Wine Words & Video Tape

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Penfolds: Peter Gago’s theory of relativity

Written by JW. Posted in Australia

As chief winemaker at Penfolds for a decade, responsible for Grange and the rest, Peter Gago holds unarguably one of the wine industry’s plum jobs. He’s also a master entertainer. I don’t think I’ve attended a wine tasting tutored by a more dynamic personality. Gago was constantly on the move, gliding up and down the floor of the ‘masterclass’ theatre at the London Wine Fair in May as if on stage at Wembley arena.

Gago was at the fair to introduce the newly released 2012 collection of Penfolds icon and luxury wines. I don’t know what you think of the term icon. For me it conjures up images of incense and the Orthodox Church, and is used frequently to justify wines with an overly hefty price tag but you can hardly complain about the Penfold’s line up presented or about their non-luxury wines, arguably of more general interest to the consumer in value terms further down the chain. I’m thinking specifically here of Bin 389, Bin 128 and Bin 28 especially, not on show at the tasting.

Back to Gago. The route by which he arrived at the head of the Penfolds winemaking team is fascinating. Born in England in Newcastle his family emigrated to Australia when he was aged six. His first job on graduating from the University of Melbourne with a science degree was as a high school teacher of maths and chemistry. Then, aged twenty-nine, he undertook an oenology degree at Roseworthy, leading his peers in his graduate year. He began working at Penfolds in 1989 and has been there ever since. As re-inventions go it’s pretty inspirational.

There were many threads and themes that Gago covered, one being his theory of relativity, obvious in a way but completely true, in as much as one wine in a glass has many more nuances and inflections when sat next to another. The tasting in this respect was fascinating. Penfolds is famous for quality of its inter-regional or sub-regional blends, of which Grange is the ultimate symbol but the tasting underscored the quality of its individual wines such as Magill Shiraz and the excellent Reserve Bin 10A Chardonnay, sourced exclusively from the Adelaide Hills, which for me actually edged ahead of Yattarna.

The quality of Penfolds single region wines [single vineyard in the case of Magill] was also demonstrated by the first release of Bin 169 Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon from the 2008 vintage. Sourced from two prized Penfolds blocs in Coonawarra, only a thousand cases have been made. It compliments yet differs considerably from Bin 707, not just in terms of its origins [Bin 707 is sourced from across South Australia] but also in its use of new French oak over American. Certainly Bin 169 is a cool and classy, though the Bin 707 2009 did rather put it in the shade, presumably also partly the vintage here – 2008 v 2009? I even scored the 707 higher than the Grange 2007, more a reflection of how the 707 jumped out at me than the Grange being any kind of a slouch.

Gago also had a word to say on the 2008 vintage in the Barossa. He maintains it was an excellent vintage if picked before the heatwave conditions that prevailed later in the harvest – so for Shiraz, harvested earlier in the Barossa than Cabernet, the Penfolds fruit was picked at optimal conditions and 2008 looks very good. The period of prolonged and extremely hot weather that arrived after affected the later picked varieties. The vintage overall was also better in Coonawarra than in it was in the Barossa.

Penfolds Reserve Bin 10A Chardonnay 2010

Pale straw; nice minerality with flint and oyster shell; real mineral tones; taut; pretty Burgundian; some MLF notes [100%]. Nice palate; zest and minerality. 13.3% alc 72% new oak and 100% Adelaide Hills fruit. Wild yeast ferment, high solids. Great stuff. 93/100

Penfolds Yattarna Chardonnay 2009

Deeper than Bin A; fuller bolder style; fatter and broader on the nose; some spice; broad and deep palate with density and very good length. Interesting that it feels bigger than the Bin A yet it’s less alcoholic. 12.9% [50% Derwent Valley fruit] 92/100

Penfolds St Henri Shiraz 2008

Big, dark; spices; earthy; some blackcurrant, spice; opens up; quite thick texture but with layers and depth; dense and grippy with lots of structure and density; some length. Aged in foudres, no barrique so structure and tannins all from the fruit. Ages superbly. 91+/100

Magill Estate Shiraz 2009

Deep; earthy looking; nice blackcurrant cassis; some oak influence; quite taut seam; blackcurrant, spices, some Pontefract cakes; liquorice notes; nice palate; some iron and dust. Basket pressed, finishes ferment in barrel. Excellent. 93/100

RWT Barossa Shiraz 2009

Deep and dense; opaque; earthy, succulent and lifted; some coffee and liquorice notes; perfumed and pretty [100% French oak, 60% new]. Very attractive palate; surprising elegance along with the 14.5% alcohol. Very good length. Deep. 92/100

Bin 169 Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon 2008

Deep and concentrated; some sweetness [maturity?]; mincemeat; very pure blackcurrant cassis; fine and feels cool; pretty deep; lots of blackcurrant fruits; quite structured in its own way; lots of ripeness; quite tannic and reminds me [a little] of Bin 128 Coonawarra. Just a 1000 cases produced. 93/100

Bin 707 Cabernet Sauvignon 2009

100% Cab. Deep and saturated; very tight to the rim; deep nose; some capsicum, some olive and tapenade notes; very fine; deep and profound. Dense and layered palate; American oak lift, but nicely integrated and seems very fine; structured and very complete. Very good length. Really great. 96+/100

Penfolds Grange 2007

Deep and concentrated looking; very lifted and high octane nose; sexy, satiny, very ripe [I prefer the overall tightness of the 707, but that’s stylistic]. Very lifted and satiny palate laden with black fruits; almost flashy and certainly very sexy; coffee and chocolate at the back. Sumptuous. 97% Shiraz, 3% Cabernet Sauvignon. 95+/100

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