Peter Gago, Penfolds' chief winemaker

Peter Gago talks to Societynews editor Joanna Goodman during his visit to Stevenage and afterwards by mobile en route to his next appointment!

Members may have noticed that we haven't sold many Penfolds top wines in recent years. Given the global demand for these, our allocations are necessarily quite small and so tucking them away in our cellars to accumulate and mature to make available to members in a special offering seemed the right thing to do. (Read more about our offer here).

The time then came to open up some of the bottles we had been looking after to see how they were maturing and Penfolds chief winemaker, Peter Gago, was there to help guide us through this one-off experience, as were leading wine critics Jancis Robinson MW and Anthony Rose.

I managed to sneak a little time out of Peter's schedule to find out more about what it is like to be the ambassador behind such an iconic brand and how he manages to juggle constant globe-trotting with the vital job of hands-on winemaking.

Still only the fourth chief winemaker in post

Peter Gago, chief winemaker at Penfolds Peter Gago, chief winemaker at Penfolds

When Peter Gago took over as chief winemaker of Penfolds 13 years ago he says that journalists at the time were not impressed when he said he wasn't going to change anything! He is still only the fourth person to hold the post since the first vineyard was planted in 1844 by Dr Christopher Penfold and his wife Mary.

It is a long time since Penfolds has been a family concern and though ownership has passed through several hands, the winemaking team has remained the same for decades. The winemakers see themselves as custodians of a precious inheritance, looking after a portfolio of wines made in time-honoured styles that have made the Penfolds name so famous the world over.

> read more about the Penfolds story here

A wonderful anomaly

Iconic Penfolds Grange

Penfolds is also that wonderful anomaly: a large company that produces both everyday drinking wines that represent excellent value alongside true icons like Grange, not just Australia's, but one of the world's most famous wines. The fact that many of these wines are multi-regional blends is another unusual point of difference.

As Peter says, 'It is our responsibility to build upon the legacy of winemakers past. It can only be done by adding something extra, different and unique; the original vision of Max Schubert (the creator of Grange.'

So, in fact, when Peter says he wasn't going to change anything when he took over the reins, this isn't strictly true: 'Certain styles are set, but nothing is beyond improvement; it's about refinement not optimisation and a constant desire to improve, emphasise, adapt…' Gago clarifies.

'Certain styles are set, but nothing is beyond improvement; it's about refinement not optimisation and a constant desire to improve, emphasise, adapt…'

Perhaps, rather like The Wine Society, Penfolds has not been a follower of fashion, preferring to do its own thing, 'We're not interested in fads, we want to create new styles and 'Bins' that can go on and have a future.'

Inevitably, though, as new Bins are created some will fall off the table; Penfolds have discontinued doing their Clare Valley wines, for example. Bin 169, one of Penfolds' newest Bins whose first vintage was in 2008, was developed to meet a perceived customer demand; a regional wine that is a contemporary showcase for both Coonawarra and the cabernet grape.

Creating a point of difference, even for Penfolds, is important

Gago admits that in this day and age it is also important for your business to create a point of difference and not just in the style of wines you create. The Penfolds Red Wine Re-corking Clinics set up in the 1990s are certainly that. This unique after-sales' service allows collectors of Penfolds, and Grange in particular, to have their aged wines assessed, re-corked, topped up and recapsuled.

There are also a number of trials going on constantly, whether these are looking into new, cooler climate vineyards in places like Tasmania, for example, or experimenting with different grapes like sangiovese, tempranillo and pinot noir.

A global ambassador

Under Peter's watch Penfolds has gone through a particularly successful and productive period. This takes imagination and an ability to communicate your philosophy on a global stage.

As chief winemaker and global ambassador for Penfolds, Peter has taken this role to new heights. He has been travelling the world pretty much non-stop for more than 22 years. No one, I am told, visits more markets than he does. I wonder how, then, he manages to juggle winemaking with travelling.

A juggling job

'John Duval did it before me and I won't pretend it isn't tough, particularly when you're dealing with different time zones. But it is vital to meet with the people that drink your wines, to consolidate and forge new relationships.' says Peter. He is also keen to point out the importance of team work, 'I have a great team behind me, many of the winemakers have been with Penfolds for years, we also have a lot of talented youngsters coming in … a mix of highly qualified, technically very capable people and also those that have come up through the ranks; both are equally important.'

'I have a great team behind me, many of the winemakers have been with Penfolds for years, we also have a lot of talented youngsters coming in … a mix of highly qualified, technically very capable people and also those that have come up through the ranks; both are equally important.'

Such quiet humility is typical of the man. He tells me that the marketing department have asked him to put his signature on the labels, but he is insistent that theirs is a team effort.

A winemaking team with experience

Penfolds have a great tradition of holding on to its best winemakers and nurturing their skills. Peter himself, joined in 1989, originally to craft sparkling wines and then taking over the role of Penfolds Red Wine Oenologist.

Winemaking is Peter's second career

Born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Peter moved with his family to Australia when he was six. His first career was as a chemistry and maths teacher but he soon gave into a love of wine - the 'grip of the grape' - and went back to college to study oenology at the famous winemakers' university, Roseworthy College in South Australia, finishing top of his year.

