind, negating emotive and financial biases. No formula – wines are selected in situ post-ferment on the bench, based purely on quality and style, without knowledge of vineyard, volume or variety. The resultant blend is arguably a true winemaking expression connecting hundreds of variables. Formally tasting through a vertical of Grange vintages diagnostically affords a terrific overview of the vagaries of season, and the impact of fermentation regimen, extraction, tannin management, oak maturation… across the years. As we often say nowadays – there’s no such thing as a ‘normal harvest’ anymore!  So the experiential (management) input of the winemaker is paramount.

 

In 2022, Penfolds II was released.  Why did you choose France and Dourthe for the partnership?

When I think Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot I immediately think Bordeaux (and of course, the Napa Valley!). We’re thrilled with the success of our collaboration with our friends at Dourthe. Their worldly outlook and lateral winemaking mindset appealed instantly. Dourthe’s flagship wine, Essence, blended across pedigreed Bordeaux communes immediately struck a chord with our Penfolds winemaking psyche, and we thereafter collectively progressed our shared blending and quality aspirations in a very natural and real way…

 

How easy or difficult was it to reconcile two, ultimately different, philosophies of winemaking?

It was/is an absolute delight working with Frédéric Bonnaffous and his team in Bordeaux. The vineyards of Dourthe are ideally located across many Bordeaux microclimates and soils - a great source of stellar-quality Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, and wonderful building blocks to couple with those of Penfolds in South Australia.  Albeit 16,000 km distant, winemaking diversity and brave lateral approaches throughout the collaboration have resulted in an amalgam of something altogether different, and REAL!

 

Does the partnership signal a change in Penfolds’ mindset, i.e. a move towards a more European style of winemaking?

Arguably, Penfolds has always espoused a more liberated and global approach to winemaking, unrestricted by region or vineyard. Penfolds ‘House Style’ allows and embraces the freedom to explore premium viticultural regions across Australia, and now other winemaking regions across the world. For the creation of the French wines, the focus has been to seek out optimal/suitable fruit to complement and interlock with Penfolds wine styles. Penfolds is not trying to compete or challenge French wine traditions of appellation first, but to rather seek a Penfolds quality and stylistic-template, no matter where the fruit is grown. In France, there are different soils, different seasons, a different winemaking ‘culture’. But, the ethos is the same – to make the best wine possible with the ingredients provided.  We continue to learn, to listen, and to adapt.

 

2022 also saw the purchase of Château Lanessan and the release of FWT 585. Why so much interest in Bordeaux/France by Penfolds?

Penfolds’ desire to make wine in France has been longstanding as generations of our winemakers have more often looked to France as ‘Best in Class’.

 

Aside from Champagne, do you have other plans involving France at the moment?

Still so much to do in Bordeaux, Champagne… Maybe one day ideally to the Rhône Valley?

 

Do you feel that the tide has turned and that Old World styles are back on-trend?

Old World styles?  I was ‘reared’ on many of these styles – dare I say, the classics! And, never can this be understated or underappreciated in the context of ‘What’s old is new again’. There are just so many great wine styles coming out of Europe – including many contemporary ‘adaptions’, and also many newer style derivatives, some of which are a consequence of climate change…

 

What insight from these projects do you take back to Australia?

A ‘cellar palate’ is a red-flag to not only winemakers, but anyone specialising in the wines of a particular region. We have to proactively taste, question and ponder. A myriad of wines and styles invokes an opportunity to benchmark and broaden outlook. Technologically, there’s just so much happening, both in vineyards and wineries. R&D is ongoing. Everywhere. A significant amount of varied winery equipment used in Australia invariably is made in Germany, France, Italy, Spain… Say no more.

Penfolds is now marketed via the Place de Bordeaux. What implications does this have for the company and for Australia?

An association with La Place de Bordeaux is recognised globally as an endorsement of outstanding quality; the wines sold through the network are globally renowned, and an assurance to the buyer that a wine acquired is selected from amongst the very best in the world – ‘Guilty by Association’! Such prestige adds to brand equity and in itself is a valid reason to sell via La Place. Of course, a proven and envied distribution across ‘World of Fine Wine’ enables Penfolds to reach collectors who may be well-versed in the fine wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy, but yet to venture elsewhere, another key benefit. A La Place Bin offer of 169 Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon affords profile and legitimacy. As the French-oak matured Bin 169 is a terroir-driven offer wine exclusively from the terra-rossa soils (above limestone) of Coonawarra, its remit fits very well with the approach employed by La Place’s Bordeaux mindset.

How important is the French market itself to Penfolds?

Très important!  I think France, and I automatically think wine. We work hand-in-hand with our distributor partners in France to ensure Penfolds has visibility in ‘all the right places’. There’s always more to do, yet we’re greatly encouraged to see and hear of Penfolds awareness and traction availed to date. Aspirationally, we benchmark many of our wines against many top French examples.  Ideally we’re ‘guilty by association’ – no losers on such a tasting-bench!

 

Just like France, Australia is being challenged by climate change.  What impact has this had on the wine styles so far and what are your key strategies for mitigation going forward?

Penfolds has confronted climate challenges for well over one and a half centuries, albeit accelerating in recent years. Reportedly, South Australia is the driest State in the world’s driest continent.  Fortunately we have a winter-dominant rainfall (usually!), ideal for grape-growing. In South Australia in warm years we venture South to optimise fruit selection for many styles. In cool years we meander North. To seek cool-climate fruit, we avail higher altitudes or lower latitudes. Having flexibility in the sourcing of our raw material allows some insurance – extreme weather events tend to be quite localised. Agricultural risk is minimised via viticultural innovation, technology and promoting sustainable practices.

 

After so many years making wine at Penfolds, and garnering so many accolades, what are your proudest achievements/seminal moments?

Making the transition from sparkling winemaking in 1993 to red winemaking …and now all wine. Grange harks back over seven decades of continuous production, St Henri back to 1889, Bin 28 back to 1959, Bin 707 back to 1964… New launches and new wines invoke much interest – they’re sexy!  Yet nurturing, improving, rationalising, protecting tried and proven Penfolds wines and styles is a much more challenging task. I’d like to think that we continue to innovate and look ahead, and yet we still respect and acknowledge what has worked and succeeded before. Also, to this day, despite many attempts, no Penfolds back-label bears a winemaker signature. From the grower to the vineyard manager to cellar-hands, the Penfolds winemaking team, marketers… all are inclusively responsible for the delivery and contents of each bottle opened!

Are there any challenges you have left to meet, or specific projects you would like to oversee?

Many. Fermentation lasts for barely a week, yet directly engaging with the wines and ‘proposition’ of Penfolds is at the core of each working day. Next year, Penfolds will celebrate its 180th-Anniversary.  Setting up the next 180 years by protecting the culture and raison d’être of Penfolds is also a primary focus. As the scale of our overseas winemaking ventures grow, so also will be the need to maintain direction, vision and discipline – to continue to do things ‘the Penfolds way’, and to always ‘put the wine first’! I’m hoping our next Rewards of Patience tome (Edition 9) attests to the continuation across the last few decades of the 1844 vision and dreams of Mary & Dr Christopher Rawson Penfold.

 

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