Peter Gago, the exuberant head winemaker at Penfolds, producer of Australia’s most celebrated and garlanded wine, Grange, was in fine form at our recent Spectator Winemaker Dinner held at the Marylebone Hotel.
Peter was generosity itself, too, bringing with him a spectacular array of Penfolds wines, including Bin 51 Eden Valley Riesling, Yattarna Chardonnay, Bin 389 Cabernet/Shiraz, RWT Shiraz, Block 42 Kalimna Cabernet Sauvignon (produced from the oldest Cabernet vines in the world, incidentally, and I bet you didn’t know that), St Henri Shiraz and the mighty Grange itself (the 2008 in fact, rated a 100 point wine by the noble Robert Parker). We finished with an extraordinary 30 year old tawny.
Every wine was an absolute belter and for those of us more familiar with the ubiquitous Rawson’s Retreat and Koonunga Hill from Penfolds (both currently around £7 in a supermarket or high street chain near you), it was something of an eye-opening evening.
In fact, if I have a quibble with Penfolds it’s the sheer size of their range and the madly confusing nomenclature and bin number system they use on their labels. I’ve never forgotten taking a cherished bottle of Penfolds Bin 389 to a friend as a treat for his birthday only for him to glance at it, grunt a modest thanks, and put it straight in his kitchen wine rack. The bottle had cost me around £45 and he clearly confused it with Bin 2 or Bin 9 (which currently retail for less than £15 a bottle), or maybe even Bin 128 (£20). Thank goodness I didn’t give him the Bin 169 (£170) or – God forbid – the Bin 707 (£245). RWT Shiraz is soon to be renamed Bin 798 and Penfolds Grange, just so you know, is officially Bin 95, with the 2008 vintage that we knocked back currently retailing for £476 at Berry Bros.
I’m old enough to remember the days when the only Aussie wines one could get in the UK were Kanga Rouge and Wallaby White and goodness how times have changed. Today, almost one in every four bottles we drink in the UK comes from Down Under and whilst the sales of French, Italian, American, South African, Spanish, Portuguese and German wine have fallen here over the last twelve months, sales of Aussie vino have risen almost 6 per cent by volume and almost 4 per cent by value. Total value in the year ending October 2015 was £1,163 million.
The wines we tasted with Peter Gago were remarkable, not only in their quality but also in their diversity and it was perfectly brought home to us just how varied a wine producing country Australia is. Indeed, Grange is the only leading wine in the world, a so-called icon wine, that I can think of that’s a blend of fruit from different regions, namely Barossa Valley, McLaren Vale and Magill Estate.
There are 65 different registered Geographical Indications across Australia and as for regional variation consider this: Margaret River (home to fabulous Bordeaux-style reds and Chardonnays) is some 2625 miles, not to mention three time zones, away from the Hunter Valley (famed for its Semillons, Chardonnays and big, bold Shirazes). That’s almost three times the distance from London to Florence. How’s that for regionality?
In the course of the evening we also learned much about Australia’s noble history of winemaking. There are many long-established wineries and vineyards such as Wyndham (established in 1828), Houghton (1836), Yering Station (1838), Yalumba (1849) and Tahbilk (1860) to name but a few out of dozens. Penfolds, though, founded in 1844 and boasting, as I say, the oldest Cabernet Sauvignon vines in the world, is undoubtedly the most famous of them all.
Peter Gago, born and raised in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, has been their head winemaker since 2002 and is only the fourth person to hold that position since the trail-blazing Max Schubert was first appointed in 1948. He spends half the year making wine and half the year travelling the world promoting and selling it and hosting events such as our Spectator Winemaker Dinner.
Indeed, after our event, Peter was straight off to Shanghai for the launch of Penfolds Grange 2011 and the Penfolds Collection 2015, the first time Penfolds had launched their wines outside Australia.
Before he departed, though, Peter left us with the quote of the evening. On being asked by a guest what constituted a great wine, he replied: “A great wine is one where the second half of the glass tastes better than the first and on finishing the bottle the only complaint is ‘Why didn’t we open a magnum?’”
Dammit, I wish I’d come up with that.