But back to the juggling of commitments. Like many winemakers, Peter says he tries to spend as much time in the vineyards as possible when he is at home, 'We're getting to know our vineyards better and better … the quality and character of the fruit that one vineyard, or part of a vineyard is going to give you. More and more we're doing a sort of triage [sorting] in the vineyards even before the grapes are made into wine.'

Between January and May, Peter says that he doesn't travel, spending seven days a week at the winery as part of the team. 'Harvest is a critical time, you have to be there 24/7.' Peter then goes on to explain something of the blending process and how they are able to get consistency in their wines from one vintage to the next.

The blending process and achieving consistency year on year

'The template [for the cross-regional blends] is pretty much set, but the mix of grapes will depend on the vintage; in cooler years you might have more grapes from one particular vineyard than you would normally - this is the great thing about blends, you can't do that with regionally specific wines. It's also the advantage of a large set up like ours where we have access to lots of fruit.'

Grapes are sourced from more than 220 vineyards (both owned and leased) and grape growers across Australia, with the vast majority being in South Australia.

The mind of the blender

When it comes to putting the blends together, Peter says that you need confidence but you leave your ego at the door! 'The most important time for selecting the wines to go into a particular bin is just before barrel fermentation, as this is the most expensive element: 'You want to make sure you have got it right before you commit to the wood; you can never have enough small tanks,' Peter tells me, with a glint of the eye that one associates with mad professors and magicians!

Peter and his team will be in the winery early, 'we'll start tasting at 7am in the morning and again later in the day. We select and classify the wines on taste … you get responsive to all of the cues … the smell, patchy colour …' It sounds a fascinating, almost alchemic process and I wonder how so many different taste profiles can be held in mind at any one time.

Peter Gago and the winemaking team at Penfolds

Peter Gago and the winemaking team at Penfolds

Tasting through our archive stocks in Stevenage

Peter's lively intelligence is made apparent when he visits us in Stevenage to taste through our archive stocks of Penfolds wines. Despite being full of cold, he is on good form and hugely likeable. He wears his intelligence lightly but obviously has an incredible memory. Without referring to notes he knows exactly which vineyards wines have come from and the percentage of grapes used, as well as the nuances of the seasons and the characteristics of each vintage.

Perhaps what is even more surprising, and only dawns on me afterwards, is the way he guides our tasters, Jancis Robinson MW, Anthony Rose and Wine Society buyers Tim Sykes, Pierre Mansour and Sarah Knowles MW through the flights of wines. It's like listening to a curator of prized works of art. He doesn't presume that his opinion counts for more than anyone else's and refrains from imposing his own descriptors of the wines' aromas and flavours.

… and a way with words

Pork Belly, Macadamia and Chicory

It's not as though he is short of vocabulary when it comes to describing his wines. Flicking through the beautifully produced booklets that the Penfolds' marketeers have produced, I find the descriptions intoxicating and ask Gago if he is responsible for penning them. 'Yes, indeed, I let the marketing guys get on with most things without any interference but I insist on writing the tasting notes. I try not to use too many descriptors as they are only as accurate as when the wines were tasted. Guilty as charged!' Peter says.

About the nose of the 2007 Grange, for example, Peter says the following:

'Unmistakably Grange - formic, ripe, pungent, confronting. Core: darker elements - soy/cola/peat/coal-dust/Dutch black liquorice with sesame/sea-weed/quince paste. Beneath: coffee-grind/mocha/bitter chocolate. Above: African spices coupled with a fleeting and appealing glacial waft.'

Wow! And that's just the aroma…

I love some of the food-matching suggestions too … this for the 2009 Bin 707 Cabernet Sauvignon:

'Suckling pig, Quantong mustard, warrigal greens…'

Rare moments to reflect

And it isn't as though Peter gets to try older vintages of his wines that often either. 'Unlike other wineries, we sell out of our wines every year, we keep back a few cases for our museum cellar which are usually used for charity events, but we don't do what The Wine Society has done and collect several vintages of the same wines for future release. We'd love to do that. You haven't just got a great selection of good vintages but there are also some great vintages in this collection. I don't know anyone else in the world who has done this!'

Jancis Robinson MW
Sarah Knowles MW
Peter Gago

Jancis Robinson MW, buyer Sarah Knowles MW & Peter Gago at our Penfolds tasting in Stevenage

Peter even tells of how he was slow to take up his own staff allocation of 2010 Penfolds St Henri Shiraz - a vintage that sold out in record time. English wine writer and Australian wine critic, Matthew Jukes gave the wine 20 out of 20 and it sold out in record time. 'The Australian press had a field day' Gago remarks!

Marketing scarcity

We talk a bit about how Penfolds markets its wines and whether they have entertained the en-primeur model that the Bordelais follow. He says that they did try that once but that it doesn't work so well for them. They don't just want to sell their best wines but want all of their wines to be enjoyed.

Finally, Peter says that while there are some negative aspects of working for such a large organisation, one of the benefits is that he doesn't have to worry about such things [as ways of marketing the wines] and that he can delegate 'that stuff'! But as the face of Penfolds worldwide, it's Peter who cops it when things go wrong!

An extraordinary custodian of some extraordinary wines

The Penfolds Collection, as they like to refer to it, is rather extraordinary, and so too is the man currently behind it. I hope I have conveyed something of the man behind the throne here: if not, do try the wines; which speak eloquently of their creator and heritage!

Joanna Goodman
News Editor

September 2015

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